Big in Japan
Pamela Starbird -- Interior Design, 3/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Japan's volcanic islands percolate with 20,000 hot springs, which is part of the reason why public bathing became integral to Japanese life centuries ago. At home, that tradition translates into an evening ritual that begins with bathers lathering up and rinsing off with a bucket and wooden ladle, then sitting in chest-level water—as hot as they can take it—to let the tensions of the day evaporate with the steam. Not a trace of soap is permitted in the soaking tub, typically a deep square vessel.
Japanese bathrooms have tended to be almost Spartan in their simplicity. But the trend is now toward greater privacy and spalike luxury, as seen in bathrooms designed by architects Toshihito Yokouchi and Edward Suzuki.
"The bathroom is the place where you clean not only your body but also your mind, through relaxation and the contemplation of nature," says Yokouchi, who builds separate bathroom structures evocative of Japanese teahouses. "Ideally, there's a garden just outside, even as small as 3 by 6 feet." Illuminating the garden in the evening, while leaving the interior of the bathroom dark, enhances the meditative atmosphere.
At a residence in Hanayashiki, near Osaka, Yokouchi placed the 270-square-foot bathroom not in a separate structure but at the northeast corner. "The client took a bath every morning, so I made floor-to-ceiling windows to admit the dawn light," says Yokouchi. He landscaped the adjacent garden with cedar, maple, moss, and stones and raised the bathroom floor 6 inches above grade to maximize the view. In addition, he chose burnished white granite for the walls and floor to complement the stone path outside.
Known for mixing traditional Japanese and contemporary Western design, Yokouchi offers a theory on the recent revival of wooden bathtubs. "After half a century under the influence of American culture, the Japanese have become more aware of the importance of their own traditions," the architect explains. He likes to finish his white-cedar tubs in Technopal, a ceramic that he says is "easier to maintain than the traditional cypress, and the texture is just as good."
Suzuki used an even more experimental treatment for the bathroom of a villa he built at a summer resort near Nagano. Here, he says, the custom tub is a "sandwich of two glass sheets, with glass marbles between them." (The idea grew out of previous projects where he'd detailed floors and walls with embedded marbles.) The blue glass border of the bathtub recalls the reflection of the sky on the surface of a mountain lake. One side of the bathtub follows the curve of the house's facade, and American-cedar louvers screening the full-height glazing cast changing shadows with the movement of the sun.
The classic wooden vessel still has its fans, however. For a bathtub in Tokyo, Suzuki says he selected Japanese cypress so the owner could enjoy the "sublime fragrance of the wood when wet." Sliding doors open to a whirlpool bath on the terrace, where birdcalls, rustling leaves, and a murmuring river in nearby Todoroki Gorge Park create the illusion of being far from the grimy capital.
Architect Toshihito Yokouchi made sure that this bathroom in Kyoto would overlook the enclosed garden; the tub is American white cedar treated with Technopal ceramic.
For a Tokyo house, architect Edward Suzuki took advantage of shakkei, or "borrowed scenery," by placing the Japanese-cypress tub where two windows meet.
At a house in Hanayashiki, Yokouchi chose burnished white granite for the walls and floor to complement the stone path outside.
At the Suzuki project in Tokyo, sliding doors open to a whirlpool bath on the terrace.
The two showerheads at a Suzuki-designed villa near Nagano demonstrate the Japanese preference for bathing with a companion. The bathroom's louvers are American cedar; the border of the tub is glass.