With more people opting to stay home in recent months, balconies have been popping up all over the internet. Overseas, people have been applauding to cheer on essential workers, taking part in communal singalongs to lighten spirits and even playing full concerts, all from these narrow strips of space. The balcony is clearly where it’s at.

In Japan, the balcony has largely remained a utilitarian space for drying laundry and storing supplies. The culture of using the beranda (veranda/balcony) is one of practicality.

“Historically, I think the prevalence of the balcony is mainly for the convenience of airing futons, which can be draped over the railing,” says Alastair Townsend, an architect who co-founded his own firm, Bakoko, in Japan in 2009. “Without much space indoors, the balcony has always been a utilitarian extension to the home, and not seen as a leisure amenity.”

Small sanctuary

It has taken a global pandemic for that laundry to be pushed aside and for people to see their home’s outdoor space as a potential sanctuary. The prevalence of close-quarters living, lack of garden space and the general advice (even now) to avoid crowded public spaces has pushed people to get creative with whatever space they have at their disposal.

“The real challenge in Japan is mostly a ‘cultural challenge’ that possibly contributes to limiting the imagination of Japanese urban dwellers’ use of their outdoor spaces,” explains Theodore Jennings, CEO and principal designer of Vacation Veranda.

“Most ‘gardens’ in Japan tend to be public ones, and the home garden space is mostly tied to older Japanese homes that have nakaniwa (inner courtyard-style) gardens,” he says. “The concept of outdoor living is a ‘foreign’ concept for Japan. (I believe) my job is to awaken Japanese people’s imagination to the possibilities of outdoor living in their own homes.”

Despite this “lack of imagination,” in recent months Japanese Instagram users have been sharing their own DIY veranda transformations. Some have become play areas, with pop-up tents becoming dens for children, while others have beautified their balconies with flowers, decking tiles and AstroTurf. I have also noticed more neighbors sitting out on even the smallest of balconies, spending hours reading books or taking a lazy Sunday nap — a far from normal occurrence.

“Homes and apartments are usually packed closely to one another in urban communities, so balconies are overlooked by neighboring properties and sound travels easily,” Townsend explains. “Besides, who wants to sit on the balcony under a line of hanging laundry?”

If sitting out on your balcony to read or catch some rays isn’t for you, Townsend says you’re not alone.

“I don’t think Japanese attitudes have changed much — (people) still prefer to enjoy the outdoors from the comfort of indoors,” he says. “It’s rare to see people out on their balconies because of Japan’s (privacy) culture. Sitting outside in full view of one’s neighbors would be uncomfortable.”

But even if you’re not feeling enthralled by the idea of using your balcony to eat al fresco, it doesn’t mean that you can’t benefit from having an outdoor space.

YouTuber Sharla recently uploaded a video to her channel titled “My Tiny Japanese Balcony Makeover.” It shows her tackling the task of creating a space to relax in an otherwise drab environment at her apartment in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture.

“I’ve always dreamed of having a nice balcony to relax on,” she says via email. “The weather (in April) was starting to warm up and it seemed like such a waste not to use the outdoor space (that) I had to enjoy it!”

Sharla isn’t the only one who is thinking of new ways to use the space. Another burgeoning trend is to cultivate a home garden — whether that’s buying full-grown tomato plants or growing plants from kitchen scraps in an effort to reduce waste — out on the balcony.

Urban greenery: The author’s concrete balcony is now home to a selection of colorful potted flowers. | REBECCA SAUNDERS
Urban greenery: The author’s concrete balcony is now home to a selection of colorful potted flowers. | REBECCA SAUNDERS

Potted plants dotted around your residence can have a brightening effect from inside your home, and tending to plants has been linked to improving mental health. “Simply contemplating nature helps to rest and recharge our brains,” writes professor Alistair Griffiths for the Royal Horticultural Society.

“A garden isn’t possible in Osaka, (so) I grow some container vegetables on my small balcony in summer,” says Ran Nomura, mother of two and founder of the Instagram account Zerowaste.Japan. Through her large online platform, she regularly shares simple and straightforward techniques to reduce waste in everyday life.

“It’s easy to create a windowsill garden to use vegetable scraps to grow new plants,” says Nomura. “I regrow vegetable scraps by simply sticking their roots in some water. Scallions are so easy to grow. (They only need) a week.”

And if that sounds like too much work, there are still ways you can create a green space of your own. “If you don’t have a green thumb, I’d highly suggest you buy succulents and cacti as they survive mostly on rain water and require little maintenance,” Jennings suggests.

Safety first

Keeping your standard balcony tidy and safe is important. Many mansions or apartment buildings have emergency escape routes that run through the balcony, so any plans for additions need to take this into consideration so as to not obstruct these routes. You should check with your landlord (if you have one) before making any major changes.

Jennings confirms that erring on the side of less ostentatious alterations is best. “I’d say if you can make something simple that won’t attract lots of attention and you can keep escape pathways clear, then you’re probably OK with smaller, spruced-up projects,” he says.

Basic social etiquette should also be taken into consideration — cocktail parties late into the night out on your new oshare (stylish) terrace, for example, are probably a no-go.

“Balconies should definitely be kept tidy and uncluttered. Since it’s often the only part of the home visible from the outside, one always wants to keep up the appearances, lest the neighboring aunties start gossiping about you,” Townsend cautions. “Clothes and futons should be clipped, pinned or pegged down securely. You wouldn’t want your undergarments to fly off in the wind and land on a neighbor’s balcony or garden.”

It’s all in the details

Veteran designer Jennings thinks that the gradual awareness of outdoor living — and its benefits — have recently been accelerated due to COVID-19, explaining that “there are (now) more low-cost DIY options for sprucing up your balcony.

Luxury outdoor living: A balcony designed and executed by Theodore Jennings of Vacation Veranda. | ATSUSHI ISHIDA
Luxury outdoor living: A balcony designed and executed by Theodore Jennings of Vacation Veranda. | ATSUSHI ISHIDA

“There are many possibilities,” he continues. “Most large home centers have modular decking, inexpensive and simple seating, and table options.”

With her balcony just barely managing to fit in a table and two chairs, Sharla thinks sprucing up a small space is all about the details.

“I feel like adding wooden flooring made the biggest difference — it’s such a nice change to the drab concrete that was there before,” she says. “If you only have a small budget and want to spruce up the space, I recommend investing in some nice flooring. I got mine from Ikea, but Nitori also does something very similar.”

Adding strings of lights, a throw or canopies for privacy, and maybe a rug, can all enhance the overall effect and even make your apartment feel different from inside.

“I love how the new wooden flooring and furniture look in the morning with the sun beaming down on them,” says Sharla. “It has brightened up the living room.”

The state of emergency may no longer be in place, but with people yet to get back to their usual lives — and with the worry that COVID-19 spikes could always re-emerge — the balcony can easily remain maintained and beautified in the midst of the aratana nichijō (new normal). My own balcony is now home to a selection of potted flowers that grew out of the monotony of being told to “stay home,” adding light and life to a concrete zone. It seems I’ve found a new hobby.

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