One of the things that can be a bit depressing about Japan is the generally low quality of most residential construction. Japan still doesn't really have architectural preservation the way American or Europe does, so virtually all buildings here are town down and rebuilt every 30 years or so. It's why, while there are some individually awesome pieces of architecture around Tokyo, the city as a whole is architecturally dull.
This isn't just a matter of lack of preservation regulations -- it's also because most people here have a strong preference for new construction, especially true for residences. The market reinforces the lack of preservation. So, when building a house, there's a general assumption that it will be torn down in about 30 years, and accordingly, the actual quality of most residential construction is low.
I'm not talking about sloppy construction -- Japanese carpenters are perfectly diligent. It's that most residences are low quality by design. The walls are extremely thin (a constant complaint among foreigners) and are not insulated. Windows are perennially single-pane, and I suspect even many ceilings are uninsulated leading to the houses being seives for heat in either direction (this lack of insulation in particular probably also stems from the tradition of totally unheated houses).
You can witness this in action when a new Japanese house is built. It's insanely fast to put the house up -- a few weeks ago I went on a business trip to America, and some nearby sites were foundations. I came back and the house was complete.
This low concern for residences seems to spill over into design as well. I live in Daita, a neighborhood near Shimokitazawa on the west side of Tokyo, and the vast majority of houses here are utterly uninteresting. Of course, this is Tokyo so lot sizes are very small and houses need to use all the space, but even so the vast majority of houses take no advantage of their site, don't use their southern exposures, have few windows meaning they're dark inside, etc., etc. Occasionally a decent house sneaks in, but most of these houses won't be missed when they're torn down in a few years.
Today I finally saw an exception to the bleakness! A company called Isa Homes is building a gorgeously designed house a few blocks away from me -- a house you would actually want to buy. Open plan, lots of windows and wonder of wonder if my eyes don't deceive me they're even double-pane windows! I looked up the company's website and they build custom houses with gorgeous combinations of Japanese and international styling all over the Tokyo area. Go have a look:
- Go to http://www.isahomes.co.jp
- Click on the second link at the bottom, 施工実例
- Then click on the bottom-left panel, 施工実例写真集
- Now you can look through a collection of about 40 stunning houses!