30 Traditional Homes Around The World You Need To See
15. EMCHIIN UVELJEE, MONGOLIA
The word “ger” in Mongolian means “home” or “dwelling place.”
“The Mongolian ger is a totally inseparable part of nomadic people’s culture and life,” Adiyasuren Jambalsuren, owner of this shape-shifting home reveals. The region has a certifiably extreme continental climate reaching up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer and dropping all the way down to minus 40 degrees Celsius in the winter — which means there’s a need for some seriously versatile digs.
Home is where the heart is, but for nomadic Mongolian countryside dwellers, it’s also where the grass grows and the fresh water flows. These families uproot their abodes each season in search of greener pastures that are best suited to feed and herd their cattle. In this way, the land surrounding the Mongolian ger is as much a part of the home as the home itself.
A ger is a traditional Central Asian structure with a circular design that remains practically unchanged from its conception three thousand years ago. They are portable, practical and durable, consisting of two main elements: wood and felt. They have a distinctive dome-shaped roof with a chimney that carries smoke from the wood and dried dung burning stove. Every ger is constructed with deconstruction in mind, as it is reassembled in different locations multiple times a year.
A symbiotic relationship between humans and animals has powered this nomadic way of life for centuries. The animals provide food for the family as well as building materials for the ger’s structure (yak and horse hair connect beams like rope) and insulation (sheep’s wool) and even the burning material: families burn dried dung from their cattle in the stove, while herders ensure the animals are fed and on the most abundant grounds each season. Here, the connection between humans, animals and nature is alive and well.
The round interior of every ger houses a life all its own, ornately decorated and rife with symbolic meaning. For example, one should never walk between the two structural pillars, which are said to represent the connection between earth and sky. The space is divided into different sections that are usually arranged in the same way: the fireplace and opening is in the center, the kitchen is to the right of the front door, and the altar in the back is framed by two beds. The rear is known for being the best spot in the house — it’s where guests come to sit, family photos are displayed and religious rituals are carried out.
Gers are praised for being particularly comfortable to sleep in.The days begin before sunrise to tend to the horses and cattle and the work lasts until dusk, at which point families gather to share nightly meals and an occasional game of knucklebones. Although there is a modern movement to the capital city and less than half the population still lives in gers, for Adiyasuren Jambalsuren: “Our ger is essential — it’s where we spend more than half of our lives, being the nomadic people that we are.”
16. SHIRAKAWA-GO, JAPAN
Shirakawa-go is a mountain village in the Japanese Alps. Once remote and isolated, the village has existed since the 11th century, subsisting on the cultivation of mulberry trees and production of silk. Prone to earthquakes, the village also receives extremely heavy winter snowfall.
Shirakawa-go is home to Eiji Kanda, sixth head of the Kanda family. He runs half of his historic gassho-style farmhouse as a museum. Built around 1800, the house is large and made almost entirely of wood. It has a very steep roof to shed snow. Inside, its fireplace is kept alight 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Gassho-style farmhouses in Shirakawa-go are built of Japanese cypress, pine, chestnut and cedar felled from surrounding forests. Constructed to withstand earthquakes, the wooden frames are braced together. Steep thatched roofs are made from local kaya grass.
In the olden days, smoke from the indoors firepit kept the thatch in good condition for up to 60 years. When the roof needed replacing, the whole community helped out. This happened in the weeks between snowmelt and rice planting. Nowadays, professional builders are called in. Houses are aligned to capture maximum sunlight, but remain cool in the summer. Contemporary touches include glass windows.
The museum portion of Eiji’s gassho-style farmhouse gives a sense of how life used to be in rural Japan. In earlier days, the ground floor was the family’s living space. Everyone gathered around the central fire pit at mealtimes. The fire, kept alight all hours of the day, was constantly monitored. Great care had to be taken, as houses were built of wood and grass.
Above the family’s living space, the mezzanine was reserved for unmarried men and servants. The second and third floors were work spaces, typically for silk production. The attic was used mainly as a storage area.
17. ORCHID ISLAND, TAIWAN
The Tao people, who are sometimes called Yami, must contend with Orchid Island’s harsh natural elements: incessant rain, monsoons in winter and brutal heat in summer.
Traditional Tao dwellings, like this home that Siyapen Mifuzou inherited from his grandfather, are sea-facing and subterranean. Their rooflines are nearly level with the terrain to provide protection from extremes in temperature and the regular typhoons.
The main post “represents the soul of a house,” according to Siyapen, and setting it up involves a ceremony with songs, prayers and the sacrificing of hog and sheep. Trees in the surrounding hills provide timber for posts and plank floors. Beach cobblestones are used to construct outer walls within a pit area. Traditionally, homes are thatched, but since the 1960s, with the ill-considered introduction of straw-munching cattle to the island, plastic tarps have also been used. Outside the “vahay,” or home, Siyapen, like his ancestors before him, cultivates taro and sweet potatoes and fishes the sea.
“This is the most important place in my life,” Siyapen says. “Without my home, my family and I don’t have root in this world.” Each of his house’s four rooms serves a specific purpose: sleeping, socializing, working and cooking. There’s no refrigeration and no food preservation, other than the drying of flying fish, which occupies a hallowed place in Tao culture. The Flying Fish Calling Ritual each February marks the beginning of the catching season which lasts until the end of June. Although the village features running water, most residents collect and store water in plastic containers, a change from the coconut shells used by previous generations.
18. TJUVECEKADAN, TAIWAN
Slate stone can be found in abundance in the southern end of Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range, where an indigenous tribe called the Paiwan incorporates its varieties into the construction of their homes and villages in the foothills.
The “ogalai” (hard rock) make sturdy pillars, roof tiles, beds and floors, while “vavayan” (soft rock) is a more fragile material suitable for kitchen stoves and less-trafficked paved areas.
In the village of Tjuvecekadan, a woman named Tjuku lives in a traditional Paiwan stone-slab house. As a “pulingau,” or shaman, Tjuku is considered to be a communicator between her tribespeople and a higher power known as “the Spirit.”
The longevity of the house, which Tjuku inherited from her grandparents, is a testimony to its resilient design and the strength of local materials. Wood comes from trees in the surrounding mountains, while the slate comes from a quarry that’s two hours away by foot. The roof, a bulwark against summer’s typhoons, is comprised of carefully overlapping flat slate stones which, according to Tjuku, “mimic the texture of snake scales,” an important creature in the Paiwan culture. In the platform in front of the house, the family gathers with relatives and neighbors to relax and drink homemade millet wine.
The interior space remains open, without walls to divide the bedroom, kitchen and living areas. An altar honors the family guardian named Kumakan who, in exchange for offerings of wine and food, blesses and protects the home.
As a pulingau, Tjuku commands a vital role in the tribe’s cultural ceremonies. Her most cherished possession is her “kanupitj,” which she calls her “witchcraft box.” Since only a pulingau can possess the kanupitj, Tjuku hopes that one day the Spirit anoints one of her younger family members, so that she may pass her box down and see the noble tradition continue.
19. BUKCHON, SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA
Northern Seoul’s Bukchon neighborhood lies between Gyeongbokgung Palace and Changgyeonggung Palace. It was once home to aristocrats and senior government officials. Today, it is a historic district that offers a glimpse of what the area looked like nearly 600 years ago.
Lee Sook Hee lives in the neighborhood and owns one of the many traditional houses that line the narrow alleys. She spent several years restoring the structure and converting it into a prestigious hotel named Chiwoonjung.
Called ‘hanok,’ traditional homes like this are typically made from local red pine, soil, rocks and other natural materials. Historically, the master spent much of his time in his private rooms (sarangchae) or the sleeping quarters he shared with his wife (anbang). Residents slept on the floor with bedding that was stowed in a closet between uses. The main hall (daecheong maru) was where family members often came together to eat, entertain and practice ancestral rites. Fermented foods were stored in jars placed on the east side of the house, ensuring they would get enough sunlight during the day.
Although this hanok is now a hotel, Lee feels it maintains its connection to the past. “A doorknob has a history of almost 100 years,” she says as an example. “We’re happy we could share this with people.” She calls the house a living thing that needs continuous maintenance to thrive.
Everything needs to be swept and wiped down twice a day, the wallpaper needs to be replaced every fall, the floors and pillars need to be resealed routinely. Pointing out the architecture’s natural simplicity, she says, “I love the beauty of a hanok’s empty space. People fill in the space and complete the hanok.”
20. CHENGQILOU, FUJIAN, CHINA
Centuries ago the Hakka people migrated south from the Central Plain to this mountainous province where, to protect themselves from bandits, beasts and warlords, they constructed immense earthen buildings called tulou. Circular or square-shaped, the tulou feature fortified outer walls, open-air courtyards and gated entrances.
A few thousand can be found in small clusters across the countryside. In 2008, UNESCO designated 46 of these structures World Heritage Sites, including this one, Chengqilou, sometimes called “King of Tulou.” Jiang Youyu, a 15th-generation descendant of the clan who built it in the 17th century, is happy to show curious tourists his home.
Outer walls are made by compacting soil with branches, bamboo and grass. They rise four stories high, tapering in thickness at the top, over a cobblestone foundation. A striking concentric ring structure makes this tulou distinct. The center is an ancestral hall with space for meetings and rituals, along with the classrooms of a former private school and a restaurant. The largest ring, the residential section, is divided into 72 vertical slices, each with a ground-floor kitchen, topped by a granary, then two floors of bedrooms. There is electricity and two water wells named Yin and Yang.
During its peak, Chengqilou housed up to 800 people. Jiang, 69, enjoyed his childhood here, playing hide and seek among its bustling corridors. But these days there are fewer than 200 residents, mostly older folks like Jiang. Many younger people have abandoned tulou like Chengqilou and headed for cities in pursuit of jobs and modern conveniences like indoor plumbing. Although there are other tulou nearby where additional families reside. A traditional way of life may be fading, but a burgeoning tourism industry helps soften the economic blow for these communities and keep their history alive. Jiang hosts tours and sells trinkets and hopes for more visitors.