Saturday 21 May 2022

To Die for: Japanese Tatami Straw Mats

Near the end of the latest James Bond film, No Time to Die, 007 confronts the villain in a Japanese-style room (washitsu =和室). The first thing I noticed was that Rami Mallek was sitting in traditional seiza style (kneeling while sitting on the heels), a rather uncomfortable posture common at the tea ceremony and posh restaurants that guarantees cramps and pins and needles after any length of time (this page refers to it as "the foreigner's nightmare"!). The rest of the world though seemed to focus on the tatami flooring, Japanese straw mats which it turns out were made by a small three-man shop, Morita Tatami, in Tokyo. Orders apparently poured in after the film was released. 

So what is tatami? Japanese language learners may recognise the verb tatamu (to fold) reflecting the fact that tatami was originally a thin mat that could be folded up after use. Modern tatami though is much thicker (typically 3-5cm), the standard size being a 180cm by 90cm rectangle. The base or "core" is usually rice straw or (more cheaply) woodchip/fibreboard. This is covered with rather lovely smelling rushes (specifically igusa soft/common rushes =い草)or Japanese paper. The long-sides are usually edged with brocade or cloth as in the picture. Morita Tatami has a informative page in English with a figure explaining the different choices and sizes available (sizes and thicknesses differ regionally - Okinawa, for example, has square tatami!). Many houses in Japan have at least one washitsu Japanese-style room, which is typically used for (formally) receiving guests and may also host the Butsudan (Buddhist household altar) if they have one. Note to visitors: always remove slippers when entering a tatami room!

Most neighbourhoods boast a small tatami artisan workshop, like Morita Tatami, with machines such as those in the picture for crafting tatami. They typically do a brisk trade, since tatami don't age well and fraying tatami is a very bad look (scattering small pieces of straw all over the house!). If you visit a traditional Japanese-style inn (ryokan=旅館) your room will often be a Japanese one with futons in the closet to be brought out at night when you are ready to sleep and then put away in the morning. At home, this custom is not only an excellent way to save space but also encourages you to air bedding regularly. Moreover, sleeping on firm tatami in a futon directly on the floor is much better for your back (alignment of the spine); furthermore, sleeping near the ground is cooler since you are near the airflow, especially important during the hot Japanese summer. Personally speaking, I'm now so used to sleeping on a futon that I tend to find western style mattresses much too soft! Incidentally, tatami is not limited to flooring - tatami slippers, bags, dinner mats, and other accessories are also available!

Despite Japanese-style tatami rooms becoming less common in new houses, real estate plans in Japan still give room sizes - regardless of whether the room is western or Japanese-style - in terms of tatami size! For example, the picture shows an ad for a 3LDK house, meaning 3 bedrooms (in this case one Japanese and two western-style rooms) plus an all-in-one Living Dining Kitchen space (=LDK). While it is unsurprising to see the Japanese-style room (middle-right) described as 6 (帖) meaning 6 tatami mats (roughly 10㎡), it is more surprising to see the two western-style rooms at the top also given in tatami terms ("about" 4.5 for the one on the left and "about" 6.3 for the one on the right). Even the LDK is described in such terms - in this case "about" 16.6 ! Japanese seem to find it much easier to visualise room sizes when described in such terms; indeed, when buying an air-conditioner or such, they are usually recommended for rooms of a certain . Mysteriously though, overall house size is always given in square metres, in this case a rather tiny 75.99㎡ - probably about the same size as the room Bond met his nemesis! Looking forward to hearing your thoughts in the COMMENTS section.

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