Tatami Japan have been around since the 8th century, according to oldest existing records, the Kojiki. Back then, tatami were foldable woven mats reserved for the nobility and upper-class citizens.
It is customary in Japan to take off your shoes when entering a tatami-floored room. But there’s a lot more to know about these beautiful floor coverings!
1. It’s a Flooring
A tatami is a rectangular floor mat made of soft rush straw (IGUSA) and cloth. It’s a traditional flooring material in Japan that’s traditionally woven by hand and often covers hardwood floors. It can be found in homes, tea rooms, and martial arts dojos.
Tatami is highly insulating and can keep a room cool in the summer and warm in the winter by absorbing and releasing moisture in the air. It also prevents sound from bouncing off the walls and ceilings, making it an ideal flooring for flats.
In addition to being a comfortable surface to walk and sleep on, tatami is also a beautiful decorative element for any home. They come in a wide range of colors and patterns and are easy to clean and care for.
When walking on tatami, it’s customary to take off your shoes and wear socks. This is to show respect to the tatami, as well as to help prevent dirt from being tracked onto the mats and damaging them. In fact, it’s a good idea to sweep and vacuum your tatami regularly.
2. It’s a Floor Culture
Aside from being the foundation of many Japanese rooms, tatami are an important part of traditional culture. Originally reserved for nobility, tatami were used for sleeping and sitting and folded up and stacked like camping mats when not in use. They were also shaped to precise dimensions and even had specific pattern designs that denoted one’s status. They were paired with strict rules on how to move, sit and place items on them during the tea ceremony.
Today, tatami are made from a light yet dense rush grass called igusa. They can be white or yellow and are woven into each other with special string that can vary the strength of the mat. The string can also determine how soft a tatami will feel, with the softer ones being more comfortable to sit on.
Originally tatami were covered with a cloth known as tatami-heri. Traditionally this would be either a colorful brocade or a simple plain cloth. Increasing concerns about mites and mold in tatami have led to the use of compressed wood chip boards or polystyrene foam.
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3. It’s a Material
The word tatami is derived from the verb tatamu (), which means “to fold” or “to pile”. This is indicative of their original use as flexible mats that could be folded or stacked when not in use. Tatami were first used by nobility and samurai warriors as seating, but later became more commonplace in the 1600s and then gradually replaced furniture such as chairs in rooms throughout Japan.
Today, tatami are made by second and third generation tatami craftsmen with high-quality plant-based materials. The tatami omote is woven from high quality igusa rushes that have been grown and harvested in Japan for over 2000 years, while the tatami beri is covered with cloth in many different colors and designs that can change the atmosphere of the room.
Since tatami are natural, they can be susceptible to pests and mold if not cared for properly. To prevent this, tatami must be regularly moved and aired out in order to keep them clean and dry. Additionally, it is important to never cover tatami with carpet or other flooring material without airing them out in between.
4. It’s a Symbol
In Japan, tatami symbolize Japanese culture and are a key element in tea rooms and shoin-zukuri domestic architecture. The texture and aroma of tatami evokes feelings of tranquility and balance. They also serve as a good indicator of room size and formality.
Originally, tatami were hand-woven by locals from soft rush straw called igusa. It takes 4,000 to 7,000 rush pieces to make one mat. Today, machines produce the tatami mats seen in most homes. The rush comes from southern prefectures such as Hiroshima, Fukuoka, and Kumamoto.
Tatami are thick, cushiony, and surprisingly comfortable to sit or lie on. They also offer excellent back support and can even help with spinal realignment. You can buy tatami floor pillows, tatami futon mattresses, and even tatami platform beds to experience the comfort of traditional Japanese living.
The odor of new tatami is fresh and earthy with notes of grass or hay. Old tatami emit a stronger scent of the rush covering and can have an almost sweet mustiness. Both smells are unique to tatami.
5. It’s a Food
While they’re now commonplace, tatami were once a status symbol enjoyed by nobles and samurai. The oldest existing tatami date back to the 8th century, and were described in ancient texts as foldable woven mats that could be stacked up when not in use.
During the Azuchi-Momoyama and Edo periods, tatami began to make their way into townsfolk homes. Today, tatami are so integral to Japanese culture that rooms are often measured by the number of tatami that would fit inside.
The tatami base (tatami-omote) is traditionally made from a compressed reed called Juncus effusus and can be dyed or left natural. The type of weaving string used to bind the reeds determines how strong the surface will be, with double hemp strings being the strongest.
You can find tatami throughout Japan, but for the full experience head to a traditional “ryokan” inn in Tokyo. Cyashitsu Ryokan Asakusa is one such hotel where guests can enjoy tatami seating while dining and sleeping in a Japanese-style room. Check out the website for reservations. You can also find tatami-style dining tables at Ichika Sushi House in Brisbane, or Berkeley’s Ippuku.