Tatami is deeply ingrained into Japanese Culture

We sleep, study, eat and relax....
Japanese do almost everything on Tatami Mats

This month, KVG is featuring tatami (Japanese straw mats), which are so common in Japanese culture that tourists can meet them almost everywhere from ryokans and ryoteis, to temples and shrines… Unlike washoku, Japanese cuisine or manga culture, tatami rarely gets attention from people - tourists and Japanese. Maybe tatami has been too closely connected to both Japanese culture and people and maybe we have taken it granted for a long time. But there are still many people working hard to produce and maintain tatami culture daily in Japan, especially in Kyoto since there are many temples and tea ceremony schools, etc.

Tatami is still in the roots of Japanese people..

Its rooms are used in various situations in Japan. From temples having memorial services, used in traditional arts such as tea ceremonies, Noh plays, etc. In general houses, tatami rooms are often used to welcome guests or to relax with family. Tatami rooms can make a truly sacred space or even a very room to relax in.

Photo at the Renge-ji Temple in Kamitakano, Sakyo-ku; © Digital na Kajiya

What is Tatami?
Tatami is mainly made with 3 parts: 1. Tatami-toko (the underneath core part of Tatami generally made with rice straw), 2. Tatami-omote (the front cover part of Tatami woven with soft igusa (rush), 3. Tatami-heri (the long length fabric to protect the edge of Tatami with a decorative covering).

1. Tatami-toko
The tatami's most important core part, used to be made with dried-40cm-straw only, making compressing them to about a 5cm width at the end. The higher the straw count, the more superior the tatami is considered to be, because the more straws being used creates a more durable and hardened tatami-toko, thus, a superior tatami mat. Now a days, most of the tatami-toko used in general homes is becoming mixture of architectural synthetic materials.

Surprisingly, in Daitoku-ji Temple, tatami was found with a date stamp of 1636 on the back of the tatami. This means it has been used for more than 400 years. Good quality tatami-toko can last for 50 to 100 years even these days.

The side of Tatami-toko

2. Tatami-omote
It is woven goza (a thin mat), using hemp yarn lengthways and rush widthwise. For one goza, about 4,000 to 7,000 rush are used. The important aspects here are the production area (because they are greatly affected by weather) and also the length of the rush (longer rush are considered superior). Generally, to grow the rush takes about a year. Now a days, almost all the tatami-omote are woven by machine.


3. Tatami-heri
It is to bind and decorate the 2 sides of the tatami mat. But originally, they were used as to state the status of hierarchy from emperor to, aristocrat and monk, etc. Their colors and styles were decided then. They also had to be a natural fabric such as silk, hemp or cotton, but now many of the tatami-heri are made with synthetic fibers. These days, the only the differences in tatami remains between temples, tea ceremony rooms and ordinary houses in which heri to use. There are now about 20 tatami-heri specialty shops in Japan. Each shop has a few thousand designs.

Various Tatami-heri fabrics (generally, heri used for general house are solid color)

History of Tatami
Tatami is the native Japanese born flooring material, unlike other Japanese cultures, many of which originated in China.

Yayoi period (6 BC - 3rd century)
To lay down on the floor, they used a sheet made of grass as a cushion, which is thought to be the beginning and original form of tatami.

Asuka/Nara period (6 - 8th century)
Goza (thin straw mats which can be folded and is portable) appeared in old literature of this time. The word ''Tatami'' originally came from the Japanese word “tatamu,” meaning able to fold.

Tatami was the symbol of the power then...

Heian period (8 - 11th century)
The aristocrat house became Shinden-tsukuri, and on the floor, they started putting tatami to the exact spot when sleeping or sitting.

Kamakura, Muromachi period (11 - 16th century)
Shoin-tsukuri buildings appeared and tatami mats were used to cover the entire floor. In the Muromachi era, a peculiar Japanese seiza-sitiing style appeared about this time along with the development of tea ceremony.

Tatami getting popular among ordinary people in urban areas...

Edo period (17 - 19th century)
At the end of the Edo period, tatami finally spread to the ordinary houses in Japan.

Tips for Tatami

''Tatami & its great charms''
Tatami is said to have various merits, such as relaxing and deodorizing effects since it is made from natural fibers. Also, it has a springy feel, excellent sound proofing qualities, insulation efficiency in the hot summer months, thermal properties in winter, and so many more...

''What is Omote-gae?''
As stated in the above article, good quality tatami-toko can be used for up to 50 to 100 years. In such cases (and many temples do), only the tatami-omote and heri are replaced to refresh the tatami's aesthetic appearance.

An interview with the 9th successor of
Satake Shoten Tatami Shop
Mr. Satake

''Because we have tatami, many peculiar forms of culture were born in Japan.''

Shop's history
Our shop is located on the south side of Gosho, the Imperial Palace. The shop came to this place in the beginning of the Meiji period. I am the 9th successor and I started learning how to make tatami from my father and other artisans when I was about 24. Until then, I often went to temples with them and learnt myself about the different parts. I was already measuring the floor when I was only 15 years old (the measurement of the floor is very important and quite a difficult part in the production process).

Our works
Our work is like being a coordinator of tatami. We need to know all kinds of material producers and artisans all over Japan. I get orders from various people. From big temple's facility divisions to small-sized private temples as well as private customers.

The first thing we do is the consultation with the customer to know what kind of tatami is required. Then, the most important part comes: to measure the floor.

I start making orders from certain areas in Japan (mainly Tohoku area for Tatamitoko, Kumamoto and Hiroshima for -omote, Okayama for -heri, etc.) to make the best tatami to suit the customer's needs within the customer's budget. We then bind all the parts to make one tatami at our studio.

Recently, I had put tatami in for Chion-in Temple. About 300 tatami were needed in total, so, 4 tatami shops from Kyoto were gathered and the work was divided. Generally with big temples like the Chion-in class, these kinds of shared work styles are taken.

I have done tatami work at Gosho, the Imperial Palace, Shugaku-in Imperial Villa, Katsura Imperial Villa, and so many other places in Kyoto.

The photo below shows ''Mon-awase'' a technique which uses tatami-heri only used at temples in Japan, and the hardest part is to make the patterns match perfectly.

About the tatami craftsmen
I take apprentices, and so far, I have taught about 20 people. I am setting the basic course to 4 years. With 4 years, the basic skill of making tatami can be taught. But it'll take about 10 years to be a master tatami artisan. Now, I have 3 craftsmen working at my studio next to my shop. There are maybe only 2 women as tatami artisans now in Japan. Maybe this only applies to tatami, but in my opinion, the person who takes time to learn longer, tends to become a real good craftsmen, someone who has suffered through many trials and errors.

Mr. Takahashi Masanobu, a veteran tatami artisan for over 30 years. He learnt from Mr. Satake's father (the 8th successor). The photo shows him sewing a tatami mat with a big needle.

The transition of tatami
After WW2, Japanese lifestyle changed drastically, as many tall buildings grew, the demand for tatami to be lighter (to carry tatami to the upper floors without elevators) emerged, and as buildings became draft-free, insect damage was reported and tatami was then made with artificial materials. And with that, the machine was invented, and now 99% of the Japanese tatami are now machine made.

The most expensive tatami is about 200,000 yen and the cheapest one is about 10,000 yen.

The Future of the Tatami Shops
Well, many houses recently only have one room with tatami, or sometimes none in Japanese homes in these days. Most of the tatami used in the houses are made with architectural synthetic materials that were made with machines. All over Japan, there may only be about 7,000 tatami shops, but until quite recently, there were 15,000 shops. In Kyoto, about 100 shops are still working as tatami shops.

Without demand, techniques fade over time. Making only cheap tatami will lower the quality of artisans'skills. Only Kyoto and Kanazawa can somehow pass down traditional tatami shops in the coming future that has a high enough quality to match the needs for temples and tea ceremony houses, etc.

My favorite place in Kyoto
I go to many temples for my work, but I am especially fond of the Nanzen-ji area. This place used to be the villa of the thenfinanciers in the old days, and still has many beautiful buildings with gardens from old times still remaining. Not many places are open to the public, but Murin-an is the one of such places where tourists can visit anytime.

Satake Shoten
Open: 9:00-18:00
Closed: Sun., nat'l holidays
Tel: 075-231-3731 (only in Japanese)
On south side of Marutamachi, west of Sakaimachi

Something to buy in Kyoto
Tatami related materials

Unfortunately, tatami can't be recommended as a souvenir to take back to your country since it is big and quite heavy (although a few Japanese tatami shops are doing tatami export if you check the web!) But, how about these tatami-like items to make you comfortable in hot weather. Satake Shoten has such items. And don't forget to check out the awesome tatami-heri works when you visit temples from now on!!!