When I think of a Japanese house, I think of tatami. Tatami are traditional rush mats that cover the floors of most Japanese ‘living spaces.’ While modern materials are replacing the mats, they are still found in many Japanese homes and hotels.
Unlike rugs, carpet, and other flooring aside from wood, tatami, was a type of flooring that could at once be made locally and also be used replaceable in the event of fire or natural disaster.
Where and Why
The most common place to find a room of tatami are sleeping quarters. The traditional Japanese sleeping place is on a futon, and they are usually placed on tatami. Tatami mats are also used in multi-purpose rooms. Since space is often at a premium in Japan, many families sleep the same place they do other things, such as eat or welcome guests. It is not uncommon for people to sit on the mats, sometimes with a cushion, while eating. The tatami’s design provides a more comfortable support than hardwood.
Tatami come in many shapes and sizes depending on the room. The most common arrangement is a room of 6 or 8 mats fit in a space so that they are bordered by a few centimeters of wood, but that the top of the mats are level with the border. They are also sometimes stored separately, and then brought in to a space when a sleeping place is needed, though this is less common. Many Japanese schools have tatami rooms for their teachers to relax in, or catch a quick nap after school.
What is Tatami
Tatami are usually rectangles of wood (or dense Styrofoam) covered by minimal padding. That padding is then covered by groups of rush stalks tied in place to form a thin layer above the padding. The rush is dyed in clay mud to give it its characteristic tan color. Tatami mats usually have a fabric border running the long sides, while the short ends remain open. These boarders often have artistic embellishments.
Unlike other flooring, Tatami is not a DIY project. Where the adventurous might install carpet, tile, or even their own wood flooring, it takes an expert to install tatami. Tatami last for a long time; this is mainly because shoes are never worn on it. Shoes and heavy furniture destroy tatami. Even in houses where slippers are used, these house slippers are removed before going on the tatami. With proper care, a set of tatami can easily be used for 10-20 years.
Tatami are usually cleaned with vacuum and occasional wipe with damp cloth, though it is important they be well dried to ensure mold does not take hold in humid environments. When it is time to change the tatami, a specialist will come to measure the space, size, and number of mats. Only after the measure can they order, or check their stock to ensure the right sizes are installed. Since every room and building is slightly different, each tatami is also unique, and over the years different standards have developed. When new tatami arrive, the old are removed and thrown out.
Under the tatami are usually thin boards supported by a frame of wood that keeps the floor about ten inches off the ground. This raised flooring is common in Japanese Houses.
New tatami are usually a darker color than they will eventually become. My new mats were almost greenish, but after a few weeks became the usual tan. New mats need to be cleaned (wiped with damp cloth) several times until all the dirt is washed off to prevent mold. They are stained in mud, so it can take a few tries.
More Things Tatami
Rolling chairs will rip the ties that keep the rush down on the mat, destroying the mats. Heavy furniture will also leave permanent marks in the mats. This is perhaps the reason that many Japanese houses leave tatami rooms open and free of furniture. Tables and cushions, futons, and other items are stored in built-in closets that provide storage space without having to be on the mats themselves. The furniture can be used, then replaced without permanent damage. Mats and other devices can be used when space is truly limited to protect the tatami. The mats are not cheap, costing in the thousands of dollars per room.
Softer than tile, firmer and easier to maintain than carpet, tatami are a very functional Japanese flooring.