Tatami is the traditional flooring found in many Japanese homes, restaurants and ryokan. A compressed wood chip board or polystyrene foam tile is covered in a soft rush straw to form the tatami mat and the size of these mats is dependent on the region – in Tokyo standard tatami mats are 0.88 m by 1.76 m. That’s why, when you are looking to buy or rent a house in Japan, rooms are always described by the number of tatami mats you can lay out on the floor.
The word tatami can be first found in English in the diary of Richard Cocks, head of the British East India Company until it’s closure in 1622. In his diaries, published in 1883 under the title Diary of Richard Cocks, Cape Merchant in the English Factor In Japan, 1615 -1622, he describes Japanese society and culture and the activities of the British merchants. For his entry on January 23, 1616, Cocks recorded a list of expenses which includes “20 tatami for Matingas howse”.
Tatami mats have been common in Japanese homes since the end of the seventeenth century, but these days western style wood laminate flooring has grown in popularity and often houses and apartments will only have one or two rooms covered with tatami mats. The traditional tatami room is known as a washitsu or “Japanese room” and is usually very simplistic in terms of its decor.
There is something really comforting about the smell of tatami – an aroma that if you were to experience anywhere else than in Japan, it would send memories of the countries flooding back to you. It’s like freshly cut grass on a summer’s day. Despite straw being its main material, it feels relatively soft and it’s natural yellow hue brings warmth to any room – a very Asian kind of coziness. It’s definitely worth staying in a traditional ryokan in Japan to experience a tatami room, but just be sure to remove your slippers – shoes are a definite no no in any Japanese home, but even slippers are forbidden on the much-loved tatami.