Traditionally, the floor of any Japanese tatami room is covered with tatami mats that are woven with rice straw. The purpose of these thick tatami mats is for people to comfortably sit or sleep on the floor. Learn all about tatami rooms including its history, uses, and the different elements of a tatami room below!
If you’ve been living in Japan or simply interested in the Japanese culture, you would have come across the word “Tatami” and the Tatami Room several times.
These days, a lot of western designers are trying to incorporate tatamis into their designs along with other Japanese and other Eastern elements.
Tatami rooms bring about a sense of openness, space and peace in a home. They are made from natural materials that bring with them a lot of health benefits.
What are Tatami Rooms?
Tatami mats were and are still widely used in Japan.
Tatami has its roots in the word “Tatamu” which translates to fold. Tatami mats were traditionally woven out of dried rushes which were then sewn to a core made from rice straw.
These were meant to make resting on the floor more comfortable. Tatami mats, when freshly made, have a beautiful green colour to them and the distinct smell of the rice straw.
Over time, the green fades to a dull yellow and the fragrance disappears as well.
They measure 3 feet by 6 feet, the right size for an adult. When not in use, they are folded and stacked.
Tatami mats were luxuries that could be afforded only by the rich and the nobility, while the common man had to rest on the hard floor.
They have their origins from the Muromachi Period, as early as the 14th century.
Over time, the rice straw has been replaced by synthetic material which is cheaper to purchase and easier to clean.
Why are Tatami mats expensive?
Weaving a tatami mat is a labour intensive process. It is not something that can be easily made by a machine. In Japan, there are artists who are specially trained in weaving Tatami mats.
The synthetic or the rice straw core gives the mat its trademark springiness which makes it firm, yet very comfortable to sit on or lie down on.
Purpose of the Tatami Room
A tatami room, as you must have guessed, is one that has tatami mats.
Tatami rooms were used as spaces to rest by the aristocrats of Japan. The Tatami rooms of today have a lot more than just the mats.
Tatami rooms are often made even more comfortable by adding cushions and futons. You cannot use very heavy furniture as that could gouge the mats.
Tatami rooms also tend to have low ceilings and rice paper blinds. Tatami mats are not very durable, so they are used in places where people don’t step on much.
If tatami mats are used in a common space, it’s best to step on them without shoes.
These days, Tatami rooms are used as study areas in temples. In homes, tatami rooms are used for just about any purpose. Some people use them as living areas or as resting rooms, while many even use them as play rooms for their babies and children.
Elements of a Tatami Room
Many Japanese measure the size of a room based on the number of Tatami mats they can fit in.
Tatami mats are very commonly used in tea rooms of the house, or in rooms where they want to rest.
As it is with many things in the Japanese culture, they have certain specific numbers they follow for each room to bring in balance and harmony.
Since Tatami mats are kind of delicate, you have to be careful about the kind of furniture you use in the room.
There are some common elements as I have listed below. The fact that tatami mats can simply be folded and stacked, makes them very versatile and convenient.
Tatami mats work very well in modern and compact homes where the availability of space is always something that has to be kept in mind.
Sliding Doors: Fusuma
Tatami rooms have sliding doors called “Fusuma”. Fusuma was traditionally a thick canvas for painters, but over time they have been used as partitions in a room.
These thick, opaque sheets are supported by wooden frames and can be slid to make a space more open or to close it.
These fusumas can be seen in temples and shrines with elaborate decorations and paintings. In normal homes, they are more simple and plain.
The Partitions: Shouji
Shouji is a translucent partition that is supported by wooden lattices. These are also similar to sliding doors and are used for the same purpose as the Fusuma.
The difference between the Fusuma and the Shouji is that, since the latter is more translucent, it is used on the outsides of a room to allow light to enter, while the Fusuma is used inside the house.
Being translucent, it gives you the necessary privacy but without cutting out natural light. These days, Shouji sometimes is fitted with glass on one side, but earlier, these allowed air to flow in as well.
The Closet: Oshiire
The Oshiire is a built in closet for storage. In today’s compact homes, this comes in very handy.
A lot of people use this to store extra bedding, linens and cushions that they may use in the tatami room.
It is also a good idea to store the Tatami mats when the room is being cleaned.
Some Tatami rooms also have built in shelves called “Chigaidana”. These are used to place decorative items like vases or incense.
Low Tables: Kotatsu
While you cannot really use heavy furniture in Tatami rooms (if you want the mats to last a while), a lot of Japanese use low tables called “Kotatsu”.
The Japanese have the practice of sitting down on the floor for meals and other activities and the Kotatsu is usually used for the same.
These tables, especially during the winters, are heated from underneath to offer warmth and they are covered with a blanket.
The Futon and Cushions (Zabuton)
Futons are plain mattresses that can be placed directly over the Tatami mats.
These are used for resting or sleeping on. Futons are a common sight in many Tatami rooms in Japanese homes.
When not in use, they are folded or rolled and placed inside the built in closets. To add more comfort, cushions (Zabutons) are also used in tatami rooms.
These are used for resting elbows or for kneeling. These cushions are also stored in the Oshiires when they are not used.
Use of a Tatami Room:
The natural materials of the tatami mats and the way they are woven help in regulating the temperature of the room they are laid in.
When tatami mats are used as a wall to wall carpeting in a room, they act as good insulation.
They keep the cold away and retain heat to keep the people inside the room warm and cosy during the biting cold winters.
In the summers, these tatami mats keep away the heat and keep it cool indoors. They also keep the air in the room fresh and crisp.
If you’re struggling with back aches, tatami mats and tatami rooms are the best to help ease your pain.
Tatami mats are springy, yet firm, giving your feet and back good support. These are great if you want to walk barefoot or lay on them with or without a thin futon.
These also provide good support if you want to practice yoga on them.
The Decline of the Tatami Mats:
These days, the sales of the Tatami mats have gone down by a lot and a lot of artists fear that they will be out of business soon.
Those who still like tatami mats are buying the synthetic ones that are mass produced and imported from China from cheap materials.
These resemble the original tatami only in appearance but not in the texture nor do they play an active role in improving your health.
Original Tatami mats made from rice straw are very difficult to maintain.
You cannot use any heavy furniture in a Tatami room as it could scratch the mats. A lot of people flip the mats over to prolong their life but even then, they only last a few years.
Tatami mats must also be kept away from water as that could ruin the straw. Maintenance is very difficult, especially if you lead a fast paced and busy life.
Though the rest of the world is trying to bring in more Eastern elements into their homes, the modern homes in Japan are trying to adapt Western elements.
A lot of western style furniture is being imported into Japan.
Traditionally, the Japanese sat on the floor and slept on thin futons, but now people want dining tables, couches, study tables and heavy cots.
These are harmful to the Tatami mats, so people and designers are trying to find more sustainable flooring options.
Also, a lot of youngsters find the colour and the odour of fresh Tatami mats to be unpleasant.
They also feel that the colour fading from the green to a dull yellow ruins the aesthetics of their interiors.
This is another reason why Tatami mats are being considered old fashioned by modern Japanese.