A super-efficient Japanese kitchen

Following up on my previous post, here's more about kitchens - this time about their layout and how they should function. The more time you have to spend in a kitchen, the more important this is. (Have you noticed that people with big, gorgeous, expensive kitchens tend not to actually cook a lot?)

It is rare to have the opportunity to start out with a totally blank slate. My dream of dreams is probably to have some big, open loft space to lay out a big, open kitchen precisely the way I want. However, the house we bought is an old stone one, part of it built in the mid 19th century, part of it probably even older, and there are load bearing walls everywhere that cannot be moved or taken down without a whole lot of work. So my kitchen space will not be big, open and wide, but be in one small room with rather odd angles (which will probably be the pantry) and part of the living-dining area. I don't mind it per se - we did go for this old house over a bland, square modern build because of its quirks after all.

So, I've been contemplating compact, efficient kitchen design. Japanese houses are mostly quite small (the average home of a family of 4 is 75 square meters, or about 810 square feet) so the kitchens are usually quite compact. I found the following video depicting one woman's use of a very efficient galley style kitchen to be fascinating. It's from a professional home organizing/interior design company, and I think she works for them. But the house and kitchen are her own, not demo models.

She has a typical galley style kitchen (equipment and cabinets along two facing walls, with a narrow space in between), though the smallness is relieved by the fact that it's open to the dining/living area. She has everything arranged for maximum efficiency, and only have the equipment she really uses. While it might be impossible to be as efficient as her for most people, including me, there are a lot of great pointers, especially for people with tiny kitchens. Here's what she shows in the video:

  • She uses eco-friendly cleaning products to keep the sink and countertop clean, put in attractive jars right in front of the sink; baking soda (bicarbonate of soda) in one, and vinegar with some dried herbs in it to make it smell nicer in another. She also puts her dishwashing detergent in attractive dispensers so they can be left out without being eyesores. (Well she says they are attractive. Personally I would use another dispenser, but that's personal taste ^_^)
  • Kitchen towels and sponges are hung up from a rail suspended above. She uses hand towels as kitchen towels rather than 'fukin' (small cloth kitchen wipes that are typical in Japanese homes), and every night before going to bed she wipes down her countertops with the towel and dumps it in the wash. She uses clips with hooks for the sponges. This way, she says, the sponges dry out very well, don't get smelly, and last longer - and also keep the sink area looking tidy. (The clips are from Muji (Mujirushi) she says. I have to find them!)
  • In the storage area under her cooktop she only stores her frying pans (the square ones are tamagoyaki pans, but she calls them frying pans too), plus pot lids, all easy to take out in one movement. She uses the frying pans the most so they are there. (Note she has no oven under there - this is typical for Japanese kitchens; usually people have combination microwave-convection ovens.)
  • In the drawer next to the cooktop she has a drawer for oil and ingredient (soy sauce, mirin, sake, etc.) she uses all the time while cooking. The front half has just the essential bottles she uses all the time, and the back part is used to store backup supplies of the same bottles that are in the front. She says she has pared down her bottle selection to just the ones she really uses, but it's still quite a lot!
  • Salt, sugar, and other flavoring ingredients are store in the cabinet on the opposite side, and cooking implements like spatulas and ladles are in the top drawer on the cooktop side. She can cook while everything is left open, so she can reach anything she needs instantly. She always puts ingredients that come in bags, like salt, sugar and flour, into glass jars so they are easy to take out and put back. (And also don't make a mess by tipping over and spilling!)
  • In the second drawer, she has table setting things, like coasters and chopstick rests. She also uses individual trays to put the things needed for every person's table setting. (This sounds like a good idea to me - individual trays for each person, to just carry as-is to the table.) She has all the dishes and bowls and things positioned so she can take anything out with one hand.
  • Around the 4:05 mark she shows she has some basic toiletry supplies there too. This is because they have a 3-story house, and she doesn't want to have to run up (or down - she doesn't say) to the bathroom to face her face and things before making breakfast. (Personally I have a hard time conteplating brushing my teeth in the kitchen...but to each his/her own. For her I'm sure it makes her life more efficient.) She also has medications there, plus aromatherapy supplies and a sewing kit.
  • She only uses two stainless steel bento boxes for her kid's bentos, plus silicone cups that are reusable, and can be used directly in a frying pan to cook in. This eliminates the need to buy and store disposable aluminum or paper cups.
  • Everything has its place; for instance she has a section for beverages (I can't see exactly what's there, but I guess things like tea bags, drink mixes etc.) The kitchen is arranged so that her child(ren) can use it easily and put things back properly too.
  • She has all of her dishes and things coordinated so they all go together. When she's serving friends (or her daughter is serving her friends) for instance, she'll put the all the courses on the coordinating plates, stacking each subsequent plate on the other one. When the meal is over the stacked plates can brought back to the kitchen easily.
  • She only has the bare minimum of eating utensils. Under the sink, she has her stock of pots and pans and bowls. She has her old conventional cleaning detergent bottles and things in the back, which she hasn't used since switching to cleaning with baking soda and vinegar, so she is probably going to get rid of the old cleaning stuff soon. She loves her stainless steel bowls, which all have matching covers so she can use them for storing leftovers or pre-made items in the fridge without bothering with plastic wrap and so on. (She loves her bowls, and the colander. The set she shows after the lidded bowl set is from a famous designer called Sori Yanagi. I covet that bowl set myself...)
  • Her fridge and freezer are also very organized. Note that she has a separate freezer next to her fullsize refrigerator despite the tight space of her kitchen, because she works full time and she finds that being able to make things in advance and have an ample freezer stock to be invaluable. (She stuck some masking tape on her fridge to camouflage the colored parts that didn't coordinate with the freezer.) In her fridge, she stores everything in glass jars or ziplock bags, prepared or cut up and ready to go, not just dumped in there. She has things like bread stocked in the freezer.
  • In her appliance chest, all the appliances plugged into the switched power strip have tags on the cords so she can identify them easily. She always switches off the power to appliances not in use to conserve energy.
  • Since she always marks the contents of her ziplock bags in magic marker, there's a marker stored in the drawer next to the freezer.

And in part 2, you can see her in action in her super-efficient kitchen. I won't go through all the details, but note how she unpacks her groceries right away and gets rid of all the extraneous packing material - that really explains why her refrigerator looks so empty and neat! She cuts up a whole cabbage and stores the parts she doesn't need for dinner in a ziplock bag, and puts the kimchi in a glass jar instead of just leaving it in the plastic container it came in. She uses just part of the pork belly and wraps up the rest for the freezer.

(I like that you can tell the video really is filmed at her house, because you can hear around the 6:40 when her child comes home and calls out "I'm home (tadaima), I'm going to the library to return a book" and she says back "Ok, but come right back!"

I really enjoy watching these kinds of organizing videos. I hope you did too, and if you know of any others let me know!

Filed under:  japan kitchens

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Thanks for sharing Maki! I really enjoyed this video (and your comments, otherwise I'd have no hope of understanding what was happening! Thanks for translating!)

I'm so jealous of what's available in Asia in terms of small-scale living. I'd love all that space saving stuff but the reality is in Canada, it's either not available here/difficult to find and usually prohibitively expensive! Though, hopefully by the time I'm buying kitchen appliances (it's my last year of uni so I'm a renter....and probably not buying for a while yet!) this might change, or I can bring stuff home from family visits to Taiwan? Well, I brought home a rice cooker two years ago, so it's not that crazy of a thought.

This inspires my to do a big clean out of my actually-very-large-in-comparison kitchen. I love that she deals with her groceries as soon as she gets home!

Try IKEA - they have quite a lot of space saving things and orgaizers for the kitchen. (I swear I am not an IKEA employee or anything, but I have been looking at their catalog for so many hours recently... ^_^;)

I know that youre right but in my country ikea has been in the news for products with unhealthy perspirations so i cant recommend them anymore.

Thanks for posting this. I actually read your comments before I watched which made it more interesting to watch. One thing I did notice is that she cut of the top of her daikon and carrot and put them in water on the counter. Why did she do this?

I have a large kitchen but it could be better organized and this gave me a couple of good ideas. I like the idea of hanging my sponges and towels and will see if I can set up something like that at my house.

Oh yes, I forgot about the daikon and carrot tops! She puts them in water, and uses the green tops as garnish on soups and things. Very clever!

Thanks. I was wondering if she used them for food. I may try that.

I can vouch for Ikea. They have a large selection of plastic bins of soft and hard plastic that we use to store our packages of spices, Konbu, Nori, etc, etc. Spices are in bottles that mount on the inside of the cupboard door (2 racks, one wasn't enough).
The key IMO is to store like things on one place, e.g. all sauces/liquids. We keep Ketjap Mains, various vinegars, oils, Oyster sauce, hot sauce, Sambal Oelek, various Soya sauces in one pull out drawer. Another holds our selection of rice noodles as well Arborio rice and quinoa. Etc. Things we use less often are further away from the prep/cooking zone. When you are done, put them back in the same place, eventually you will develop a muscle memory that is amazing.
We have been blessed by being able to spend time with professional chefs doing actual cooking. It is enlightening. The videos that Maki posted are an example of efficient style. Another place to see this would be any Asian food stall, just order your food and watch :-)

but what was she making in the red pan with all the vegetables neatly arranged? and what was in the white serving dishes?

Her kitchen is perfect (I have a small kitchen too, but I'm not as fast nor as efficient as she is:)

I think she was making some sort of stewed chicken (not sure there...she took some kind of meat out of the little bowl) and shrimp (maybe?) and vegetable dish in the pan.

In the white dishes she had natto topped with kimchi. Never tried that myself...could be interesting.

My kitchen is quite a bit bigger than that, but I do like space-saving and multi-purpose bits and pieces. I love going to IKEA when I visit Australia; we don't have one here in New Zealand yet though so I don't have anything much from it except a colander and a few other small gadgets.

A thing I put in my kitchen is a piece of wooden dowel between the sides of a window frame. It sits in those little plastic end things you can get for shower curtain rails, and I have one pair of them up at the top of the window and another pair half way down. Normally the bit of dowel is in the high position, hidden behind the rolled up blind, and I have a few things hanging from it (e.g. a garlic braid), but when I make pasta I move it down to the lower position and it becomes a pasta drying rack. I can put more pasta on that thing than any proper drying rack, you can't knock it over, and it takes up no space at all in the kitchen.

I watched this video in amazement - even by Japanese standards, this is at a level of Anal-Retentive hyper organization that would leave Martha Stewart green with envy...

BTW, I would also kill for those little clips but I've seen them at IKEA but I'd never, EVER stop you from going to MUJI to prowl through their amazing stores...call me a MUJI enabler :)

Thank you so much for the videos. I really enjoyed watching the lady in action.

I thought it was a great idea to store vegetables in ziplock bags. I may try this idea. A little surprised that she was using a fresh bag for each purchase, as most Japanese are very frugal in that regard. But then she is an organizational specialist and she needed to show her ideas.

Was she not washing the vegetables? I noticed that Negi she was cutting still had the metal bundle on it. And was she putting newly purchased meat in the same container as the meat she just took out for the dinner? Or was it just the editing that omitted the washing or bringing out new containers?

Eating Natto with Kimchi and Negi topping sounds really good!! I should try that.

Overall, I love her ideas. Thank you once again for showing the videos.

Thanks for sharing this Maki. I really enjoyed watching and was amazed at her efficiency. She must plan her shopping list too otherwise, she wouldn't have enough space to fit more food!
I don't know if I could restrain myself with so few dishes, but I admire her organizational skills. Fabulous! My family is much larger and we entertain often, so it wouldn't work for me.
One thing though, I'm not a fan of hanging all the sponges and towels overhead. I think they' could be distracting. Maybe hidden in a cupboard would be more aesthetically pleasing.

I'm not sure about hanging the sponges right at eye level either. And she doesn't show the kitchen from the dining area side, but I wonder if you can see the sponges and towels and things from there. I did think of maybe a rod put across the edge of the sink, and hanging the sponges from there though. The excess moisture will drip into the sink, and they should still dry out nicely between uses.

I put the sponges in the microwave to dry :) It's good for killing the bacteria in them too.

Wow, I would have a hard time cooking in a kitchen that small. As it is, I always run out of room! I love the idea of hanging up the sponges, though. That would work in a kitchen of any size.

I'm looking to remodel my 1960s era kitchen, and the biggest change will be to put in an extra countertop. Right now I have a table there that was in the eat-in part of my previous kitchen, but it is too small a place to eat-in these days. The table does provide extra storage and workspace, but the height is uncomfortably low.

Are you going to make the current counter a drawerlike area, or are you replacing the whole thing altogether?

Interesting! I shall never complain about my kitchen again now that I have seen hers! I felt claustrophobic just looking at this :)
She uses an unbelievable amounts of ziplocs though, that's sth I would feel bad about.
I liked her way of putting the vegetables' tops in a bit of water to keep them as decorative toppings later.

I'm laughing at everyone talking about how small her kitchen is. My kitchen is very similar to hers except that my fridge is larger. Ah! The joys of living in New York.

I grew up in California and I weep every time I visit family and friends because their kitchens and bathrooms are larger than my "very large" bedroom.

Oh my, I envy her that kitchen. What I have is about the same size in floor-plan, but it's a laundry room. (I live in the in-law flat downstairs; the real kitchen is upstairs, and it's large [the house was built in 1878], but it's up a flight of seventeen stairs, and at nearly 70 I don't want to have to climb them any oftener than I have to.)

So I have a laundry room, which has a washer and a dryer in it, and into which we've installed a small table on which is a microwave and a restaurant-style electric single burner; a small rolling table on which is a toaster oven, and a refrigerator. We have no kitchen sink, but the bathroom is right next door to the laundry room; we get water for dishwashing and so on from there. We wash and rinse dishes in two big plastic tubs (from the same restaurant supply house where we found the single-burner; restaurants use them to bus dishes in), and dump the dishwater into the toilet because it would clog the drain on the bathroom sink.

I also have a set of three rods to hold dishtowels and things on, including my dishwashing gloves. I use an office binder-clip to hold the gloves by their wrists and slip the handle over the rod, and that might work for you too. (They come in assorted sizes, from tiny to huge, in the US, and I bet in France too.)

I wish I had that little kitchen. It has about five times as many cupboards as I have, and a real sink.


My kitchen in Flushing NY was smaller than this too, to be honest. I had about 4 inches of counter space in total, with stove and sink taking up my kitchen, a full sized fridge off to the side and a roomy windowsill (as in like maybe a square foot and a half total?)- and my walkspace was definitely narrower.
things that helped with this space:
1. take advantage of vertical height for storage of stuff- step stools/stand on a chair is doable(my mother climbs cabinets, if it's high enough this is a bad idea.)

2. Ikea had a wheeling kitchen cart made of metal at one time. The last time i was in there they weren't selling anything as sturdy as the one i have. But a wheely cart is useful if you need more storage but need the floor space for things like stove usage/sink usage. Yes, I did have a kitchen that was just that small.

- As for containers and jars one ecologically friendly thing my family has always done is use cleaned out, empty pb and jelly jars for spices (am half indian, thus standard american spice rack is really more decorative than helpful as we'd empty the jars too fast to make it worth bothering.) My containers don't match but my Mom has been trying to use the same brand of jelly over and over again to get herself a matched set of jars. Those large plastic containers they sell florida crystals in/ large sized containers of nuts are really useful as rice/lentil/flour/granola containers too. Mine looks ugly but my aunt managed to collect enough of a matched set where her lentils/ rices jars are all matched. And repurposing stuff you already buy anyhow is going to be way cheaper for the financially challenged.

I do love how clean and organized hers looks though! I hadn't thought to go and get baskets for kitchen drawers like that one with the bottles. And I like the clothesline clips for sponges idea.

As for all the bags I'm seeing- I lived in the Caribbean for a few years in an area where if you wanted ziplock bags they were imported from the US and thus, were a bit expensive (and again, I like to be environmentalist about things if I can be.) Not sure about Japan or France, but Caribbean and US supermarkets lately have a few different brands of "disposable" plastic containers in different colors, shapes, sizes, etc. Repackaging produce seems like a good idea (may try it myself), but why not use containers instead? Could find decent squared off sizes that would stack in the fridge/freezer rather than getting the avalanche effect I get whenever I open the freezer (hehe, oops. A work in progress?) And they're washable so you can reuse them instead of tossing out more baggies.

This really puts me to shame! I have a way bigger kitchen and a lot of cupboards and it's still always a mess

Thank you for sharing ...I really enjoyed watching this video ! very inspiring

How fascinating! I love to watch other people's cooking methods, especially if they are efficient. It has given me ideas for reorganising my own kitchen. I was wondering, why did she cut off the top of the daikon and put it in water, is it for sprouts or something? Good luck on your kitchen Maki!

She says in Japanese that she may use the greens in Miso soup or something else later. In Japan, most Daikons are sold with some leaves left so they can be used for soup, condiments for rice, etc. I miss that in the US.

Thanks for sharing the videos! Great pointers! I really loved the baskets with handles and I was wondering where I could find them. I went to Wally world today and I saw them when looking for something else. I brought one home thinking that it could be good to organize my spices but it didn't fit in the cupboard, but it turned out to be perfect to hold the bread flour and vital gluten in the fridge. A few things the lady showed but I wouldn't do: 1) hanging the sponges and rags above the sink. 2) keeping medications in the cupboard. Maybe it works for her because she doesn't have a full oven but, in my kitchen, when the oven is on, it gets too hot and that's probably not good for any medication. and 3) I definitely wouldn't wear white pants in the kitchen! and no apron!! :-O LOL

I loved these videos.
Here's what I had in mind whilst watching them:

It shows the infamous "Frankfurt Kitchen". More info here:

That reminds me of this wonderful little Norwegian/Swedish movie called Kitchen Stories: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0323872/

Thanks again!
Just found it with Spanish subtitles - so that's my late afternoon Sunday viewing sorted.
Looks fabulous, just my kind of thing.

Living in Japan, my kitchen is about that size with the addition of a small dining room (with my washing machine separating the two) I can definitely relate to the challenges she's overcome. I don't have drawers, nor a pantry, just open cabinets under my sink and 2-element burner, so I've been learning a lot about trying to condense or simplify things. This video had a lot of great ideas and tips, even if I can't speak Japanese very well :D A lot of things I look forward to using in my own home! And what happens to the top of the daikon radish? Can you harvest the greens? I love that she does that!

Yep, she uses the green tops in soups and things. So frugal!

I'm live in India, the way we eat and the food preparation procedure is very different, since the ingredients and tools are different. The most vegetables don't come neatly packaged and clean so there's a lot more work to be done. Keeping cut vegetable in the ziplock? We shop for fresh veg everyday and consumed on the day. The vegetable doesn't keep fresh even for a day or two here. And we make fresh chapatis just before the meal!

Anyhow, your video was very entertaining.

It made be want to record how I prep and cook Indian food, in my Indian kitchen : )

That is a great idea! Let me know if you post it ^_^

Hey Maki. Thanks for sharing both the text and video.
I enjoyed it very much :-)

I had a kitchen as small as hers but with very limited storage. My current kitchen is just slightly bigger but like her, I also buy just enough dishes and cutlery, with just a few extra sets for entertaining. I repack non-resealable things into recycled glass jars and plastic containers, this really saves a lot of space because you can stack them. And instead of hanging my kitchen towels above the sink, I hang them on "S" hooks on the outside of the cabinet doors below the sink because we're renting and not allowed to stick or nail anything.
I see similar stainless steel bowls with lid that she uses in many Asian stores here in Melbourne. Maybe I should get a set too! They look very useful. Oh and portioning and unpacking produce immediately is a must, saves so much prep time when I need to cook. Thanks for sharing Maki!

I grew up in one of those "big, gorgeous, expensive kitchens" and my mom cooked nearly every meal. It's partly why I tend to cook less when I have an apartment with a smaller kitchen because I loooove counter space. Especially when making cake balls.

Thank you for those 2 videos, it is so thrilling to see how to make the most of the smallest spaces !

I have to finally comment on this post. I've become obsessed with the idea of having my kitchen this organized! Mine doesn't have much more storage space than what she has in the video, but the floor plan is definitely larger. I've been searching for jars that would work well in my fridge that are similar to what she uses, but it's difficult to find anything that's not pricey. I'm starting to think good old fashioned jam jars will work the best.
Thank you, Maki, for posting this video and adding notes/translation!! I love following your blogs for great information like this. :)

I live in Tokyo and my kitchen consists of a wall with a sink on one side and gas burners on the other, connected by about a foot of metal "counter space" and a few cabinets...this video really inspires me to organize my space better, even though her kitchen seems quite large comparatively (with tons of storage space! Jealous!)

Recently there have been tons of kitchen organizing stores sprouting up all over the place, such as this one: http://www.kitchen-kitchen.jp/ I really like browsing and imagining my dream kitchen! Someday...

What a great video and blog. Thanks for sharing. This reminds me of my grandmother's kitchen. She also has a hole in the floor where she keeps a tub for pickling vegetables. I remember being so amazed at how efficient her kitchen was.

Wow I like it! I wish i'd seen this when we were in our apartment. Our house's kitchen has a much larger floor plan but less cabinet space, so its hard to find a space to put stuff thats 'away' A lot of stuff gets stored on the counters. We plan to install cabinets under the counter thats just a counter and that set up she has for the drawers is on my list now to put there now!

Thanks - this is so inspiring! Having just moved into an apartment about 1/2 the size of my former house (and the kitchen was the 2nd biggest room!), I'm having to find super-efficient ways to arrange and store everything, from kitchen to closets (oh yeah, I have no closets!). Clearing out the clutter, getting rid of all but the essentials, and having dual-purpose items helps a lot. A HUGE inspiration to me has been this woman's home & blog... zerowastehome.blogspot.com

Thank you all lot for this post. I actually live in the US.My kitchen however,is from about the 50's - early 60's and half the size of a walk-in closet.Finding the space to store everything while properly organizing it all is still slightly difficult,but I going to try some of the idea's here thank you.

Wow! I love the layout of her kitchen! My last house had a very small galley style kitchen and the large American appliances took up way too much room (large fridge, dishwasher, stove/oven combo), since she doesn't have those large appliances, she can have that huge pantry(which is glorious).

I think one thing that anyone can incorporate into any size kitchen is her use of uniform jars to replace store packaging and bins- I love the bins so much!!!

Luckily we're moving into a large to us (1800 sq.ft.) house with a really great kitchen soon. But I will incorporate all these great organizing techniques even in my large-ish space.

While review this above article; I must say that from here we are getting enough information about kitchen interiors and decorations. Through the help of this we are able to set our kitchen in a professional way. For a housewife it is quite tough to maintain a smart kitchen; we can imagine how much effort she puts in her kitchen interiors; I hope with the help of above instructions she can get enough variations for her kitchen.

I love the square plates and bowls she has. Does anybody know what brand they are?