Living in Europe and America balconies seemed like an added amenity or even a luxury. In Japan they are sustainable and utilitarian extensions of domesticity. One thing that distinguishes run of the mill Japanese homes from their Western cousins is an inordinate number of balconies. Many Japanese houses have a balcony (or veranda as they are known here) protruding from every bedroom, whilst apartment buildings are often encircled by a continuous run of them. Where space or money are tight, Juliet balconies are the solution.
So, why so many balconies? It’s because the Japanese sleep on futons. On sunny days, these soft mattresses and bedding are hoisted outside to hang over the balcony’s railings to air out. They are given a good beating with a plastic paddle to get rid of dust and debris, whilst secured in place with large pincer-like clips. Dust mites, which thrive within bedding’s moist, dark environment are thought to cause asthma and other allergies. UV radiation can kill dust mites, bacteria, and other small organisms. Exposure to fresh air and sunlight also releases moisture from the bedding, making it hard for microscopic bugs to survive. None of this is really practical with a box mattress that fits onto a rigid bed frame.
Most Japanese don’t have a mechanical drier. Instead, they prefer to hang their laundry to dry on the balcony. Long telescopic poles, rather than washing lines, are hung outside from purpose-made brackets for this purpose. Clothes are hung from the poles with an ingenious array of plastic clips and hangers. In many homes (like my own) the washing machine is installed outside on the balcony. This minimizes noise whilst freeing floor space indoors.
The balcony is clearly under appreciated sustainable feature of the Japanese home. Yet, despite their practical utility, I don’t see the Japanese sitting out sipping green tea and reading the paper. Plants are not as common as one might expect either. I find it strange that although balconies are ubiquitous, a culture of enjoying them is not prevalent (think of down home porch culture in the US). Despite living in dense cities with scarce greenery and little access to sunlight, the Japanese do not widely use their own outdoor amenity space. I suspect that this might have something to do with the Japanese concern for privacy and modesty. Or perhaps its the noisy AC unit whirring away out there that drives people back indoors.Last year, I received a colorful Mayan hammock which proudly hangs across my veranda – perfect for laying in as we gaze at the sun setting behind Mt. Fuji. This year we plan to hang sudare (すだれ) bamboo blinds. This will help to shade our south facing windows during summer, obviating the need to run the AC on all but the hottest days.
(photo: Jean-François Chénier)
(A Few MORE Things About Housing)