what is tatami

6 Things to Know About Tatami Mats

One of the things I like most about Japan are the soft floors. No for real! Tatami mats are great! In Japan, you find them everywhere from traditional temples to even a Starbucks! But that’s only a part of what makes tatami so special. That’s why I’m now showing you 6 things you need to know about tatami mats.

Table of Contents

1. What is Tatami?

what is tatami

Tatami, written 畳 in Japanese, is a type of mat used as a flooring material in traditional Japanese-style rooms. The word tatami comes from the Japanese verb 畳む tatamu, meaning to fold or to pile. Traditionally tatami was only used as seating but today many Japanese people also sleep on them. The mats are made from woven straw and cloth to cover the edges.

2. History of Tatami Mats

traditional japanese tatami mat room

Originally tatami mats were a luxury and weren’t used to cover entire rooms. However, this changed during the Muromachi period where people started using tatami as flooring for some rooms, often tea-ceremony rooms.

Rooms covered in tatami would then be called 座敷 zashiki.

As time passed, tatami became more popular and by the end of the 17th century, even commoners could afford them. As a result, tatami made its way into homes all across Japan.

Today, tatami mats are still a common sight in Japanese homes and restaurants. In fact, most Japanese homes have at least one traditional Japanese-style room called 和室 washitsu.

There’s even a Starbucks in Kyoto which has tatami mats!

3. Tatami Wasn't Always Used to Sleep on

Tatami mats were first used as seating for rich Japanese aristocrats. Japanese people only started to sleep on tatami when the mats became wide-spread and available to almost everybody.

However, people don’t sleep on tatami directly, because the mats aren’t that comfortable on their own. Almost all Japanese people who sleep on tatami use a futon.

4. How Big Is a Tatami Mat?

The size of tatami mats varies from region to region. But here are the three most common tatami sizes in Japan:

  • Kyoto: 0.955 m by 1.91 m, called Kyōma (京間) tatami
  • Nagoya: 0.91 m by 1.82 m, called Ainoma (合の間, lit. “in-between” size) tatami
  • Tokyo: 0.88 m by 1.76 m, called Edoma (江戸間) or Kantōma (関東間) tatami

Source Wikipedia.

There are also half mats called 半畳 hanjō and mats of three-quarter length used mainly in tea rooms.

5. Rules on How to Place Tatami Mats

Japan is all about the rules. They have rules for everything, how you go on a subway, how you greet someone and also how you have to lay out your mats.

There are two ways to lay out the tatami mats. One is called shūgijiki (written syugijiki in the image below) and the other fushūgijiki (written fusyugijiki).

In most modern-day houses you will find the straw mats laid out in shūgijiki. That’s because fushūgijiki is said to bring bad luck.

layout of tatami mats

ignis – 投稿者自身による作品, CC 表示-継承 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1398665による

In square rooms you’ll often find half mats used like in the following picture.

tatami tea room layout

By Bamse – self-made, based on w:Image:Tearoom_layout.jpg by Exploding Boy., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3413756

6. Tatami Etiquette

You probably already know that taking off shoes and then putting on slippers is common practice in Japan. But not when it comes to tatami.

Before stepping on a traditional Japanese straw mat you should take off any footwear except for your socks. Reason being that any hard object put onto tatami can leave marks and that dirt can’t be washed out.

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