Life in an old Japanese house Vol.4: Old Japanese Homes and their Roofs Part2

As I wrote in part 1 when examining an old home’s roof, it’s important to observe the building material used and its application. Besides that, the roof’s construction and the condition of its rain gutters are also key. What I mean by the roof’s construction is the shape of the roof, such as the gabled roofs and hip roofs often seen in single story homes called ‘hiraya’. These roofs are easy for just about anyone to maintain, but many old homes have had extensions added making the roof’s construction quite complex.

The intricate roofs of an old home are without a doubt beautiful, but the place where the different slopes of the roofs come together create a low spot known as a ‘valley gutter’ which needs special care. As leaves and other sediment collects there, it can lead to roof leeks happening around there when heavy rain fall occurs. The verge, which is the edge of the gabling, or when roofs have joins with the wall they can both decay which also results in roofs leaking.


Maintaining a traditional roof is quite taxing but each of these tiled roofs has plenty of individual appeal.


Name of each part of the roof


Traditional and Basic Roof Types

Just as sediment and debris can lead to roof damage, improper upkeep on a roof’s rain gutters can also lead to roof decay from water leaks. One key point of caution is if the rain gutters are too flush with the eaves, during heavy rain fall water will leak out onto the house causing damage to the roof or walls.

Homes of any kind in Japan not just old homes need routine cleaning of their rain gutters but multiple-storey homes are quite hard to clean. This is why many multiple-storey homes are sadly left with their gutters blocked as is. As discussed in the previous article, clay based tile roofs in particular, need routine maintenance of their gutters as soil is likely to leak out from the crevices between tiles and will then collect in the gutters. Further, if the home has overgrown plant life nearby, leaves are also likely to collect in gutters requiring careful attention.


Sediment collected in gutters from fallen soil and leaves

Those planning to start life in an old home are wise to look for one with a simply designed roof with gutters that are easy to clean. However, for those already living in such an old home and for those who understand the complexities of roof maintenance and wish to reside in one, then I encourage you to routinely clean both the rain gutters and any valleys on the roof.

Around April and May before the rainy season starts is when it’s definitely time to check the roof’s and gutters’ condition and clean them if necessary. In recent years due to the effects of climate change, from June to September there are cases of homes sustaining damage from typhoons and severe rain. I have heard that these homes which may have never had roof leaks during regular rain fall before were affected by a severe downpour. If you experience a severe rain fall or a typhoon, it is likely that sediment and debris will have collected in your rain gutters so it is also an ideal time to clean them once more. Depending on the area you reside, the timing and number of typhoons and heavy rains will vary but it is always a good idea to clean your roof and gutters after leaves have fallen or before heavy snowfall.

One side note, for those residing in the warm parts of west Japan by the Pacific Ocean and Seto Inland Sea, you’ll find the mild winters there a perfect time to repair and do upkeep on your roof as there is hardly any rain or snowfall to impede your work. That said, bear in mind the temperatures are too low during winter to apply paint or sealant to your exterior effectively.

Roofs are built with practicality in mind so that a home can withstand the harshest of weather conditions from wind, rain, snow, and sun damage. As a result, in recent times, the complex tiled roofs of the past are fewer with roofs now built from metal or western slate becoming the norm since they are easier to maintain and cost less. With that said, Japanese roof tiles are used not simply for their traditional appearance and beauty. Amongst the available roof materials on the market here, they are admired for being the most durable, having the best sound absorption, and providing the most insulation.


Pictured is the highly regarded East Asian hip-and-gable roof. A plaster wall replaces what was once a place for a chimney.

After traveling abroad and seeing authentic Western Architecture with my own eyes, there is no denying that Japan’s meager attempts at recreating Western style buildings in modern times are simply cheap imitations and inferior knockoffs of the real thing. Japanese traditional structures with their austere pillars and earthen walls as well as tile roofs on the other hand are well fit to both Japan’s climate and landscape. The hip-and-gable roof in particular is a special style seen in East Asian wooden structures and is practically non-existent in Europe. The gable wall seen in hip-and-gable structures was originally apart of the chimney in ancient pit dwellings. The monitor roof is another style that is leftover from the period when silk worms were raised in the attic of such structures. These traditional buildings have a whole deep history to share, from the shape of the roof, to the style of the house and roof, all the way to the type of roofing tiles used. From that, as we walk through a historical neighborhood and gaze upon it’s traditional structures we can surmise everything from the area’s climate, the extent of the town’s historical economic power, and even its major industries. With that in mind, Japan’s traditional structures certainly have a lot more to share with us than just their beauty.