Tatami Two

In the first anteroom at Fukushoji temple, the edging ribbons are plain.
Position, status, respect
My Mother-in-law lived in a first floor flat.  From the sitting-room window there were stunning views over the surrounding, spacious well kept gardens, which included some majestic mature trees.

In the sitting-room she usually occupied an easy chair to the right of the fireplace with the generous garden views behind her.  Living here on her own her position close to the fire with its direct view of the television to the left of the fireplace was right and proper.  She was, after all, the Mistress of the household.  Her position in the room expressed her status and was seldom challenged.

On occasions, however, it was relinquished without even a hint of unwillingness.  When my parents came to visit one day, my Mother was shown to that seat of “honour” in a gesture of respect, one woman to another.  My Farther sat happily on a chair some distance away from the fire while I and my wife occupied the sofa.

While there are no fireplaces in traditional Japanese farmhouses, there are open hearths.  The side of the hearth away from the open earth floor is where the man who is head of the household sits.

If a house has a decorative alcove called a tokonoma, the position in front of it is kept for the head of the family but more often than not reserved for an honoured guest who sits with their back to the alcovethus respect is shown and status recognised.

The second anteroom has tatami with a simple black and white ribbon but other accessories are quite decorative.  To the right there is a glimpse of the furnishings in a modern main reception room—an easy chair upholstered in velvet and a large antimacassar seem a little dated and out of character to western eyes.  But what was considered correct in the circumstances, however, was followed to the T despite how incongruous it might look.
But what part does tatami play in this manner of behaviour with its well observed and yet largely unwritten rules and customs?  At Fukushoji temple the stage is set for tatami to play its part.

This temple is in Goroku (featured in Rustic is Good 12/07/2017).  In a space away from the main worship hall, there is a sequence of connected spaces that form a suite of rooms with a theatrical air.

Although the step up here is small, it nevertheless serves to emphasise the importance of the main reception area with a fancy, multicoloured edging ribbon contrasting with the simplicity of the ribbon in the second anteroom.

The tatami mats in the first of this sequence of three spaces are plain but do have dull brownish-red, plain sewn ribbon edgings or heri.

The edgings are a good deal more decorative but simple in the next space.  Finally there is a decorating extravaganza of colour and pattern to be found in the last space, which is in fact one step up from the previous two.

The colour of the walls alone are unusual.  The slightly recessed area to the left of the alcove is a remnant of a place where someone would sit and write.  To the left of the cushion is a traditional padded armrest, or hijikake.  To the right is a grand hibachi in which charcoal bricks would smoulder to provide some warmth mainly to the hands.  Under the cushion the simple black and white patterned ribbon frames yet another level of isolation for an honoured individual in this main reception room.  This follows an ancient tradition.

In the eighth-century mats were positioned as needed on the wooden floors of palatial residences, either for sitting or sleeping on.  Such a luxury was only afforded the royal or noble.  It was not until much later that large areas were completely covered with thick tatami mats.

At Fukushoji we are seeing an enactment of customs and traditions that have been honed and refined over the centuries.  They will surely be recognised by anyone as a mark of respect and a sign of status.

Tatami Anecdotes
After some time, the igusa reed topping of a tatami mat becomes the colour of pale straw as it is exposed to the light.  It is possible, however, for it to be turned to reveal a pale green colour close to when it was first attached to the body of the mat.  Some of the wonderful aroma of this reed remains to be enjoyed until it is time to renew the igusa.

In the past it was not uncommon for tatami mats to be stood outside in the sun during the far less humid months to be thoroughly dried.

At the Nakamura residence on Okinawa, the surrounding walls of dressed and carefully assembled limestone provide protection and privacy.  Also, the two steps up here help to develop a sense of status as well as perhaps providing an escape route for torrential typhoon rains.

Okinawa is the largest of the Ryukyu Islands in the extreme south-west of the archipelago.  Typhoons regularly make land-fall here, occasionally with an amazing result.

A local resident told me that her grandfather was in hospital once when a strong typhoon swept in.  After it had passed, she thought she had better check that nothing disastrous had happened to his home in his absence.

Traditional buildings on the Ryukyu Islands are surrounded by walls of dressed limestone (coral reef) to protect them from typhoon winds.  The walls also afford residences some privacy as the screens of a dwelling are often left open to provide a breath of fresh air to ventilate the interior, especially during the summer months in this sub-tropical region.

Shutters to keep the wind and rain out of the house had been closed before the arrival of the typhoon, so she was pretty confident that all would be well.  Nevertheless, she felt it would be better to take a look.  After an initial inspection of the perimeter of the building, she opened the front door and walked into the main reception room.  To her great surprise most of the tatami mats were standing on end like giant domino pieces.  Somehow the wind had vaulted the surrounding walls of the compound, had snuck under the raised floor of the building and pushed up the tatami mats from below.  Fortunately, this was the only irregularity.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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FunaAsobi Gallery—Exhibition Notice, September/October 2017

An Encounter with Beauty—Part Two
The Makers, their Work
Open from 10am to 5pm from Friday 29th September to Sunday 22nd October.
(The Gallery will be closed between 10th and 12th October)

In the second half of this exhibition, we are bringing together work by makers in their 50s and 60s with the aim of expressing something of the weighty significance of crafts in Japan.  We are seeking to create a palpable sense of beauty with the combinations and arrangements of the work on display.

9/29(金)~10/22(日)10001700 (10/1010/12休廊)



Tatami ONE

Sojiji Butsuden tatami
In light and shade
I had already tried the Net but with no luck, so I turned to one of my specialist dictionaries to look up a word.  As a dictionary on architectural terms in Japanese, it deals with many traditional building techniques that are now not in common use.  As a consequence it is a hefty tome, which, although I would never use it as one, it could easily function as a door stop.

Having done a great deal of translation from Japanese into English, I have often been fortunate enough to not only find terms I was searching for in this encyclopaedic volume but I have also found other terms of great interest to me either on the same or an adjacent page. Sometimes it is an interesting illustration which has caught my eye.

That was the case with tatsu-akari (縦明り).  It is a term used by those who make tatami mats and refers to the way that light either emphasises the weave of the mat or renders it almost invisible.

As soon as I read the item I remembered a photograph I took of tatami mats in the Butsuden (main hall) of Sojiji temple in Monzen on the Noto peninsula, not far from Route 249 running between Wajima and Kanazawa.

While mats in the centre looked almost like silver, the others arranged at ninety-degrees to them appeared darker.  This was because of the way that the raised weave of the mat was casting a shadow.  It was this play of light on the mats that prompted me to take the photograph.

Although the centrally placed mats made a walkway, the others were arranged to accommodate two people per mat kneeling to receive a blessing or because they were taking part in a service facing the statue of the Buddha.

Top row from the left:  3 mat auspicious, 3 mat inauspicious, 4.5 mats auspicious, 4.5 mat tearoom in winter, 4.5 mat tearoom in summer
Bottom row from the left:  8 mat auspicious, 8 mat inauspicious, 6 mat auspicious, 6 mat inauspicious
Compilation of Japanese Interior Fittings, Gakugei Publishing
In fact tatami mats can be laid out in auspicious and inauspicious arrangements.   While a wedding or other celebration might be recognised by a more complicated alternating arrangement of mats, an inauspicious arrangement would be used for a funeral.  This would be a far less decorative arrangement in which mats are laid out in regular lines.  That at least is the theory, although in all my time living in Japan I never saw anything other that an “auspicious” arrangement in dwellings of all kinds and any “inauspicious” arrangement was in a temple or where a particular function demanded a regular alignment.

The size of rooms in Japan is traditionally expressed by how many mats there are—four and a half, six, eight etc.—and each mat is about 1,800 mm x 900 mm (about 6ft x 3ft) but there are regional differences.  Nowadays there is also a smaller modern tatami mat made for apartment blocks—although the number of mats may be the same the actual area is smaller.  The substrate is a thinner synthetic material, which produces a harder feel when walked on.

Interior of the pavilion in Ritsurien Garden, Takamatsu, Shikoku.  Auspicious or “regular” arrangement of mats.  However, because of the mixed direction of the lighting, looking along the very shallow, crisp “valleys” makes them appear dark.  At Sojiji similarly orientated mats glow with a silvery light.
Tatami mats have three main components.  The substrate is packed and stitched rice straw.  It is about 50 mm (about 2 ins ) thick and covered by a relatively thin mat of a soft reed called igusa (Juncus effusus var. decipiens).  It is woven over warp and weft strings and it is this which produces lines of soft, regular “hills” and very shallow, crisp “valleys” running the full length of the mat, with the reed itself laid across its width.  Finally, a cloth ribbon is fixed over the long side of the mat.

Although there are foreign imports, igusa is still grown in Japan. Yatsushio in Kyushu is the countries biggest producer.  The soil conditions and climate there are ideal.  Some 500 years ago the growing of igusa was promoted by the local ruling samurai, Iwasaki Tadahisa, who realised that the marshy land in particular suited the production of this soft reed.

Igusa reeds growing in Kyushu near Mt. Ichifusa.  This was a chance encounter photographed on my first visit to Japan in 1974.
It is grown through netting, which is raised as the reed lengthens, thus supporting  it and keeping it straighter.  In July when it reaches about 1,300 mm (about 4ft.), it is harvested, throughly washed and processed using, of all things, a fine mud, which helps to remove the moisture from the core of the reed when it is dried and ensures that it keeps its distinctive pale green colour.

Everybody has their own idea of luxury.  One of mine is walking on new tatami matting with its slight softness underfoot, its tasteful colour and especially its aroma.  Once experienced never forgotten.

Tatami Anecdotes
When Katsura Detached Palace on the outskirts of Kyoto was fully restored between 1976 and 1982, new tatami was laid in the rooms.  When finished, the works manager had the screens and rain shutters of the rooms closed for security reasons.  Sadly, when the rooms with their new tatami were next visited there were small crops of fungus growing from the mats.  The warmth, humidity and lack of ventilation were the cause.

Wiping over tatami with a solution of about 15 cc of rice vinegar to 500 cc of water is one way of preventing mould to grow during the hot humid summer months.  It should be a weak solution otherwise the vinegar will damage the reed.

Dictionary of Architecture published by Shokokusha Publishing
Compilation of Japanese Interior Fittings, Gakugei Publishing
The Japanese House, Heinrich Engel, Charles E. Tuttle

NHK for school nhk.or.jp

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

Do feel free to pass on the address of this blog to anyone you think will be interested.  Or share it on a social media site.  Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.   If you have found this blog interesting, why not become a follower.  Thank you.