In Japan, it’s fairly uncommon to visit someone’s home and it’s therefore considered quite an honour if you do. The first thing you should say when you enter someone’s house is “ojamashimasu” (おじゃまします), which literally means “I’m about to get in the way”. That is a polite way of asking the host to excuse you for entering their home (even though you’ve been invited). The next thing you do, of course, is take off your shoes. You should leave your shoes in the entrance hall, called a “genkan” (玄関). Your host may provide you with some slippers to wear, or you can just wear your socks. Try not to enter with bare feet.
When I first visited a home in Japan, one of my friends taught me that it was not considered polite in Japan to look around too much in someone’s home. She meant things like picking up photographs, commenting too much on ornaments on shelves etc. Of course, it’s natural to want to look around a bit because everything is so different, but you should be careful to remain polite and certainly shouldn’t pick anything up without being invited to do so.
I was thinking about these customs on Friday when I went to The Geffrye in London to see the exhibition “At home in Japan – beyond the minimal house“.
The exhibition was wonderful in so many ways. Personally, I loved it because I was feeling a bit “homesick” for Japan. The atmosphere of the exhibition was so like the real thing, and felt so familiar to me. The detail in the exhibition was amazing, and that added to the realistic feel.
There was another reason why this exhibition was really worth the £5.00 entrance fee though. It gave me something I had never really experienced in Japan – a chance to really poke around in someone else’s house! The exhibition was entirely interactive, with signs actively encouraging the visitors to touch and open things.
At the entrance to the “house” there was a plant, and here’s an example of the amazing attention to detail. Hanging on the plant were Tanabata wishes and decorations:
Beside the door was some information about the exhibition. It read:
The Western stereotype of the Japanese house makes us think of large empty spaces devoid of people and things. By offering insights into how everyday Japanese lives are lived behind closed doors, this exhibition aims to dispel that myth of minimalism.
This is not an exact reconstruction of one specific Japanese home. Instead, we have recreated the layout of a standard urban apartment and filled each space with a selection of the mundane material culture people might surround themselves with and photographs of actual Japanese interiors. We hope that by experiencing these everyday spaces, objects and photographs, visitors will understand something of what it feels like to be at home in contemporary Japan, showing the similarities to life in the UK rather than gazing at its exotic nature from a distance.
I think the exhibition fulfilled its aims completely. I felt so at home in the exhibition, and so like I was really in Japan. The objects in the rooms were spot on, and brought back a real sense of nostalgia for my own little apartment in Japan. The photographs around the exhibition were also hauntingly realistic. They were placed in such a way that I often did a double take, thinking that there was an actual toilet, balcony or shower.
Let me show you around the house…
At the entrance, it was explained that people take off their shoes to enter a home in Japan.
However, it wasn’t necessary for us to do so. I don’t know why – I think it would have been a nice touch to have had to take off shoes and put on some slippers, but I guess it wasn’t practical to do that in the gallery. I felt strange entering someone’s house with my shoes on!
As I said, the house was full of knickknacks and small details.
The ornaments on this shoe cupboard were interesting, but I was more taken with the “kuroneko” box in the corner – a detail which I expect would pass some people by.
The toilet was just a photograph – but at first glance I thought there was a real toilet there!
As I said, visitors to the exhibition were actively encouraged to open drawers and look inside. When I opened this drawer I found some beautiful kimonos:
And in the next drawer there were obis and other kimono-wearing accessories:
The bathroom was very cleverly done, with a combination of a photograph and some real items:
I hesitated when I reached the tatami room – was I supposed to take my shoes off?
It appeared not, but I almost did anyway. It felt very wrong to wear shoes on tatami. Later I was talking with the woman working in the gift shop, and she said that the staff had noticed a number of people hesitating by the tatami room. She said that many Japanese visitors to the exhibition did actually take off their shoes. 😉
The items in each room were all so normal, and I think that’s what made the exhibition work.
When I opened one of the drawers in the tatami room, I was surprised to find this box of cockroach poison:
Surprised, but only because it was above and beyond the detail I would have expected.
My favourite room was probably the kitchen/dining room. Before I entered, I actually expected to find people in the room chatting and making tea or something. I could hear voices and the sound of cups clinking. It was just a soundtrack, but it made a wonderful addition to the atmosphere.
I also adore the photo at the end of the room, with the little girl looking outside.
The balcony looked so real that I felt like I could step through the photograph:
It also reminded me a lot of my old apartment…
The table in the dining room was set with typical crockery and chopsticks, and included smaller children’s chopsticks in two of the place settings.
Again, in the kitchen area opening drawers was encouraged:
The drawers were full of all sorts of interesting items that would be typical to a Japanese home.
There were a number of photos around the exhibition, as well as some photo albums. I liked this one especially:
This reminded me a lot of the “family” photos I have been in when I’ve visited homes in Japan. Like this one:
It was a real delight to visit the “At home in Japan” exhibition, and I would recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in Japan. I’m curious to know how Japanese people feel when they visit this exhibition. I felt like I had returned “home”, so I can only imagine they must feel that tenfold.
“At home in Japan – beyond the minimal house” is on at The Geffrye until August 29th. The exhibition is based on research by Dr. Inge Daniels and photography by Susan Andrews. Tickets cost £5 (£3 concessions). The nearest tube station is Old Street.
A book of the exhibition is also available in the gift shop: