Step into the Washitsu: A Traditional Japanese Room
Japanese have traditionally lived in a “washitsu” lined with tatami mats on the floors. As the Japanese style of living became more westernized we started to see a decrease of these traditional Japanese rooms. We have been seeing a reverse in the trend in the last couple of years. There are now an increasing number of Japanese who say they want at least one traditional washitsu room in their western-style house, or those that say that the washitsu makes the atmosphere feel more like a home. As we see less of the washitsu in the city there are some, even among Japanese, who think that if a room has tatami then it is a washitsu. Of course, it’s not wrong to think that the washitsu has tatami, but there is actually more to a washitsu than just tatami.
The history of the washitsu is indeed very interesting. The standard type of washitsu that we see nowadays is said to have been based on the residence of monks and the wealthy families of the Muromachi Period (1336 to 1573). It is said that a person who has really studied the washitsu can tell the social status of the family by examining the different parts that make up the room. In this article, we will give a brief overview of the different parts that make up the washitsu!
Tatami (Floor Mats)
The tatami is a mat made of a natural material called igusa (rush). I am sure many of you have seen it in ryokan-style hotels and ozashiki-style restaurants. The tatami which has long been used in Japanese residences absorb moisture when it’s humid, especially during the rainy season and it releases moisture in the air during the dry winter seasons. It helps to regulate the level of moisture in a room so it’s practical and functional. In modern housing, a room with tatami floors cuts the noise in half compared to hardwood floors. So for those who live in multi-storey buildings and don’t want to disturb their neighbors living below with noise from their loud footsteps, tatami may be the preferable flooring option.
FYI, 1 unit of tatami is called 1 Jyo. The size is 1.8 m x 0.9m, which is about 1.62 square meters in size. When you are looking for housing, sometimes the size of a room is described as xx Jyo (i.e. the size of xx tatami mats). This should be a helpful piece of information if you are every looking for housing in Japan!
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Because tatami is made from natural material, a few years of use can lead to wear and tear. When that happens that tatami is flipped over, or replaced with new tatami. When you walk into a room with new tatami, you will know right away. It smells of fresh grass so it’s really refreshing!
Toko no Ma (Alcove)
Toko no ma is a space where artwork and sculptures are displayed. The toko no ma is typically set up in the best room to entertain guests. It can be used to display seasonal flowers that the customers would enjoy viewing.
It is a window-style decoration that is located between the veranda and the toko no ma. In the old days, it also served the purpose of a built-in desk where people could read.
Chigaidana (Staggered Shelves)
This is one element that is built in the guest room. It was originally a movable bookshelf, but in the late Muromachi period, it became more common to build alongside the toko no ma to use as additional display space. It is often thought of as a set with the toko no ma, so this may be even more of a rarity in modern housing, but you would see it if you ever get to visit a traditional house.
Hikido and Shikii (Sliding Doors and Threshold)
The shikii are the wooden rails that serve as a divide between the rooms. In a washitsu, the door is not a type of door the swings open on hinges, but rather a sliding type of door is used. The shikii indicated the part that is the doorsill.
FYI, I want to share an important tip on manners in Japan. If you are visiting someone’s house, you cannot step on the shikii. The same goes for the edges of the tatami. There are several reasons for this.
First of all, a shikii is thought of as a representation of the “family” itself. There are expressions like “shikii of matagu” (step over the shikii/enter into someone’s territory), or “shikii ga takai” (there is a high shikii/something that cannot be easily approached). Both originate from referring to the shikii as a symbol of the family. Sometimes, family crests are embroidered on the edges of the tatami too. Therefore, to step on them with your feet symbolizes that you are stepping on and being disrespectful to the family.
Additionally, Japanese value the sense of “space”. Shikii represents a divide between the outer world and the home, the room and the hallway. The edge of the tatami also symbolizes a line that differentiates the master of the house and the guests. Thus to step on this line symbolizes breaking down boundaries.
There are also very practical reasons. When people continue to step on the shikii, it can be worn leading to rattling sliding doors. In some cases, it can even warp the structure of the house itself. Stepping on the edge of the tatami can add to wear. Tatami mats are actually quite expensive and usually, the more high quality they are, the more delicate the materials that are used. In order to show respect for the family and the house itself, we avoid stepping on the shikii and the edge of the tatami.
There really is much more meaning behind each element of the washitsu. As with many works of art, it is not easy to determine real value of the washitsu even for someone who has been studying it for a long time…but I hope this article and tips we’ve introduced in this article help you learn how the washitsu is very closely connected with other Japanese traditions and the Japanese way of living!