Explorations in Japanese Culture
Staying warm in the winter is a never ending battle. In Japan, where central heating is not commonplace, many different methods for staying warm are popular, but none are as comforting or inviting as the kotatsu. This familiar symbol of a Japanese winter serves as the centerpiece to everyday life during the colder months.
Most Japanese houses, traditional style homes especially, are not insulated to the same level of western homes and do not have central heating and air. The kotatsu provides a simple way to stay warm in the winter while still providing a functional space to live and work. The kotatsu is made of three simple parts, the top, the quilt and the table frame. The table frame is low and designed to be used while sitting on the floor. The table frame has a heating source attached to its underside and a thick quilt is draped over the top of the table with a top piece placed over the quilt to secure it. The quilt can be decorative and sometimes matches the home decor. This heated table has been around since the Muromachi period (14th century), but has not changed very much from its original design.
The kotatsu has it beginnings in the irori, a cooking hearth placed in the middle of many Japanese homes during the Muromachi period (14th century). Charcoal was used to both cook with and heat the home. When not used for cooking, Japanese families would place a wooden frame over the irori and drape a quilt over the frame in oder to trap the heat in and create a warm place to gather around. However, with during the Edo period (17th Century) the irori was changed. The floor around the irori was dug out in a square shape, which allowed the placement of a wooden framework to create a hearth. A movable version of the kotatsu was made by filling a pot with warm coals and placing it underneath the frame and quilt. This came about with the advent of tatami matting and was known as okigotatsu. With the 20th century came electricity and the ability to attach the heater directly to the bottom of the kotatsu, making it even more portable. This gave birth to the kotatsu that is common in Japan today.
A kotatsu serves as a place for everyone in the family to come and warm themselves while they talk, play games or watch TV. Sharing a kotatsu, like sharing a blanket, strengthens the bonds between people. When people sit underneath a Kotatsu, their legs and feet touch and one cannot help, but be aware of others presence. Many Japanese will recount cold winter days spent under the kotatsu where the family cat sought refuge or a warm nap was had. Without a doubt, the Kotatsu is an eternal symbol of winter in Japan.