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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