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.