One of the things I always remind people when coming to Japan is to wear comfortable shoes. Because you’ll take them off. A lot.
Why? Well, one of the main reasons for this is the proliferation of tatami mats as flooring in this country. And one simply doesn’t wear shoes on tatami mats. (Those things can be a chore to clean, let me tell you.)
So what are tatami mats? They are simply mats made out of tightly woven rushes called igusa. The word is thought to have come from the Japanese verb tatamu, meaning “to fold”. Tatami mats were first mentioned in the Record of Ancient Matters, Japan’s oldest book dating from 712 AD. So we know tatami mats have been in use since at least the 7th or 8th century. In later eras, like the Edo Period (1603-1868), different cloth borders on the tatami mats marked where citizens of different ranks would kneel. The Imperial family’s tatami mats, for example, were edged with silk.
Today, many homes still boast at least one tatami room. Even in our apartment complex (dating from the 1980s, I think), there is a sizable tatami room just behind our living room. (It makes a great play area for our 3-year-old.) Regardless of the fact that our floors are hardwood, our apartment is still measured in tatami. When we went apartment hunting two years ago, we were always shown the floor plan of each place we looked at and the size of the rooms was always listed as 8 tatami, 10 tatami, 6 tatami, etc. You can even have half mat sizes.
There are alleged benefits to having tatami mats in your house. The igusa supposedly absorbs carbon dioxide from the air, thus purifying a room. It also absorbs moisture in high humidity and works to keep a room cool. I can’t tell you if I find that terribly effective or not but if I can stand not using my AC this summer, I’ll give it a whirl. The rushes are also soaked and caked in mud immediately after harvest. This prevents the grass from changing color, though we have found that either deprivation of natural light or constant pressure will negate this. We have an alphabet playmat sitting on half of our tatami mats in our daughter’s playroom and boy, is it ever NOT the same color under there as the exposed rushes! But that’s ok – in olden days, tatami mats where one thing you picked up and took with you if you moved. In today’s world, they are nearly always replaced when the next tenant moves in.