MDF houses have been popular among wargamers the last couple of years. They allow you to make a lot of houses quickly and quite affordably. If you want a couple of houses for your skirmish games, it might seem like a lot of work to build them all from scratch, especially if you are not an experienced modeller. After all, painting the actual miniatures might be higher on your agenda at this point. MDF is durable, quick to build and lightweight, all nice traits for wargaming terrain.
However, I've found two downsides of MDF kits of Japanese houses. The first is technical - there's simply some types of detail that is hard to make with laser-etched flat wood. You'll see that on roofs and other structures where there's no depth and no round shapes. The second is that designers often misunderstands Japanese architecture - they get some things right, some things mixed up, and some things plain wrong. Often these are things that are easy to miss at first, but once you have more experience of Japanese architecture they'll stick out like a sore thumb, making the entire piece feel... off.
For my first project on this blog I'd thought I'd go through a very typical MDF house and point out some of these details. Since the aim is not to make this a negative type of experience, I'll work on some simple ways yo make the house a lot more historically correct, and hopefully you can follow along and pick up some tips that you can use on your own houses if you want to.
What Went Wrong?
Our first 'victim' is a Village House from Sarissa Precision. Please note that I'm not singling out SP as a bad company here, the details that they get wrong are very common among all makers of Japnese MDF houses that I've seen. I just happened to have this one at home.
At first glance this looks like a typical, yet a bit small, Japanese house. There are some things here I like - the house is raised above ground, which is a very typical trait of Japanese traditional houses. There's also a nice pattern for a wood lattice one the walls, that I'll keep when detailing the house. However, there are some grave offenders. Let's go through some of the more obvious ones, that we'll have to address when modifying the house.
Genkan - The Threshold of Purity
Japanese culture has a lot of variations of the theme of strict borders between good and evil spirits, between pure and unpure spaces. The genkan (玄関) is one of these, the Japanese entryway that divides the outside from the inside, but also forms a bulwark that keeps evil spirits out. To this day violating the genkan by not taking off your shoes, breaking that barrier, is a grave taboo.
In modern day Japan the genkan is usually a small space that is on ground level, and the rest of the house is raised a few inches. In feudal Japan though, the genkan would typically be earthen floor of packed dirt or plaster, doma (or niwa or douji). This doma would extend through the house and form the kitchen, which would be on ground level. The rest of the house would be raised on timber, takayuka, with either planks, bamboo or tatami floors (or typically a combination. I'll cover this in a little bit more detail with more pictures once I get to carving out the insides of this house.
This fundemental part of Japanese houses is, surprisingly, almost nonexistant in MDF kits. Instead, there'll typically be a raised floor in the entire house, and some kind of stairs in front. It's weird but a very common solution.
The Japansese porch - Engawa
I think these stairs are a misunderstanding of the engawa, a type of porch that often stretches along the side of Japanese buildings. But the engawa is not like a typical Western porch, that is centered on the entrance and expands from the door. Instead, the Japanese entrance will be next to the engawa, and you'll enter the engawa from inside (or sometimes, if by a garden, through raised stones). This strange contraption will simply need to be lopped off. I'll probably replace it with a proper engawa, so I'll give more examples and pictures of how it can look later on.
Then the door needs to be lowered to ground level, and the floor on the inside needs to be removed to form a genkan and a doma for the kitchen.
There are a lot of different types of Japanese windows, both styles that can be opened and those that can't. However, these kinds of window shutters that opens outwards are not very typical. Shutters that slide to the side would be much more fitting. We can probably keep most of the windows, though some of them have pretty odd shapes (especially the tall ones) for a Japanese house. Here are some more common looks for windows:
The roof looks like some kind of flat square tiles. Traditionally there was flat tiles made of bark or wood used for roofs, though they would not be placed like this but in an pattern where they cover each other. Other common roof styles for a poorer house would be thatch or planks. As long as we get something that looks more three-dimensional, it'll pruce up the look of the building.
Finding a Blueprint - a Fisherman's House
When making models of houses, it always help to have an original to work from. The model can deviate from it, and in this case the small size will require a lot of simplification, but it'll help you making the model look realistic and believable. In this case I dug through my books for something small of a similar shape, and found this fisherman's house:
This house actually exists to this day in an open-air museum, which meant that I could find some photos from both inside and from various angles. The floor plan will have to be simplified to fit, but here you can see the doma (marked niwa にわ by the entrance.
The original house is so small that there's no place for a kitchen, instead it is in the small hut outside, and two of the rooms are covered in bamboo. We'll see what we can fit in the house. But making it a local fisherman's house is enough to start the ideas flowing - there'll be nets hanging to dry outside, various fishing equipments, baskets to put the catch in. Maybe we'll add a proper engawa porch on the side, to sit on while mending the nets?
MDF - Good or Bad?
After that little intro, do I think that MDF terrain is horrible? Definitely not. They are great to quickly fill a table with terrain, and they're very beginner friendly. I also think they can be a good starting point when learning to make terrain, as it can be easier to modify a structure than to start from scratch.
With that said, I do think that there are some rather baffling mistakes that seem almost universal among brands when it comes to Japanese houses. Especially the poor takes on engawa, genkan and doma. I don't think it would be technically much more complicated to get those very fundamendal and iconic part of Japanese architecture right, and doing so would improve the looks of these models a lot.
About ten years ago I built a small Japanese town in 28mm scale with a clubmate. Since then that village has survived years of neglect in various storage spaces, a move, and all kinds of wear and tear. While the houses have deteriorated a bit, I've also travelled more in Japan, picked up more books on Japanese architecture and learned more about the topic. While I haven't played any games where I could use it, the village has always been there at the back of my mind.
Recently I've been helping others to make Japanese model houses. Since I have some experience from visiting old Japanese building, as well as a small library on the subject, I wanted to share some of that with other hobbyist. My hope is that it'll also be enough to push me into actually restoring my old village and expand on it, adding new and more realistic models based.
In this first part I wanted to give some tips to those who are planning to starting out on a similar project of building houses, be it for the fun of it or for a tabletop game. Most people will probably start by buying a handful of MDF kits and kind of spread them out on the table, but I want you to pause and think a bit about your village before that. Where your town is located and what kind of town it is - the story of your town, is important. It will guide you in designing your houses, and before you know it ideas will spring to you based on that backstory.
While all towns are unique, there are a few typical patterns of Japanese villages and towns. Understanding them and at least partly adhering to them will make the end result look and feel a lot more realistic. I'll list a few points that you can use as mental anchor points when structuring your imaginary community.
Urban Housing - Wall to Wall
Major cities were quite crowded in feudal Japan. Cities like Nara and Osaka, and later Edo when it was founded, saw big blocks of houses that were built connected to each other with enclosed backywards. These rows of houses were divided by a gridlike street network. In places like Edo the street would form sections divided by gates that were closed and guarded at night, requiring special permission to pass through.
A city street could be a very interesting modelling subject, but be aware that it would be tricky to make such a gaming table as the amount of open terrain would be minimal. The example here is from early 19th century Nara, but typical of larger cities.
Post Towns - Following a Road
Land travel was common in feudal Japan for both trade and tourism. The roads between cities, markets and temples were dotted by post towns, places were pilgrims and traders alike could rest. The easy access to trade networks made these towns perfect for industrious villagers and these towns could specialize in products like Arimatsu, a small town outside Nagoya on the Tokaido, the main artery of feudal travel between Kyoto and Edo. Here the villagers developed hundreds of unique techniques for dying cloth, which they could sell to the tens of thousands of people passing through each year.
My old project was meant to be a post town, based on a road along an dug out canal. Post towns would be a bit more spread out than the major cities, but still neatly strung along the road, often with storefronts towards the street and living quarters and a backyard away from the street.
This is the layout of a typical post town that kept its layout into modern times. The short sides of the houses face the streets, and there's a temple at the northern edge of the village where it meets a hill and the road veers off.
An example of a roadside tavern serving the many travellers coming through.
Pictures of my previous post town project
While most villages were farming villages by default, those on the plains that were not on a main road were more so. Unlike villages in some countries the houses could still be bunched up, which is partly because of the feudal structure. Rice farming was a communal affair where the village would collectively farm the lands of their lord and pay taxes to him, so you would not live on a house of your own on your own plot of land. Instead you would try to bunch up your houses where the land was less suitable for rice plantation, which could be a small raised hill or where it was hard to redirect water. These clusters of houses could then be surrounded by rice fields if suitable, while lesser ground was used for fruit and vegetable plantation or grains like millet. Cattle was pretty much not a part of Japanese farming and would not be a visible feature of a farming village.
Along the coast you'll find villages that looks a lot like the post town. The coasts of Japan often sees mountains suddenly meet the ocean, so these communities are crammed in between the shoreline and the rocks, with a road passing through and houses on both sides. The houses on the side towards the ocean also serves as boathouses.
Temple and Castle towns
15th and 16h century Japan saw many towns developing around the many castles and temples that were built across the country. The example below is from Hikone, which was founded in 1622.
These castle towns very literally centred around the castle, with higher ranked samurai living in the inner circles, lower ashigaru samurai further away and finally the non-samurai city dwellers such as merchants and craftsmen. Temple towns could be similar, but I think the layout of temples is a topic large enough to have a chapter for itself.
On steep mountainsides, buildings were generally a lot more spread out than on the plains where fertile land was to be preserved when possible.
This short trip through different Japanese might spark some ideas for your own modelling projects. If you have a specific topic that you'd like me to cover on this blog, be it fireplaces, temples or roofs, don't hesitate to ask and I'll see what I can do.