Saturday, December 21, 2013

Memories of Japan: Teahouses and Tatami Mats

Craftsmen making tatami mats, circa 1900.
Today is Saturday, December 21, 2013.

I didn't spend much time at all in teahouses in Japan, but I did spend a lot of time in rooms with tatami mat flooring.  As I did research for these posts on the tea ceremony, I came across a lot of designs for tearooms, and I thought it would be a great way to introduce the subject of tatami mats. 

Tatami are woven rush straw mats with a core of rice straw.  Nowadays the core may be composed of compressed wood chip boards or Styrofoam, which is a distressing thought for me, knowing how close to the floor the Japanese live and how toxic compressed wood and Styrofoam are.  The actual size varies by region, but the ratio of the length to the width is exactly 2:1.  The long sides are usually covered with edging (heri) of brocade or plain cloth. 

Tatami in Kyoto and surrounding areas is .955 meters X 1.91 meters.  That's just over 3 feet X 6 feet, about the size of one person.  In Nagoya, the standard size is .91 meters X 1.82 meters, only a little bit smaller.  In Tokyo, they are .88 meters X 1.76 meters.  I definitely noticed the difference in size when I moved from Sakai-city, in Osaka Prefecture to Tokyo.  I heard, while in Japan, that tatami in the olden days used to be even bigger, although I can't imagine they were that much bigger.  Still, it did seem that the tatami mats in some temples were bigger than the ones I had at home.  The thickness varies, as well, with Kyoto tatami at 5.5 cm. and Tokyo at 6.0 cm, which is just over 2 inches.  The Japanese traditional units of measure for tatami mats is ken, and each tatami mat was 1 ken in length and .5 ken in width.  Since ken could also be divided into units called shaku, one mat was 6 shaku in length and 3 shaku wide.  (It's always easier to multiply than divide.)  The shaku standard of measurement, by the way, originated in China.  The shaku was originally the length from the thumb to the middle finger (about 18 cm or 7 in), but its length, and, consequently, the length of the other units, gradually increased, because the length of the unit was related to the level of taxes.  This fact will no doubt not surprise my fiscally conservative friends who are against taxation.


A closeup look at tatami and
the brocade binding
Two tatami mats placed together lengthwise equals a perfect square, called 1 tsubo.  This unit of area is commonly referred to when discussing land values, and farmers still measure the size of their fields in number of tsubo.  One tsubo equals just over 3 square meters, about 35.5 square feet.  The rent for office space in Tokyo is around 24,000 yen ($257) per tsubo.  You can buy land in a fairly upscale neighborhood in Japan for 690,000 yen per square meter.  That's $6699.03 per square meter or three square feet. 

The thing that surprised me about tatami is that they are very heavy.  The weight of one traditional mat with a rice straw core is about 66 pounds! The ones with compressed wood and Styrofoam core are lighter, but the core breaks down quickly.  A well-made tatami mat that is properly taken care of can last 15-20 years, or perhaps 8 years with heavy use.  It is possible to change just the woven covering and save the core when the mats get worn down, as long as the core is rice straw and not compressed wood or styrofoam.

Room sizes in Japan are given in number of tatami mats.  You can have a 2-mat room (square), a 3-mat room (rectangle) , a 4.5 mat room (square), a 6-mat room (recgangle) or an 8-mat room (wider rectangle).  Very few homes have rooms larger than 8 mats.  My 2DK apartment in Osaka had one 4.5-mat room and one 6-mat room, plus a kitchen-dining area and two other small rooms, one for the toilet and one for the bathtub.  The kitchen-dining area was about the same size as the 4.5-mat room, although the flooring was linoleum.  The size of the smallest tearooms in Japan is 2-mats, but the average tearoom is 4.5 mats in area.

Here are some typical room layouts, now that you understand the size of the mats.  For tearooms, the arrangements are highly standardized.  For homes, most people use commonly-accepted arrangements, but any layout is possible.  To fit an odd-shaped room, the mats can be specially cut.


Two-mat tearoom.  The gray part is the tokonoma, or alcove in which a scroll and/or flowers are displayed.  The small square in the corner is the hearth for the charcoal file, which is built into the floor.   Slightly shortened mats are made only for tearooms. The thick black lines are the fabric bindings.


Rare room shape with four mats, with the hearth more toward the center.  In this one the space for a tokonoma is not shown.  This arrangement is now considered "inauspicious," for reasons
given below in the text of the article.

Normal 4.5 mat room shape, but the half-mat is in the center, with the hearth in the center of the room. In homes and apartments, the half-mat is in one corner.


In a tearoom, the way guests are seated is important.  The chief guest sits closest to the tokonoma, where the flower arrangement and hanging scroll are located.  The least important guest enters the room last, sits near the door, and has the responsibility of closing the door once everyone is inside.  Tearooms have a small room off the tatami area called mizuya, or "water room," where the implements for the tea ceremony are kept.  Notice that the tea host has his or her own entrance, and this door is normal size, unlike the guest entry, which is only 36 inches high.  As I mentioned yesterday, you have to crouch to enter the tearoom, and you enter on your hands and knees.  This is to remind everyone that their social rank outside the tearoom has no bearing on what goes on during the ceremony.  Although there is a ranking of guests, it does not necessarily follow that the guest from the highest social class would always be the chief guest at the tea ceremony. 

Here are some layouts for regular homes.  They say tatami can be laid out in any fashion, but there are a few rules to follow in Japan:  1) The corners of four tatami mats should not meet at one point.  2)  There should not be a line that bisects the entire tatami layout either horizontally or vertically. (For some reason, this reminds the Japanese of the custom of committing ritual suicide by disembowlment (hara-kiri, or seppuku).  3) Only one half-size tatami should be used per room.


Normal 4.5 mat layout





6-mat rooms are common.  8 and 12-mat rooms may be
found in larger homes.  10-mat rooms don't seem to be very common.
Rooms larger than 10 mats can only be found in temples and
shrines, or perhaps in castles or the Imperial Palace.

As they say in Japan, "Wives and tatami mats are best when they're new."  I don't know about wives, but new tatami mats are lovely, and I was blessed to be able to live in a place with spanking new mats in Tokyo.  When they're new, they have a slightly greenish tinge to them.  As they age, they turn yellowish or whitish.  There is a particular grass smell that I, personally, have always liked, and that smell never totally goes away.  With my allergies to grass as they are now, I have no idea whether I would be able to live in a tatami room again, but I would love to try.  Tatami floor covering is soft and easy to walk on (in stockinged feet or bare feet, never with shoes), and it doesn't get that cold on winter mornings.  Spills and stains can be treated just like carpet stains. You use a dry cloth to clean up the spill, then a damp cloth to clean up the stain, if any. When cleaning, the key is to rub along the weave, not against it.   You can use a soft broom with natural bristles or a vacuum cleaner, just as long as you sweep along the grain.  This will be different for each mat.

Tatami manufactured in Japan are cleaned and disinfected before use. There is a paper layer that acts as a barrier if there are resident mites in the core. In the old days, and perhaps even nowadays out in the country, Japanese lay their tatami mats out in the sun once a year as the sun's ultraviolet rays help eliminate these mites. Regular vacuuming helps remove mites and dust, just as it does for carpets. 

Whether you buy your mats in Japan or in your own country, be prepared to spend at least US$200 per mat for a new one.  

The word tatami comes from the verb tatamu, meaning to fold or pile up.  Early tatami mats were thin and could be folded up when not in use, and piled in layers.  Floor coverings were not permanent, at first.  During the Heian Period (794 to 1185), floor coverings for the aristocrats were made of wood, and tatami were laid on top of the wood.  In the Kamakura Period (1185–1333), priests and samurai class people used mats for sitting, as well.  By the Muromachi Period (1338–1573), people began to spread tatami over whole rooms, starting with smaller rooms. 

Rooms that were covered completely with mats came to be known as zashiki, (rooms for sitting).  Some of you who are familiar with Zen meditation know the term zazen, meaning sitting Zen.  The arrangement of the mats could still be changed, according to seating arrangements for a particular event, since people were seating in a strict social order.  

Prior to the mid-16th century, nobility and samurai slept on tatami while commoners used straw mats or loose straw for bedding, much as commoners did in Europe.  Lower classes could use mats, but their floors were earthen, rather than wooden.   By the end of the 17th century, most homes had at least one room covered with tatami mats.  It is still common to have only one or two rooms in a home covered with mats.  Rooms with tatami are called nihonma or washitsu, both terms meaning "Japanese style room." 

There are some special rules for moving about in a tatami room. Shoes are never worn on the mats.  Some of you know that slippers are provided when you enter a home, but these slippers are only for the wooden floors, never for tatami.  It's a good rule of thumb to wear shoes that you can slip on and off easily in Japan, and to check your socks carefully to see that there are no holes.   

Chairs are not used in matted rooms, so you have to sit on cushions called zabuton.  If you are visiting, you fold your legs under you and sit back on your heels until invited to sit more comfortably.  Women may move their hips to one side and keep their legs folded back to one side.  Men may sit tailor fashion.  Almost the only furnishing in a matted room is a table.  Some older homes have a table over the hearth area, and you can dangle your legs into the hearth well if you are invited to do so.  (Some Japanese restaurants have this arrangements in their tatami rooms.)  

In Japan it is impolite to step over anything.  Walk around whatever is in your way.  This goes double for tatami rooms, and I'm not sure why, it just does.  (I was called an "animal" for stepping over my 3-year-old nephew's toys that were strewn all over the floor.)

Most rooms with tatami mats have sliding paper doors.  The way to shut the door is to kneel on the mat alongside the door and move it shut quietly with both hands.  Then you can get to your feet and move to any other place in the room. 

In many homes, there is a tokonoma in at least one matted room.  Nothing you find there should ever be touched.  I'll talk more about the tokonoma tomorrow.  

Most rooms with tatami mats also have closets.  The closet generally has one shelf about waist high.  The upper part is to be used for futon bedding and blankets.  The bottom part can be used as you like, and some people put chests of drawers in the bottom section.  There may be some decorative shelving on the walls, but other than that, things are either put into the closet or into a big chest of drawers called a tansu, which is like a free-standing armoire closet, only the shelving is different, origianlly meant for storing folded clothes like kimono.  

Japanese style rooms usually have a type of wall covering called sunakabe  (sandpaper wall).  It is really a type of sandpaper, and always in a neutral shade of brown or beige, but sometimes an off-white with sand sparkles in it.   :-)

The average price of land is 690,000 Yen/sqm.

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