Inspiration Abroad: 9 Stunning Design Finds in Central Japan
Sooooo, I know I was supposed to be on vacation, but… I was thinking about design almost the entire time. Can you relate??
This summer I was lucky enough to explore another corner of the world with my favorite person. (Remember that amazing guy I fell in love with? The one who inspired my move from Denver, Colorado to Europe? We’ll call him “D.”) Well, we traveled to…
The experience blew me away.
Nearly everything — from Japanese culture to history, food to design — has such an incredible attention to detail. The simplest, most mundane things are beautiful. Evidence of thoughtfulness, tradition, and care are everywhere.
Every detail matters.
It’s the same in interior design. It’s the same in a workroom, where you’re creating custom pieces for your clients. It’s the same with staging, trying to create a lifestyle experience for potential buyers.
To see even a tiny slice of a culture that adopts this philosophy in all aspects of their lives felt… powerful. I knew I had to share it with you.
I hope you can see (and admire) just some of this rich culture in 9 of my most interesting, design-related finds from the trip. (And I hope #7 and #9 give you a laugh!)
1. ELEGANT & INSPIRING PAPER & METAL LANTERNS
Japan is pretty well-known for lanterns, paper lanterns especially. They add a delicate, ancient feel that serves decorative, religious, and light-providing functions in Japanese culture.
In the U.S., I’ve seen this design being used in mixed-modern spaces to beautiful effect (such as Isamu Noguchi’s famous paper lantern designs).
This more modern-day and colorful paper lantern exhibit greeted us from an archway of the city center in Nagoya. They made the center feel fresh, young, and fun but still embraced the country’s ancient culture. A lovely blend of old and new.
Okay, they’re not made from paper, but how beautiful are these lanterns?!
A variety of intricate metal lanterns, like the one above, were hanging all around the temples and shrines we visited. And guess what?
The lanterns above are hardly bigger than a soup can! Now you can really imagine the extent of detail here — the tiny cutouts, the impressions in the metal, the subtle but uniform curves. Simply stunning.
(I left the people in this photo so you can just HOW TALL that door is!)
You’ve also probably noticed updated versions of these types of lanterns in design today… such as the lanterns we see in farmhouse and modern-farmhouse interiors! Knowing this modern-day trend made it especially fun for me to see some of lanterns’ ancient roots.
2. A WIDE VARIETY OF DESIGN IN ANCIENT TEMPLES
Breathtaking temples and shrines are infamously one of the highlights of sightseeing in Japan, even if you’re not Buddhist or Shinto.
Although D and I sought out some of the more celebrated sites, if you’re in Japan, you’ll have a harder time avoiding temples than finding them!
This giant “red” pagoda (I swear it looked more r’orange than red) was my favorite from the whole trip. We were lucky to see it on one of the few sunny days we had, because the contrast of r’orange against the backdrop of blue sky was simply spectacular.
A burgundy and gold beauty that captured my heart…
And by contrast, a completely unpainted, unadorned wooden one! Despite the lack of colorful grandeur here, I really loved how the bare wood created a soft and welcoming vibe. It’s simple but majestic. Sometimes the best design is the simplest one.
Here are just a few more for you to see the variety and details…
Okay, just one more…
3. interesting MODERN DESIGN IN JAPANESE ARCHITECTURE
With ancient, incredible shrines and temples nearly every block, the beauty of the modern architecture was a pleasant surprise. Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of big cities, but when good design is present, I can respect that. :)
Here are just a few that fascinated me…
How cool is this design? It’s geometric. It has movement. The elongated section at the top makes it look even taller. True, this design falls under the architecture (not interior design) category, but I’ve seen interior design use these same principles to make spaces seem larger.
Inspiration is everywhere.
Did you notice that this structure includes not one, not two, but THREE interconnected towers? I also love how the exterior looks opaque, but once you see it from the side, you realize it’s actually comprised of connected windows. Impressive!
Okay, this one isn’t a skyscraper, but I find this sculpture so creative and intriguing! I wonder if its smoothly flowing, circular shape helps traffic move more gracefully through the roundabout? Maybe we should try it in the U.S.… 😂
4. DETAILS IN JAPANESE DESIGN THAT SURPRISED ME
Nearly every photo so far includes intricate design details, but I want to share a few more that either gave me a laugh or made me say ooooh.
I originally took the photo below for the black and gold lattice-like design under the roof. I love how the same shape was alternated, building on itself in such a beautiful way.
But when I looked at this photo after the fact, I noticed…
That creepy white dragon staring at me from the bottom right corner!
They say the devil is in the details, and I think they might be right in this case…
Okay, the craftsmanship here is truly remarkable, and I love the rich colors. The entire scene was carved from wood and then painted, and you can see the depth and detail from several feet away. (The three layers of different patterns above the peacock scene are worth noting, too.)
I don’t think this simple wooden door intended to take any of the spotlight away from the temple beyond it, but I couldn’t resist this beautiful aqua patina that resulted from the copper aging likely over centuries of time.
This door made me think about how materials react to time. I know most interior design clients want a “timeless” look so they don’t have to redo it in a few years. Choosing materials that patina and age with grace is a nice way to help accomplish this.
5. TRADITIONAL JAPANESE BEDROOM DESIGN
We couldn’t stay in Japan without having the REAL experience of Japanese interior design. We found this little room in a beautiful guesthouse in Nikko, Japan. (Nikko was probably my favorite place from the trip, so if you’re going to Japan, don’t skip it!)
First, you can see that the sliding window screens are covered with translucent paper, which allowed a nice glow of light (but not heat) into the room when closed. Ancient innovation at work.
Next, traditional Japanese flooring consists of these thick, woven straw mats called tatami mats. They added a woodsy fresh scent to the room and were quite comfortable and soothing to walk on.
Also, did you know that softer materials like these are actually good for your back health?
6. Interior DesIGN That HAS YOU SLEEPING ON THE FLOOR
Speaking of back health, let’s talk about this sleeping on the ground situation...
Truth be told, an extra layer of padding made the mattress set-up above pretty comfortable. Unfortunately, the mattresses we experienced at three other places consisted solely of a duvet-thin pad…so we were basically sleeping on the floor. (Ouch.)
In general, though the novelty was fun at first, I can’t say I really liked sleeping so close to the floor. It sort of felt like I was crawling around on my knees like a kid half the time or stooping awkwardly.
I’m glad I tried something new, but I’ll stick with our good ol’ American mattresses and frames for now, thanks!
7. JAPANESE DESIGN IN… THE BATHROOM BIDET
Yep, I’m going there! I know talking about “the throne” might be a little taboo, but I’d wager big money on your home having one, too. So here we all are. ;)
Now that any discomfort is out of the way, just look at all these settings!
Bidet-style toilets are undeniably the norm in Japan. I had heard this from a friend before the trip, but I still couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a bidet toilet in every hotel, hostel, restaurant, coffee house, and museum we visited. Everywhere!
While D didn’t bother curbing his enthusiasm to try one (oh, the freedom of men), I was a little more skeptical. Call me shy, haha.
No surprise, but curiosity won out after a few days, and I’ll just say that it wasn’t so bad! I even miss them a little bit. Better than sleeping on a hard floor, in any case. ;)
8. DESIGN & EXPERIENCE IN FOOD CULTURE
The food culture in Japan is just as steeped in design as their interiors, architecture, and religious sites, which is why I just couldn’t resist sharing these photos with you, too. Inspiration is everywhere!
In Japan, there is excellence in simplicity, and it couldn’t have been more apparent than in this beautifully prepared meal. And in this case, the design absolutely affected our experience.
Because every small element was given its own space to shine, we treated each dish with the attention and appreciation it deserved — and we felt gratitude to the cooks who had taken such care.
Mmm, matchaaaa. How gorgeous is the green color of this cake? Matcha is typically bitter, but — like any good design — the sweet frosting and bean paste perfectly balanced it out!
Call me crazy, but I actually loved the roasted tea more than the ice cream and cake. So much flavor in one tiny little cup. Okay, TWO tiny cups… I drank both of ours… hehehe.
A little disheveled but happy! I think we all know that traveling isn’t quite so glamorous as Instagram makes it look. ;)
9. BeautifullY DesignED GATES and aN UNWELCOME surprise beyond
Gates are a large part of Buddhism and Shintoism and are ALL over Japan. Admittedly, I’m neither of these religions, but I could appreciate them from a design standpoint nonetheless.
They’re beautiful, majestic, and seem to emanate a quiet power wherever they stand.
This gate in Kanazawa was my favorite. The way lines turn to curves fascinates me. It blends a handcrafted touch with an almost industrial feel. I love the red richness of the Cyprus wood, too.
Can you see the gate hiding among these trees? This one in particular beckoned us toward a path through the woods, which we were happy to explore. Our happiness was short-lived, however, once we realized that the area played home to…
Hundreds and hundreds of leeches.
Did you know leeches can bite you through socks AND shoes? (D found out the hard way…) And that they can climb right up pant legs no problem? (I’m sure the neighborhood didn’t appreciate my scream…)
Gotta love nature, am I right?
Okay, one last photo just because it’s beautiful… if you listened to my podcast interview on blogging with Kate the Socialite, I mentioned the “portrait” function on the iPhone camera settings — this is it!! How cool is the focus/blur combo?
Okay, that’s it — phew, this was a long post, but I hope you enjoyed seeing the photos as much as I enjoyed taking them for you.
I’ll have Switzerland and Milan on my list to share soon, so if you’d like to see more design from other parts of the world, sign up for the O&B newsletter below.
Until then, keep blogging!