Japanese Jewelbox

This Makiki home gets all the details right—from the tatami room to the traditional Japanese furo.


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Photo by Hal Lum

When their daughter was accepted into a private school in Honolulu, this long-time Kailua couple decided it was time to move into town to create the perfect new home for the next stage of their lives.

Having both been born in Japan and spent many years there, in addition to living in the Mainland, London and Hong Kong, the two had a very clear idea of what they wanted even before they hired local architect Richard Bass: A Hawaii-appropriate home that also included strong Japanese elements, and adhered to the basic principles of feng shui. A traditional Chinese practice that guides the arrangement of the built environment, feng shui’s principles dictate everything from the orientation of a house to the arrangement of furniture within it.

For example, the owners wanted the structure’s layout to be square, with no protrusions or voids to impede the positive flow of energy. Inside, they kept things simple and open, with a straightforward floor plan and wide hallways. Interestingly, all the house’s plumbing is routed along the exterior, so that no wastewater passes under the living areas. “It’s a sanitary issue,” says the wife. “If you think about it, you don’t want waste lines from the bathroom crossing your kitchen area.”

All these rules and principles, far from being restrictive, gave Bass clarity when designing the home. “The vocabulary of this house was set very early on,” he says. “It wasn’t difficult to develop the plans for the house, because there was a clear definition of how it had to be. I don’t think that the room locations have changed at all from the original sketch.”
Clockwise from top right:  (1) When opened up, the tatami sitting room gives the TV room some sunlight and ventilation. (2) The entire perimeter of the property has been landscaped, to give each room a serene view. (3) A sweeping staircase and a rock garden give the front entrance a dramatic feel. (4) Fine details are everywhere, including the dovetail corners of the eaves.

Photos by Hal Lum

The site, not far from Punahou School, boasts a panoramic view of Honolulu, and the two-story house takes full advantage of it, with pocket doors in both the dining/living room downstairs and the master bedroom upstairs opening up to wide lanai areas. The owners resisted the urge to squeeze in a glut of tiny rooms—two bedrooms and two bathrooms were plenty for their needs—and as a result, each part of the house feels spacious and airy. “Being so open, it definitely has an Island style to it, but I think it’s still Asian in the way it deals with spaces,” Bass says. “The whole indoor/outdoor living thing is tropical, but traditional Japanese architecture has been doing that forever.”

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