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[Rediscover Japanese Culture] The Unexpectedly Unknown Depths of Tatami

The famous Tatami is one of the unique items that makes people feel that typical Japanese atmosphere during their stay in Japan. Tatami is, of course, also used in buildings registered as World Heritage Sites and in washitsu (Japanese-style rooms), considered Important Cultural Properties. This article will showcase the difference in tatami size between the Kansai and Kanto areas and list some recommended locations. The secrets of tatami that even Japanese people do not know and the etiquette regarding tatami that you should know beforehand will also be explained.

What Is Tatami? What Is Its Function?

When visiting Japan, the best place where you can stretch your legs out and relax your body is in a washitsu, furnished with low tables and chairs. In these rooms, one key feature that constantly comes into contact with your skin and lets you feel at peace is the tatami.
It is said that the tatami mats that can be found in Japanese houses and inns nowadays was originally a high-class item used by aristocrats between the year 800 and 1200.
Compared to the past, the number of Japanese houses furnished with beds, wooden floors and western-style furniture has increased. However, thanks to the relaxing effect that the material used to make tatami has, lately tatami is starting to see more use again as people try to bring back the ideals of "Japanese-style comfort".

Let's Look at the Advantages of Tatami

・Naturally Relax Your Body and Mind.
The primary material used in most tatami is soft rush straw. It is a very durable natural material with strong vegetable fibers. In addition, it is said that its aroma has a calming and stabilizing effect for the mind.
The main characteristic of tatami, compared to stone materials, is its soft and gentle texture. For that reason, the stems of soft rush are also sometimes used for pillows.

・Comfortably Dry Even in a Humid Island Country Like Japan.
Tatami are very useful in Japan, with its humid and hot summer. The natural soft rush straw that is used to make them has layers of air in the spaces between its fibers, which regulate humidity. As a result, one tatami can absorb up to a bottle (500ml) of moisture.

・Cool During Summer, Warm During Winter - Tatami's Insulating Ability.
The layers of air in the soft rush structure can also insulate against the cold in winter. Hats are also made with the same soft rush straw for this very reason. It could be interesting to buy one as a souvenir.

The Many Variations of Tatami

Tatami look all the same in the eyes of tourists visiting Japan, but the design of their edges may vary from one household to the other. Not many Japanese people know this either, but the size of tatami changes depending on the region and location.
In the Kanto area, which includes Tokyo and the Kanagawa Prefecture, a tatami is 1,760mm x 880mm while in the Kansai area, which includes the Osaka Prefecture and Kyoto Prefecture, one tatami is slightly bigger, measuring 1,910mm x 955mm.
It is said that this difference was born when Japan's capital was transferred from the Kansai area, with Kyoto and Osaka as leading cities, to the Kanto area, with Tokyo as the main city. The original size of tatami was the one of the Kansai area, however, after that, the size of tatami was standardized in the Kanto region too, creating this difference.
Nowadays slightly bigger tatami can be observed in the Kansai area, where many historical buildings still remain.

Recommended Tatami Locations You Should Visit in Sightseeing Areas

The different size of tatami in the Kanto and Kansai area also had a considerable influence on how buildings were designed.
It could also be said that by understanding tatami, you can get a sense of the history behind Japanese architectural design. To learn more about tatami and its history it might be a good idea to visit historically relevant buildings or history museums in each region.

Discover Edo's History - Edo-Tokyo Museum (Tokyo)

For the Kanto area there is the Edo-Tokyo Museum, located in Tokyo's Sumida ward. The streets of the Edo period, during which the culture of the Kanto size tatami flourished, can be experienced in this museum. Just by looking at the Edo-Tokyo townscape recreated with models and documents you can get a clear image of the bustling streets and lifestyle during that period, almost as if you were there yourself. Many dioramas that use tatami are also on display. The Japanese Sword Museum, a must for samurai enthusiasts, is in the same area, as is a museum on Katsushika Hokusai, who influenced art all over the world. Plan for the whole day when you visit, so you don't miss out on all the surrounding facilities.

Opening hours: 9:30 am - 5:30 pm (Saturdays 9:30 am - 7:30 pm)
Entry allowed up to 30 minutes before closing time
Closed: Mondays (if the Monday is a national holiday or a substitute national holiday, the museum will be closed on the next day), New Year's
*Opening hours and regular closing days can be subject to change. Please confirm with the museum before your visit.
*A reservation is necessary for groups and organizations. Please contact the museum directly.

Edo-Tokyo Museum

1-4-1 Yokoami, Sumida-ku, Tokyo

The Beauty of Japanese Architecture Is Here - Katsura Imperial Villa (Kyoto)

For the Kansai area there is the Katsura Imperial Villa in the Kyoto prefecture. Said to have received high praise from world-renowned architects as "the model of Japanese architecture", this villa has had a great influence on the subsequent buildings in Japan and holds an important place in Japanese architecture. Since almost every room has tatami flooring, you can look out and admire its beautiful traditional Japanese garden while enjoying the aroma of soft rush. The villa is managed by the Imperial Household Agency, therefore it is necessary to make a reservation to visit it, but it is definitely a location you should visit if you are in Kansai.

It is necessary to make an advanced reservation to visit and the entrance fee is 1,000 JPY for high school students and above. For more information, please refer to the official homepage.

Katsura Imperial Villa

Katsuramisono, Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto

Fundamental Etiquette You Should Know About Washitsu

When visiting a ryokan or having tea in a traditional room, many foreign tourists have doubts about how they should behave. Thinking that there are special rules only for washitsu, they start questioning how they should enter the room, or where to walk.
However, by following the two rules on etiquette explained in this article, you won't have to worry about embarrassing yourself ever again.

First, In a Washitsu, Greetings Should Be Exchanged While Seated

Greetings are very important in the Japanese society, which values courtesy. For example, Japan's national sport, judo, starts with a greeting and ends with another greeting. In the west it is very common to eat meals while sitting on a chair, so naturally greetings are done while standing, however in a washitsu every meal is eaten while sitting on the tatami. For that reason, if the greeting is exchanged while one is standing, one person will end up looking down on the other party which would be considered impolite. In a washitsu with tatami, respect the other party and sit down before greeting them, even if it will probably feel out of place at first.

Second, Try Not to Step On the Edges of Tatami

A line of fabric, called tatamiberi, covers the edges of tatami. Other than strengthening tatami, they also carry the meaning of showing respect. In the past tatamiberi were decorated with patterns which included the family crest and were very much treasured by the members of the family.
Therefore, when walking on a tatami pay your respects to the owner of the building by trying not to step on the tatamiberi, showing respect to the other party. This custom is fading as time passes and many don't know about it, even amongst the Japanese. In addition, in almost every washitsu the tatamiberi is made of silk, which is a very delicate material, so not stepping on it will also protect it from damage.
Remember these two rules and feel the Japanese culture around you while enjoying your stay in Japan.

Let's Enjoy Tatami

Taking proper breaks while sightseeing in Japan is very important, so here are some cafes where you can drink coffee and eat Japanese traditional sweets while also enjoying tatami.

A Healing Spot in the Heart of the City - Kosoan Jiyugaoka

A recommended location in Tokyo is Kosoan, a tea house in Tokyo's Meguro ward in a restored old traditional Japanese house. You can try their delicious Japanese sweets which, combined with the relaxing property of tatami, will make you forget the passage of time.

Menu example: Matcha (includes traditional sweets) 850 JPY / Regular coffee 550 JPY
Opening hours: 11:00 am - 6:30 pm
Closed: Wednesdays

*Opening hours and regular closing days can be subject to change. Please confirm with the shop before your visit.

Tea House Kosoan

1-24-23 Jiyugaoka, Meguro-ku, Tokyo

Full of Japanese Taste - Starbucks Kyoto Nineizaka Yasaka Chaya branch

Coffee is loved all over the world. However, in amongst the many coffee shops in the area there is only one that uses tatami. The Starbucks Kyoto Nineizaka Yasaka Chaya branch is located near the Kiyomizu-dera temple and it is recommended not only for coffee lovers but also for people who love tatami.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that the building that it is housed in is an old traditional Japanese house that is over 100 years old. Enjoy a cup of coffee while experiencing the history of Japan up-close inside the ancient "doma" style room (a room with a compact earth floor).

Menu example: Extra Shot Matcha Cream Frappuccino tall 540 JPY (excl. tax)
Opening hours: 8:00 am - 8:00 pm

*Opening hours and regular closing days can be subject to change. Please confirm with the shop before your visit.

Starbucks Coffee Kyoto Nineizaka Yasaka Chaya branch

349 Masuya-cho, Kodaiji Minamimon-dori Shimogawara Higashi-iru, Masuya-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto

Items Made with Materials Used for Tatami and Perfect as Souvenirs

If you want to bring something back home as a souvenir from Japan, objects made from soft rush, which is used for tatami, are especially recommended. Souvenirs made with soft rush have a nice smell and are very light to carry, so it can be said that they are the perfect souvenirs.

Recommended Soft Rush Souvenirs, the Material Used for Tatami
・summer hats
・lunch mats
・slippers, and more

By understanding tatami, it is possible to see a different side of Japan. This was an introduction to the secrets of tatami that even Japanese people do not know, along with some interesting locations to learn some more about Japan's architecture. There are many other coffee shops where one can feel the Japanese spirit and locations that treasure tatami. Try using the information showcased in this article to plan your own Japan trip, with a special focus on tatami.

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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