tokonoma: decorative alcove


tokonoma in a house

All tokonoma have 2 items: a seasonal flower arrangement and a seasonal scroll of calligraphy or painting. Often, there's also an additional sculpture. Note the raised platform of the "floor" of the tokonoma space.


tokonoma at inn

Here's a wide tokonoma in the dining room of an inn. This one does not have the special side pillar (probably to save on cost).


tokonoma with round opening

This tokonoma has a special round cutaway. Notice the pillar on the right side. Note also that the two women drinking tea are sitting in the seats of honor, closest to the tokonoma.


teahouse tokonoma

In this teahouse, the flower arrangement hangs from the special pillar on the left.

The tokonoma is a decorative alcove or space set into one of the walls of a traditional Japanese-style room. It is a very special space in the room because it is the most respectful part of the room. Guests of honor would be seated in front of the tokonoma, for instance.

Parts of the tokonoma:
The "floor" of the tokonoma is rectangular in shape, and there is a platform usually made of beautiful wood, so that it is slightly higher than the floor in the rest of the room. Usually, the tokonoma space is set into the wall about 40 or 50 centimeters deep. The width of the tokonoma varies greatly from room to room, house to house; grander houses tend to have larger tokonoma. One (but not both) of the side beams of the tokonoma is made of a beautiful, polished tree trunk, much more solid and artistic than the other side beam; this special beam stands as a symbol of the "pillar of the family" who is usually the father or grandfather of the family.

Three items you will almost always find in a tokonoma:
The purpose of the tokonoma is decorative. Almost always, you will find a flower or plant arrangement on the floor of the tokonoma (or sometimes hanging from one of the side posts). The flowers are always chosen carefully according to the season (plum blossoms in winter, for example) and arranged artistically. You will also find a scroll of calligraphy or a painting of some sort on the main back wall of the tokonoma. Again, the message of the calligraphy or the theme of the painting will be chosen according to the season. Finally, you may also find a third item in the tokonoma--some other small piece of artwork such as a sculpture. The overall visual effect is one of beauty and harmony according to one of the four seasons that Japanese people are so sensitive to. The tokonoma should not be a cluttered, messy, or over-filled space. Please, never sit or step onto a tokonoma!

Special uses of the tokonoma:
If there is a table in the room, the guest of honor would be seated at the table closest to the tokonoma (his/her back would be to the tokonoma).

If a tea ceremony is held in the room, the invited guests will be asked to sit first in front of the tokonoma to admire and meditate upon the flower arrangement, scroll, and artwork in the tokonoma before going to their seat on the floor for the rest of the ceremony.

Design features of a traditional Japanese house

tokonoma: decorative alcove | genkan: entryway | shoji and fusuma: paper wall panels | butsudan: Buddhist altar | kamidana: Shinto altar | ofuro-ba: bathing room | oshi-ire: closets

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