Covid-Proofing Your Home: 3 Simple Lessons Learned From The Japanese Genkan

by Dec 14, 2020

With almost a year into this world-wide pandemic, people have long started to cope with the situation. It seems that we all finally realized that life must go on – with much emphasis on the word “life”.

Each day I go out (which is just about as often as people go up to the moon), I clad myself with my trusted face mask, shield and armed with my alcohol sprayer. I imagine this is what it must’ve felt like for those armor-clad samurais –  ready to single-handedly fight the enemy. The only difference is that the adversary this time is unseen and comes even from family and the closest of friends. Now if going out is a production number in itself, wait until you come home.

As much as we try our best to protect ourselves from getting sick when we go out, we must also protect our homes so that whatever may be present in the places we’ve gone to, we are sure that we don’t bring them home like a cute little stray cat we found on the street.

This brings me to our topic which is really about the lessons we can pick-up from the Japanese Genkan. Practically applied, it can make coming home still feel warm and welcoming while being COVID-Proof.

What is a Genkan?

For those who are fans of Japanese architecture and culture, a genkan would not be unfamiliar. A genkan is a small space right after the main door. It has 2 main purposes: First, it is where you leave your footwear before proceeding further into the house. And second, it is a place for short visits with guests without necessarily inviting them into the main part of your home. Some would argue that it is no different from its western counterpart – the foyer. But distinct is the tradition and rules one follows – a culture that has endured for thousands of years.

Adapting the Genkan as part of the home.

Historically, the word “genkan” was used to denote the entranceway to a Zen temple. In this context, translated, it means “gateway to profound knowledge”. For a young apprentice, the genkan has profound significance. It is the first step to the life of Zen.

Throughout the years, this particular space was adapted, first by the samurais then by prominent merchants until adapted by the common folk as an essential part of a Japanese home.

The Genkan functions as a psychological transition between the inside of the home and the outside world.

Certain design elements contribute to the transition from the outside to the inside of the Japanese home.

Material & Elevation- the tataki is the concrete floor where the guest stand while in wait for the host to answer their call. When invited in, the guests leave their footwear on a stoned area and move onto the wooden step, shikidai before finally entering the main house.

Both the floor material used (stone/tile and wood/mat) and the action of stepping up provides a literal moving from one place to another. The often rough and cold feel of the genkan somehow mimics the outside world. While the wood step-up gives a warm and refined feel – as being inside the home.

 The Genkan provides an image of the home to its guests.

There is a sense of dignity and respect that emulates from this relatively small space – one that is a reflection of its owner and how it regards its guests.

Being a reception area also, traditional Japanese homes adorn their genkan with a revered scroll,  flower arrangement (ikebana), or ceramics to give a lasting impression to the waiting guest.

The meticulous act of taking off your footwear – heel to toe, lining them up to the side with toes facing the outside door to directly stepping on to the shikidai shows respect by ensuring you don’t bring any dirt inside the home.

Simple lessons from the Genkan can help make our homes warm, inviting, and safe.

1. Designate a space for your own Genkan

  • List down the activities and items you would want to include in your genkan like: bins for items you would want to quarantine (results reveal that while viable virus was still detected on plastic and stainless steel after 72 hours, for cardboard and copper it was no longer detectable after 24 hours and four hours respectively), laundry bins, hand sanitizers, etc. and position them so that you would know how large a footprint you need.
  • It helps to create 3 zones in your genkan: the first zone is for items that don’t need to be brought into your home like umbrellas, trollies, shoes, even keys to the car, etc. The second zone is “for quarantine”. Books, magazines, and other items that can’t be wiped down are kept here until safe to bring in. The third zone are for groceries,  bags, etc. that can be wiped down are placed here for processing.
  • You can use a long table and turn it into a kind of “production line” thing where each step of the process is laid out.
  • Use color to visually identify the level of “cleanliness” of stuff brought in. Red could mean “still to be cleaned” while green can be”for taking in already”. Although putting a sign would work pretty well also.
  • Consider vertically storage in cramped spaces.

2. Create a psychological transition from the outside to the inside – while most houses or apartment units do not have the luxury of tearing down walls and putting new ones up, simple triggers can help designate your genkan both visually and in function.

  • Placing a floor mat to create a barrier from the dirty and clean areas work.
  • Take into consideration the finish of the furniture or materials you use. Make sure that they are easy to clean and chemicals like alcohol or bleach will not harm them. There are chemical resistant laminates that can be cleaned and disinfected without discoloring or damaging the finish.

3. Make your entranceway an image of your home – Resist the temptation to make your genkan look like a storage room.

  • Select bins, baskets, mats, and perhaps even curtains that are aligned with your home’s theme/character while still being resistant to cleaning solutions.
  • Use plants to give your genkan color and make it breathe. Nothing is more soothing to the eyes than a part of nature.
  • Decorate tastefully and sparingly. Hang some artwork. One rule that I’ve found effective is to always have a focal point. you can have a whole table full of COVID cleaning paraphernalia and still have a table lamp and a picture frame or a flower vase and some ribbons.  Put something that greets you at the door and bring a smile to your face.

The “new normal” in essence means that after the COVID pandemic and the vaccines, we do not go back to the old ways of doing things. Ironically, we purposely look back to 17th century Japan and learn from the lesson of the genkan – “the gateway of profound knowledge” which implies a beginning of (a new) life. As we move forward, vaccine or without (yet), may we apply the lessons of the genkan, make it a physical and psychological transition from the outside world and our home, and make it an image of your home and family. After all, life goes on (emphasis on “life”).


Featured image courtesy of TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋)


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