Zen Den: Japanese Design to De-Stress Your Space

Zen Den: Japanese Design to De-Stress Your Space

By: Anna Davies

A home should be a retreat from the noise and stress of the outside world. So, what to do when the distractions of life and everyday clutter start to encroach on the spaces where we’re meant to feel the most relaxed? 

 One way to cultivate an environment that promotes presence of mind is to look East. 

Timeless and aesthetically focused, Japanese design has long influenced Western architecture; it’s seen in the early 20th-century Bauhaus movement and the work of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, among others. And the design concepts that attracted those visionaries are having a moment again.

Etsy named the Japanese concept wabi-sabi — taking pride in imperfection and accepting impermanence — a top design trend of 2018. Japandi, a combination of Japanese and Scandinavian design, is a trending hashtag.

Proponents of Japanese design principles say that incorporating them into your own home can make you feel less stressed. Whether your aesthetic is shabby chic, midcentury modern or California coastal, there are ideas and aspects of Japanese design that you can consider adding to your home and your routine.

Reconsider the entryway

In a Japanese home the first space you encounter is the genkan, a traditional entryway separating the indoors from the outside, where people remove shoes and leave coats or dripping-wet umbrellas. On a practical level, the genkan keeps the living area clear of tracked-in dirt. On a more symbolic level, the genkan acts as a deliberate pause between public and private life. It invites inhabitants and guests to truly feel truly comfortable inside the home, says Jenny Nakao Hones, owner of the Seattle, WA, interior design firm Three Frogs Design and creator of the blog Asian Lifestyle Design.

Jeff Aasgaard, president of the U.S.-based tour company Japanese Guest Houses, points out that at a ryokan (a traditional Japanese hotel), the custom directs you to swap your shoes in the genkan for a pair of indoor slippers (there are even special slippers worn only in the toilet area). You will also be given a yukata, a lightweight robe similar to a kimono, to be worn over your clothes when inside the ryokan to make you feel fully immersed in this private space dedicated to relaxing.

On a more symbolic level, the genkan acts as a deliberate pause between public and private life.

Add the outdoors

Wooden furniture, branches as décor and other natural elements are essential aspects of ryokan design, Aasgaard says. There should also be plenty of windows to allow for a full view of nature. In the home, bringing in elements of the outdoors can be as simple as adding hardwood accessories in the kitchen. Or, incorporate driftwood, natural wooden sculptures or even a branch-based floral design into a room.

In Japan, the art of creating floral displays is called ikebana. The practice treats floral arrangements as more than just decorative elements — the designs go far beyond a hastily arranged burst of blooms. It’s a thoughtful process, allowing the designer to meditate on nature, explains Hones. Incorporating a similar daily or weekly ritual, such as collecting and arranging seasonal flowers, branches or leaves, can provide the same meditative pause in your own hectic life.  

Let in light

Shoji screens — sliding frame doors covered in white paper — are emblematic of Japanese design. And while they serve a practical purpose to easily divide a room, they are also designed to enhance light and shadows in a room, allowing the shifting dynamic of the light to become a star player in an interior.

To apply this principle in your home, treat screens, drapery or shutters not merely as window covers but as devices for playing around with how the light falls in the room, and how that light makes you feel.

Mirrors, too, can be a key element in maximizing light, says Hones, who advises clients to add mirrors next to windows, to reflect outside greenery and allow even more sun and natural elements to enter the home. “Light sources should be dimmable and well-spaced, and use candles or lanterns to add to the glow of the space,” Hones says. If you are incorporating sconces, consider the shadow or patterns they cast as an additional design element.

Get undone

Wabi-sabi is a liberating design philosophy in that it revels in imperfection. Earthen materials such as mugs, plates and vases are commonly seen as having elements of wabi-sabi. If chipped or worn with age, these pieces are regarded as beautiful for having withstood the test of time.

Japanese design values craftsmanship over mass production. Owning fewer things that are made well, and, most importantly, that make you happy when you use them is far more important than buying new goods every few years, shares Asako Ueno, chief curator at Anzu, an online Japanese design shop based in Brooklyn, NY.


Love what you have

Do you have a friend who went on a decluttering streak, only holding onto items that sparked joy? While the phrase comes from Japanese author Marie Kondo’s bestselling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the sentiment is strictly rooted in Japanese design principles, namely that the things you use should also be the things you love — merging the beautiful and the practical.  

“Japanese design philosophy is rooted in the concept that everything you own has energy, or chi,” explains Hones. As an experiment, Hones suggests tuning into some of your furniture: How does your dining room table make you feel? What sort of meals did you have or conversations did you enjoy there? Learning to tap into the energy of your possessions can help you cull the things that you feel are bringing you down and remove them. 

Play with negative space

In Japanese design, less is more, and sometimes, in a traditional tatami room (a space covered in straw mat flooring), the best furniture design is none at all. The concept of negative space, called ma, is a key element in Japanese homes. “When a room is empty, with only a few objects that take our energy, we are able to focus on what’s most important,” Hones explains.

While it may not be feasible to have a room devoid of furniture, minimizing the amount of furniture in each room (or putting away items when you’re done using them) may help make you feel like you have less physical — and mental — clutter, too. 

Embrace soothing soaks

Self-care is a trending buzzword, but the concept is well-ingrained in Japanese philosophy and present in the elements of domestic life. Take the restorative ritual of enjoying a long soak in a deep tub known as an ofuro. Commonly seen in Japanese-inspired homes, an ofuro is primarily a place to unwind over an extended period (the custom is to shower off before going in). 

A soaking tub may not be in your home design budget right now, but take time for a long shower with essential oil scrubs or turn your bathroom into a phone-free oasis. It may give you a similar feeling of tranquility amid an overwhelming day.

Self-care is a trending buzzword, but the concept is well-ingrained in Japanese philosophy.


Anna Davies lives in New Jersey with her family, including her three-year-old’s menagerie of stuffed animals, so a room devoid of anything is pretty much her fantasy. She is a young adult novelist, and has written for Glamour, Elle, Refinery29 and The Cut. 

 The content reflects the view of the author of the article and does not necessarily reflect the views of Bellytox or its employees, and we do not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the information presented in the article.

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