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

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