from 'the bathroom book: vol 1' 2004/5



Many things are not as they appear. It’s a widely perceived illusion that Japan is a wealthy country. But few have the luxury of a large living space and garden or even the time to enjoy it.

Designing a Japanese bathroom in Australia is an entirely different undertaking. There’s space, natural materials in abundance, privacy and one can literally invite the landscape in.

The first consideration therefore in designing such a room concerns the external space. What will we see beyond when we enter the room? What will be reflected in the mirror?

What can be viewed while we are immersed to the chin in steaming water?

Answering these questions decides the level of the bath, its location and surroundings, and the size of the window that will open up the wall opposite the entrance ( or the ceiling ). The first port-of-call may well be the plant nursery.

The brief for the design featured on these pages was sparse: “Something simple and warm.” The garden was large, shaded, private, and during construction, effused with continuously changing colours and patterns of soft and subtle light. By opening up the end of the room and the side wall, all this could come flooding in. One is no longer enclosed but almost a part of the garden.

The floor being one metre above the ground, the bath was lowered into the floor to half its depth, secured on a sub-floor, and surrounded by a lightly oiled jarrah platform, maximizing the amount of window and the degree of ease with which one enters the bath.

On the left are three edge-treated and frameless ‘french’ doors of toughened glass and offset single-pin hinges enabling this wall to open out in the heat of summer ( or the depths of winter! ) and become a doorway to an adjacent landing for sauntering in yukata ( or without ) at bathing’s end.

The next consideration is the simplicity of the design; the arrangement of the smallest number of functional items. This must be achieved, if space permits, with the division of the room into a sealed wet area able to withstand a deluge from within and a dry area for clothes, towels, mirror etc.

Depending on the household, this dividing wall ( with its sliding door ) can be clear glass or opaque ( even sealed shoji ), both options allowing light to spill through to the entrance and the view enjoyed when the entrance door is retracted or ajar.

Upon the wall ( reluctantly ) a sliding handshower provides for those who believe they can wash thoroughly standing up ( a peculiarly Western contention ) and the whole wet area is sealed by sliding glass. This can facilitate the ‘fogging’ of all the glass for those who prefer more privacy. Just remove the two-part cedar bath cover in advance of disrobing.

The cedar accessories enable the bather to walk and sit on unsealed wood and wash themselves thoroughly before entering the pristine water, Japanese style. Each person enjoys the same ritual and 200 plus litres of clean water can be recycled elsewhere the next day.

Having taken care of the view, the glazing, the dividing wall and the accessories, it remains to introduce the warmth and textures of natural materials on the walls, the ceiling and the floor. Their colours and surfaces imbue the room with a quietness in harmony with the exterior.

The floor is natural, random and uneven slate sloping to an ample floor waste, while the walls and ceiling are lined with unsealed cedar requiring little maintenance. Wooden bathrooms age beautifully with proper care. A seasonal sprig is placed in the bamboo vase close to the small north-facing window. There is a recessed shoji light in the centre of the ceiling and the garden is back-lit at night.

The least important design considerations are those which are concerned with adding to the property value, pleasing the visitor and in accord with current fashion and orthodoxy, defeating the purpose to provide for enjoyment and contemplation.

The success of the design lies in the extent to which the combination of the various elements creates an harmonious balance of the practical and the beautiful, the ideal in Japanese design. It’s not what you incorporate that matters but what you can eliminate in pursuit of this ideal. It’s an undesign. A little is enough. Less not more.