Japanese Gate Typology (30)

This is a series of posts describing the many varieties of Japanese gate, or mon (). If you look at the preceding kanji more closely,  you can think of it as a picture of a pair of swinging doors, reminiscent of saloon doors in a wild west movie. I thought that it would be a nice idea to bring more awareness to a western audience as to the tremendous diversity in forms and types of Japanese gates. This series intends to be a gateway to gates.

Previous posts in this series:

  1. Heijūmon 
  2. Kabukimon 
  3. Kōraimon 
  4. Yakuimon 
  5. Yotsu-ashimon 
  6. Munamon 
  7. Commentary
  8. Uzumimon 
  9. Yaguramon 
  10. Rōmon
  11. Shōrōmon
  12. Taikomon
  13. Nijūmon
  14. Sanmon 
  15. Niōmon 
  16. Nitenmon
  17. Sōmon 
  18. Wakimon 
  19. Chokushimon
  20. Onarimon 
  21. Tansōmon 
  22. Zuijinmon 
  23. Miyukimon 
  24. Agetsuchimon 
  25. Mukai-karamon
  26. Hira-karamon 
  27. Nagayamon 
  28. Ryūgūmon 
  29. Amigasa-mon 


Sukiya-mon (数寄屋門)

Here we have a gate type defined by more by its style and form than the structural arrangement of its members. Sukiya (数寄屋) is a word out of the Japanese tea ceremony world, suki (数寄) meaning an enjoyment of, and appreciation for, refinement. The suffix ~ya () means house or place, so the term sukiya can be translated as the abode of refinement. In fact the word is originally thought to refer especially to a teahouse, a place where people with a love of art and aesthetics would gather to appreciate tea along with the fine implements it was prepared and served with, perhaps discuss poetry, and so forth. In the Japanese traditional arts world, or geidō (芸道), which refers to the making of arts and handicrafts in that uniquely systematized Japanese way, an art appreciation devotee is referred to as a sukisha (数寄者).

As architecture, the form of building in the manner of the teahouse is termed sukiya-zukuri. In its way, sukiya may have been a reaction against the architecture of its day in the same way that the Arts & Crafts style was a reaction to the ornateness, complexity and occasional excesses of the Edwardian/Queen Anne style, and to the loss of hand-worked goods, and a statement against industrially produced goods in general. It was a movement created by the leisure class at the upper end of the social scale. In turn, Art Deco was in part a reaction against the Arts & Crafts movement, putting forth an ideal of sleekness and luxury. And on it goes, one reaction begetting another.

Sukiya was developed by the literati as a ‘return to roots’ as well, literally in some cases. While the wealthy could afford to goldleaf the outsides of their teahouses, people recognized that simply topping the neighbor’s teahouse with an even more lavish structure is a superficial pursuit and it even gets a bit boring after a while, so an admiration for the simplicity and humbleness of the rural farmhouse  – and the lack of pretense which associates – came to inform the architecture of teahouses. This is an ideal in which all who have crouched through the tiny crawl door (nijiri-guchi) to enter within are, theoretically at least, social equals. Mind you, it wasn’t too often that members of the peasantry or untouchable classes got to have afternoon tea in such structures though. So, a certain amount of artifice – call it wishful thinking if you prefer is inherent in the philosophy. 

While the ideal with sukiya is the use of humble materials in direct way, such as bamboo (decorative) rafters, irregular alcove posts with their bark still intact, plaster work which has been deliberately done in an ‘amateurish’ manner, etc., etc., the reality of fabrication in that idiom is that a great deal of artifice is often required. Sukiya style teahouses, with their slender structural elements, giving a hint of ricketiness, often require a lot of concealed metal connectors to pull off the effect. The liking for thin column sections has led to the development of laminated posts to provide adequate strength, using strips about 1cmx2cm, which are then jacketed with perfect vertical grain material – so, ‘natural’ materials should be taken with a grain of salt. A striving after a specific type of ‘rusticity’ or ‘preciousness’ has led to the mass production of purpose-made components, like rafters deliberately grown by coppicing a cedar, like alcove posts that were bound when growing to produce specific patterns on the cambiumThere are large hardcover textbooks in Japanese detailing nothing but sukiya materials. It’s no exaggeration to say there is a sukiya material industry in Japan.

The sukiya aesthetic has become popular beyond the making of teahouses, and sukiya-fū (~style) residences and other structures are widespread. Many Japanese like the ‘lightness’ in the structural elements of sukiya-zukuri, and feel it also conveys a feeling of lightness, a space unburdened by the weight of serious, ‘heavy’ feelings. 

Sukiya gates are in various structural styles, but most commonly seen are variants on the munamon or yakuimon pattern. They are residential and garden gates exclusively. As with other sukiya work, the timber sections are on the slimmer side, material in the round is commonly employed, and roofs are flat or feature but slight curvature. Most commonly seen are gable, or kirzuma roofs, however hipped roofs are also used. Carving does occur, but in a minimum fashion.

Let’s look at some examples. 

A typical munamon type of structure, in construction, with centered main posts:

A view of the gable end – some simple crosspiece end treatment, and a single layer mayubi on the hafu (barge board):

The sapwood on the main crossbeam is not the best use of material.

A lot of times you will see gates combining stone or concrete columns, stone veneered, with a roof structure, here hipped, parked atop:

The style of the above gate would be termed ‘sukiya modern’.

Another gabled example, with flanking doorway:

A larger gate, entirely of unbarked logs:

Gotta love Japanese copper drainpipes!:

Another with kirizuma roof:

A commonplace in sukiya roof work, seen also in the preceding example, is the use of covering materials in combination, here we have a copper shingled roof with the tiles cap roof:

A hipped roof example with a minimalistic tiled ridge:

Another one with a hip roof, and pole rafters:

I mentioned the occasional presence of carved parts, so here’s an example:

I tend to like structures with an interplay of rectilinear and ‘in the round’ components. Too much of one or the other can lead to bland predictability, at one end of the spectrum, or a certain contrived feel, even gaudiness, at the other.

All for today. I hope you’ve enjoyed the tour so far through the world of Japanese gates – more to come. Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way. On to post 31

7 Replies to “Japanese Gate Typology (30)”

  1. Hi Chris,
    Informative as always.
    By the way, did I miss the gate type found standing in the water in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, or is it still to come?
    Harlan Barnhart

  2. Harlan,

    hah! I guess I'm not done with this series yet! I'll have to do some posts on torii. 40 posts anyone? Thanks for reminding me.


  3. I have been enjoying this series so much. I often go back to several posts to look at the pictures some more and study all the details. This post will be no exception I am sure.

  4. Thanks for the great series. This was a real eye opener. Where did get all the pictures of the gates?


  5. Ward,

    many thanks for your comment. I've been hoarding pictures of Japanese traditional architecture on my computer for years, so finding pictures was not a problem – choosing which ones to use was the problem. I probably have in excess of 10,000 pictures of Japanese architecture and building on my Mac.


  6. Chris,
    Likewise I have enjoyed this discovery of Japanese Mon no-end. But I find it impossible to consider the gates in isolation, they appear as such an inextricable part of their surroundings – the little diorama like settings are just so god-damned gorgeous! They all look like they grew out of their surroundings and have been there for thousands of years. I particularly like the rock foundations of some of the gates, there is a gentle transition of natural environment to the built environment, the way that many of the structures are set on rock foundations adds to this notion of growing out of the ground. Some of the more recently built examples are obviously in more urban settings but still manage to add so much to their surroundings.

    Making built structures that don't seem in any way discordant with the natural environment seems to be a special talent of the Japanese.


  7. Derek,

    I welcome your comment and find I agree most wholeheartedly that Japanese traditional architecture is always in the context of the landscape in which it is situated and designed to harmonize with. More than that, the architecture of fences and gates serves to frame the picture – the garden.

    I think the reason the Japanese are 'good' at creating such harmony in their built environment stems in part from a liking for harmony in social relations, and a focus by craftspeople on carefully working out the details, having a solid grounding in basic skills, and continually studying past works with an eye to bringing the lessons forward.


Anything to add?

error: Content is protected !!
%d bloggers like this: