Tatami Three

Ungen ribbon design, probably derived from a continental Asian original.
Borrowing from the ancients
At Fukushoji Temple we find a good example of just how the status of a guest and the spaces they use can be expressed in a number of ways.

First of all there is the progression of three spaces.  The first anteroom is comparatively plain while the second makes a statement with colour and the use of a tatami edging in black and white.  Then there is the slight step up to give, all be it subtly, a sense of a dais for the final space with its tokonoma, the wall colour and the use of two tatami edging ribbons.

The brightly coloured edging with sharp diamonds and blocks of colour adds a delicate yet highly effective hint of brilliance to the main space and helps to set it apart from the other two spaces.

This colourful edging is referred to as a Ungen.  Its style dates back to designs, which were first introduced from the Asian continent following the introduction of Buddhism late in the sixth-century.  Such motifs were initially reserved for use in rooms occupied by the Emperor and Empress, members of the royal family and other important figures at court.  Their use in temples followed and continues to the present day.  There are now many variations of these designs, which are rooted in examples held in the Shosoin store house in Nara.  This repository holds large numbers of very early examples of artefacts, many of which were from overseas, that subsequently influenced art and design in Japan

A Monberi design inspired by the Japanese anemone.
Placed in front of the tokonoma and thus further emphasising the importance of the person who sits there, the black and white Monberi design is again used here on the thin mat placed under the glowing cushion—another layer of importance and status.

Kamon, family crests based on a pine tree motif.  Japanese Design Motifs, Dover Publications, Inc. New York
Many readers will be familiar with Japanese family crests or Kamon.  They display in various degrees of abstraction and abbreviated graphic representation images of everyday objects, geometric forms as well as significant Japanese flora and fauna.

Japanese anemone from my own garden.
Similarly, the Monberi here is a very accomplished piece of design work.  It was most likely based on the Japanese anemone (Anemone hupehensis var.japonica), although no one can be sure because of its ancient origins.  While the petals do not naturally form such an orderly spiky outline, they do provide a hint towards completing this highly stylised and yet cleverly expresses flower, including its stamens, which are rendered as a collection of orderly squares.

While these motifs help to express the status of spaces and indirectly that of the person or persons using them, the ribbons in particular are also just one part of an archive of design and art originating in China and Korea.  It is just another example of how the Japanese have borrowed from the ancients, with care, reverence and respect.

Tatami Anecdotes
The word tatami is the noun form of the verb tatamu meaning to fold.  Originally mats were laid out on wooden floors for people of status to sit or sleep on—sometimes several mats were laid one on top of the other—and then they were folded up and stored when not in use.  The stiff mat combining a rice straw substrate and an igusa reed topping was a subsequent development.  They were used individually for many years before thick tatami mats were laid over an entire floor area—a gradual development extending to the end of the sixteenth-century.  Their use by common folk increased with the popularity of the Tea ceremony and became common during the eighteenth-century.

Even though the use of tatami is far less common today, just like their forebears many Japanese still treat the mats with great respect.  They are, for example, careful not to step on the ribbons edging the mats.  The Japanese seem to have an inbred sense of concern and respect for the mats and the ribbons.

While the use of some patterns was restricted in the past, designs using a family crest or kamon were aloud.

The kamon were similar to the black and white anemone inspired ribbon at Fukushoji temple.  Stepping on a family crest ribbon was considered thoroughly disrespectful to the family and its ancestors.  It would be avoided at all costs and was part of the respectful etiquette of the samurai class and something the merchant class learned from a very early age.

In addition to kamon, designs based on animal and floral subjects were common.  These too deserved respect and not treading on them expressed a compassion and tender heartedness associated with a strict training to show a general sense of sympathy and consideration towards other people as well as for things.

Made using natural materials and dyestuffs meant the ribbons were rather vulnerable—not treading on them therefore was yet another way of expressing compassion.

This “discipline” of respect is handled by the Japanese with such ease it can easily go unnoticed.  This kind of attentiveness, thoughtfulness, manner and considerate attitude can be recognised throughout Japanese life and culture and is clearly something from which we could all learn.

For those of us living in dwellings firmly attached to the ground, it would be inconceivable to think that an attack from an enemy could come from beneath the floor.

An extreme example of a raised floor at the Katsura Detached Palace outside Kyoto.
Because most traditional buildings in Japan had raised floors, however, an attack from below would be one of an assassin’s first options of stealthy attack.

The wooden boards beneath tatami matting were not necessarily close fitting to facilitate good ventilation—this is still common practice, which allows the mats to act as air filters too.

For a would-be assassin under a raised floor, the chinks of light from between the mats above would guide their sword or spear toward their prey—assuming that the target was unaware of the danger lurking below.

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment