Tatami; It’s a Zen thing!
I consider myself blessed these last three years for having had the opportunity to live in a traditional Okinawan style house. There is just something genius about the design that makes a small sized house seem so spacious. It’s kind of a Zen thing to think that they can make something as simple as a small farm house, Spartan in its functionality and yet make it seem so spacious and aesthetically pleasing to the eye. I attribute the functionality and spaciousness to the use of traditional design which incorporates the use of shoji doors for privacy. But open them up and the house is as spacious as can be. I attribute the Aesthetics factor to the covering multiple rooms of the house with Tatami flooring.
Tatami in particular has a wonderful effect on the senses. First of all is the feel. Brush your hand across it in one direction with the grain and its silky smooth. Brush it too hard against the grain and you can get a skin abrasion. It’s firm enough to walk on yet soft enough to sleep on. When speaking of traditional Tatami with the rice straw backing, it’s cool to the touch in summer yet warm in the winter. This is due to the insulation qualities of the backing as well as the ability of the natural fibers to breathe. The natural fibers of traditional Tatami have the ability to wick moisture out of the air which lowers the humidity levels of the house too.
Tatami is also very pleasing to the eyes. When it’s new, it has a light green complexion that will slowly yellow as it gracefully ages. It’s relatively easy to keep clean. All it takes is a simple sweep and damp mop and it’s squeaky clean. Unlike a carpet, there are no worries about having to shampoo it. It’s also much easier to clean up spills and avoid damaging or costly stains. Lastly, Tatami is arranged to patterns in accordance with the principles of Feng Shui which are, not surprisingly, pleasing to the eyes.
Let’s not forget the olfactory senses either. There’s also nothing quite as relaxing as the smell of new Tatami. Of course the “Goza” coverings, the part we all see, smell and love, are made from Rush Grass. Rush grass or “Bi-gu” as its called in the local dialect is very aromatic and retains that fresh cut grass smell for months after its cut. In my humble opinion, there is nothing quite like lying on new Tatami and taking an afternoon nap for total relaxation. When it comes to the aesthetic beauty and pleasing all the senses, as well as practicality, make mine Tatami!
A brief history of Tatami:
Tatami has evolved through the ages so you might be surprised to learn that what you think tatami is maybe it isn’t anymore. It’s believed that Tatami was introduced to Japan during the Muromachi period of the fourteenth century. At a time when lower classes were lucky to have mat-covered dirt floors, tatami was a luxury item reserved for the exclusive use of the aristocracy and the Samurai class.
Tatami gradually grew in popularity and finally reached the homes of wealthy commoners and the merchant class towards the end of the 17th century. By the end of the Meiji period, Tatami floors had become so commonplace that it completely crossed the broad spectrum of Japanese society. By the early Showa era, Tatami floor coverings were perhaps more common than wood flooring in the Japanese home.
The traditional Tatami that most people are familiar with are made of finely woven soft straw coverings made from rush grass galled Goza. This is the part we all see but the business part of the mat, or backing, is traditionally packed with rice straw that is “folded and piled,” which is what Tatami translates to in English, into a firm yet soft mat that is roughly 90cm wide and 180cm long. The goza coverings are attached, literally sewn onto the backing and usually trimmed with attractive cloth borders.
These days, Tatami mats are now incorporating synthetic materials into the mix. Many Tatami shops use backings made from Styrofoam. Both traditional straw and Styrofoam backed mats offer excellent insulation properties. The advantage to using synthetics is now Tatami mats that used to weigh around 30 kilos each, roughly 65 pounds, now weigh only 10 kilos. Also, when measuring Tatami for a particular room the measurements and cuts can be more precise and generally they are less expensive for both the shop owner and the customer. The drawback to this material is polystyrene foam doesn’t breathe the way the traditional straw mats used to.
Just as the materials used to make Tatami have changed through the years, the size and shape of the mats have evolved as well. As I mentioned before, the typical tatami mat is roughly 90cm wide by 180cm long. These measurements are of course approximate. As construction standards have changed through the generations so have the measurements of the typical room. For example, in Japan, room size is usually expressed in the number of Tatami that it would take to cover it. Common sizes are expressed as 4.5, 6 and 8 Tatami. As a result a typical 4.5 Jo sized Tatami room, square shaped, can range from 273cm square to as little as 255cm square or somewhere around eight to nine square feet.
A simple and inexpensive option for anyone in Japan who would like to give a room in their house that Tatami look and feel would be to go to a do-it-yourself store and purchase the pre-sized goza mats and lay it out like a carpet. These are offered in a wide variety of the various “standard” sizes of traditional Japanese rooms. Make sure you measure first before making a purchase. Otherwise you may end up with a mat that is either too large or too small for your room.
Traditional rice straw backed Tatami, when compared to carpeting, has an extremely long service life. Provided it’s not abused, it’s not uncommon for the typical Tatami mat to last at least 80 years. If they’re well cared for, this number can even be doubled. When the mats reach their half life, around 40 years, simply call up your friendly neighborhood Tatami shop and have the backings reconditioned and the mats recovered in new goza and the room will look and feel like its brand new.
The Art of Tatami:
When most people think of business in Japan, images of giant corporations like Toyota, Sony and Panasonic come to mind. Along with that come visions of people in business attire, the daily commute on the overcrowded trains and people working themselves nearly to death. The reality of the situation is that the vast majority of businesses in Japan are small family owned and operated enterprises where the attire is more casual, the commute is sometimes only to the next room and the pace is what you’re willing to make it.
Most Tatami shops throughout Japan are the epitome of this. To get the information we needed to complete this article, we visited a family run Tatami shop in Uruma City. During the three generations the family has been in the tatami business, they can account for over 100 years of work experience. The shop is located on the street right in front of their house and as busy as they were, they took the time to show us what we wanted to know.
I went into this shop with certain assumptions and concerns already in mind. With the trend toward western style houses with wood and composite flooring becoming more common, I thought that the market for Tatami would be on a dangerous downward trend. My assumptions were only half correct. While it’s true that the market is shrinking somewhat there is still more than enough demand to keep a quality minded business in the black.
Without being boastful, it was obvious that they took great pride in their workmanship and reputation. Displayed on the wall of their shop was a local newspaper article about the business as well as photos of some of their handiwork. One photo in particular was from a unique shaped room they did for a preschool in Naha. All of the Tatami for that job were shaped like the pieces of a pie and fitted together very neatly to form a half circle. They kindly demonstrated the manufacturing process for us as well as invited us to come along on an installation job.
Another reason for their lack of concern seemed to stem from the fact that installing Tatami flooring is really not for the do-it-yourselfer. As we mentioned previously, a room that is supposed to be 4.5 Tatami is not universally the same dimensions. Also, perfectionist though they are, sometimes even Japanese carpenters don’t finish a room perfectly square. That is why you want to hire a professional. They will carefully measure the room first, manufacture the mats to the precise dimensions of the room back at the shop and then arrange them so they not only fit perfectly but look aesthetically pleasing too. A true professional always makes the job look easier than it really is. Perhaps that’s why it’s just as much an art as it is a trade.
Goza are comfortable on the outside, Gyoza is comfortable in the inside.
It took me the longest time to learn the difference between Goza and Gyoza. Not the definition but when to say it. As you know from reading this article, Goza are the finely woven rush grass coverings of the Tatami. Gyoza on the other hand are those wonderfully delicious tasting Japanese style fried dumplings. Even after many years in Japan, this tongue tied gaijin can’t count how many times I’ve said one when I meant the other.
Anyway, tradition dictates that Tatami are covered with goza made of rush grass or “Bi-gu” as it is called it in Okinawa. You can probably find Bi-gu grown in a couple of places throughout the island chain but the place best known for it on Okinawa is the Teruma Ward of Uruma City. Located along the coastal plain out on the Kin Bay side of the Katsuren peninsula, Teruma is a tranquil looking farming and residential community. The terrain would seem to make it well suited for the growing of rice as well as the sugar cane you see as you drive along the highway.
But just off the main highway and hidden among the many small farming plots is where you’ll find the Bi-gu growing. It’s is usually harvested between late April and early June. From what we could gather, it appears that it’s a community effort to harvest as well as weave it into goza. Once harvested, its taken to a rather nondescript two-story building located in the residential neighborhood nearby. If someone hadn’t been kind enough to show us, we never would have found it on our own. Inside this building is a loom where we were shown how the bi-gu is fed into either side of it and then woven into the fine goza used at Tatami shops everywhere.
Of course starting this story in late October meant that when we went out to take pictures of the fields, all we saw was the stubble of last year’s crop. But just about anywhere we went throughout the Teruma area we could see plenty of evidence that the tradition is something the people of this community are rightfully proud of.
In my research I’ve learned that Okinawa is much more than its castles and rich history. It’s also much deeper than the traditional dances, food or the many cultural events held throughout the year. More importantly, Okinawa is found in the traditions of the individual local communities. They’re the traditions that weave people together in to a community and make a lasting mark on the people. Just like the tradition of the people of Teruma that goes from the growing of Bi-gu, to weaving of goza to make tatami, it’s something to be proud of and hold on to.
We’d like to extend our special thanks to the Taba Family Tatami Shop in Uruma City for all the help they provided in making this article come to life. Thank you for allowing us to interrupt your busy day answering our many questions and letting us take photographs while you worked. We would also like to say thank you to the friendly folks at the Hanashiro market in the Teruma Ward of Uruma City for showing us the Goza Looms and Bi-gu fields. Lastly, we also add our heart felt thank you to all the people of Teruma for keeping this wonderful tradition alive and well. Everyone we met was so very helpful and courteous. You all displayed the kindness of spirit that makes Okinawan hospitality legendary!