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Tokonoma is an alcove in a traditional Japanese room (washitsu). It is about the size of one, or half a tatami mat, and a step higher than the rest of the room. It is the place to display kakejiku (hanging scrolls), ikebana (flower arrangements), and other art. It is customary to change the art with the seasons, or to choose it for a specific guest.
As a feature of the Shoin-zukuri (Shoin architectural style) in the Kamakura period (1192-1333), the tokonoma was developed from butsudan (the private altar) in Buddhism. During the Muromachi (1392-1573) and the Azuchi-Momoyama periods (1573-1603), it became a standard built-in feature with a decorative purpose.
The idea that the tokonoma is a sacred space was begun by Buddhist priests, and even today it is strictly forbidden to walk into or sit in the tokonoma. The seat closest to the tokonoma is usually given to the most important guest.
I think that the tokonoma is one of the beauties of Japanese architecture, and it shows the Japanese spirit of wabi (subtle taste) and sabi (elegant simplicity). Unfortunately, not many modern houses have the tokonoma.
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