What is Tatami? Japan’s Tradtional Straw Flooring

Writer's profile
Writer’s profile

Mao Goto is a Japanese freelancer who was born in Hayama, Kanagawa prefecture, and raised in Tokyo. Since 2016 she lives in the Taito Ward, home to a lot of Japanese culture hotspots such as Asakusa, Akihabara, and Ueno. She has been interested in the field of English education in Japan and got her Master’s degree in March 2020. A lover of photography, travel, sweets, and cross-stitch. Contact her via Facebook.

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Discover the cultural tapestry of Japan through the ancient tradition of tatami, Japan’s traditional straw flooring. As you step onto these meticulously crafted mats, not only will you experience the comfort they offer but also connect with the heart of Japanese living. Explore the seamless blend of history and modernity in Japan, where tatami transcends mere flooring to become a symbol of harmony and tradition. This article will unravel the secrets of tatami that create a unique and timeless experience for Japanese homes!

1. What is Tatami?

Tatami is a symbol of Japan’s unique culture, and its manufacturing process is acclaimed as the best flooring material for the Japanese climate. Tatami is made by skillfully layering and compressing layers of rice straw and weaving textured natural igusa into the wrap. This unique manufacturing process is more than just a flooring material; it is the culmination of Japanese tradition and technology. Tatami mat floors have attracted attention in real estate advertisements, where the “J” is used as a unit of measurement to indicate the size of a room. Tatami mats are truly a perfect fusion of beauty and practicality in the Japanese home thanks to the delicate manufacturing process and functionality. The comfortable feel of tatami and its unique way of expressing spaciousness symbolize the role tatami plays in Japanese housing culture.

2. History of tatami

The origin of tatami dates back to the Jomon and Yayoi periods, and its history is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and architecture. Thin rugs made of woven straw or grass were found at archaeological sites from the Jomon to Heian periods, believed to be the prototype of tatami and influenced the modern tatami. When tatami first appeared, it was used as a cushion-like rug. Over time, tatami evolved, and from the Kamakura to Muromachi periods, it was transformed from the “board style,” in which it was placed partially, to the “tatami-shiki style,” in which the entire floor was laid out. Tatami was used not only as a mere tool for sitting and sleeping, but was also widely used as a building material. Today, tatami is commonly used in Japanese-style rooms in detached houses, condominiums, and apartments. Recently, tatami mats with sophisticated designs have been introduced, such as thin tatami mats in wood-floored rooms, tatami mats without igusa (Japanese paper mats), and tatami mats with no edges. The evolution of tatami over time and its diversity has contributed to its long lasting attractiveness.

3. Why is Tatami used?

(1)Cleans the air

Tatami has amazing properties that purify the air. Tatami matting absorbs nitrogen dioxide and keeps the air in the room clean. Thanks to this, the air in a Japanese-style room is always considered fresh and clean.

(2) Tatami has a positive effect on the brain

Tatami also provides good stimulation to the brain and is said to have a lasting effect on concentration. The aroma of rush grass and the coolness of its humidity-regulating properties enhance concentration. Also, the quiet environment created by its sound-absorbing properties also helps us to focus on problems. Furthermore, the unique aroma of tatami is said to have a relaxing effect, providing a comfortable space.

(3) Fire Resistance

Tatami is also flame-resistant. The tightly compressed rice straw is flame retardant, and because it contains moisture, it is unlikely to catch fire all at once. This property is one of the factors that position Tatami as a safe and reliable flooring material.

4. Where Tatami is seen

Tatami mats are frequently used in traditional Japanese homes to create a distinctive Japanese style. Surprisingly, Japanese-style rooms have recently been incorporated into modern Western-style homes, spreading the charm of tatami in a new way. This unique flooring material enjoys outstanding popularity due to its soft feel and traditional atmosphere. Step into any historical Japanese building and it is common to see tatami in old ryokans, shrines, temples, and castles. Tatami is a symbol of Japanese culture and tradition, offering a sense of the history and atmosphere of a place.

5. Tatami etiquette

(1) Do not step on the edge of tatami

The edges of tatami mats are imbued with deep meaning. From ancient times, the edges of tatami reflected social status, and stepping on them was regarded as an act of lack of respect for authority. When walking on tatami, respect the edges and be mindful not to step on them.

(2) Do not wear slippers on tatami

The custom of taking off slippers on tatami is deeply rooted. Tatami is made from natural igusa, which is easily damaged when dirt or moisture adheres to tatami. Slippers should be removed when going up to a Japanese-style room to keep the tatami in good condition. This custom is an important etiquette to preserve the beauty of tatami and to enjoy peaceful moments in a Japanese-style room.

6. Where tatami is made

The majority of the raw material for tatami, igusa, is born and grown in Kumamoto Prefecture, where the scenery is beautiful. Kumamoto’s fields cover 1,326 hectares and account for 93% of all igusa in Japan. In the past, the spread of Chinese tatami caused a downturn in Kumamoto’s tatami production. Since then, the prefecture has been involved in aggressive advertising activities and the development of new, high quality products; now remaking a name for itself throughout the country. The appeal of tatami is alive and well in other parts of Japan as well, including Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Ishikawa prefectures and so on. Tatami grown in each region reflects the unique characteristics and culture of that region, allowing visitors to enjoy the many facets of Japan through tatami.

In this article, we have taken a look at some wonderful facts about tatami. Did you learn something new? As you tread upon these straw mats, you’re not just experiencing flooring; you’re stepping into the soul of Japan. Tatami, with its timeless allure, invites you to embrace the warmth of Japanese homes and the spirit of a nation. Immerse yourself in this cultural embrace and leave with memories that echo the harmonious essence of Japan and embark on a journey through cultural heritage, where the art of tatami weaves together tradition and modernity.

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