TATAMI 101: What’s the deal with those Japanese floor mats?
Tatami is a very traditional floor mat - both symbolic and indispensable - for a Japanese style room called “wa-shitsu.” It is also considered an official cultural item used in such Japanese architecture as temples and tea rooms.
When looking for an apartment in Japan, a real estate consultant might offer you a 2LDK apartment - one with two bed rooms, a living/dining room and kitchen. In most cases in Japan, either of the two rooms is likely to be a wa-shitsu room, complete with a tatami.
A tatami floor mat is generally made of, and plaited with, igusa, or a soft rush plant. The most noticeable feature about this green floor mat, which is easily to tell, is the smell. Igusa has a very particular odor it gives out, especially when fresh and newly installed in a room. I’d say the smell reminds me of a grassy, greenish, or even herbal scent, which I like a lot. Some people, even Japanese, might not be comfortable with the odor, but I’d recommend giving it a try.
A sheet of tatami floor is rectangle shaped, with a 2-to-1 size ratio. What is interesting about the mat, is the size difference depending on the region it comes from. Mats in the Western part of Japan, are called “Kyo-ma” - or Kyoto size. The Kyo-ma tatami mats are slightly bigger than the ones from the East (“Kanto-ma” or Kanto size.) This is because the traditional Japanese measurement unit for length is different between the East and West.
There is another tatami floor mat available, which is actually square shaped, and is relatively smaller in size with shorter plait pitches. This “Ryukyu-tatami”, or the Okinawa-style tatami, is getting popular among young people willing to bring some Japanese tastes into their studio-type rooms.
One of a few rules you should follow regarding a tatami mats, which I reckon even most Japanese do not know very well, is stepping on the edge of the mat. The edge is a special fabric attached along the longer side, and it is considered wrong to step on it. If you have a chance to go in a temple and walk on a tatami, or if you are invited to a tea serving ceremony performed in a wa-shitsu, you should observe how the Japanese behave, and how many of them will actually follow this rule. The result could be somewhat interesting!