Tatami mats were once considered a luxury item in Japanese households. More recently, they have become popular additions to both Japanese and Western homes thanks to their roots in Japanese tradition, and practical advantages they bring to a living space.
In Japanese culture, the tradition of sitting and sleeping on the floor dates back to ancient times. The formal version of floor-sitting is known as seiza (正座), which is a type of cross-legged sitting posture intended to convey respect. In modern times, seiza is still practiced occasionally in formal settings, such as Japanese tea ceremonies and other rituals. Sitting on the floor during more casual activities, such as dining, is also still widely practiced in Japanese homes. Oftentimes zabuton floor pillows are used as seating to provide additional support while sitting on the floor.
Historically, tatami mats were initially used exclusively for sleeping, but eventually were adapted for use in all spaces in the home as a way to add comfort during seated activities. Traditional Japanese bedrooms will often feature tatami flooring to serve as a slightly flexible underlayment for a shikibuton mattress. LongevityLive.com explains this well in their article "Benefits of Sleeping on the Floor: Unveiling the Japanese Secret to Health".
What are Tatami Mats Made of?
As outlined by TsunaguJapan.com in their article "13 Facts You Didn't Know About Tatami", Tatami mats consist of three distinct parts: two outer layers of dried Japanese rush grass sandwich a baked dried rice straw filling in the middle. The entire mat is then bound together by black cloth that is wrapped around the edges and bound with twine.
The surface of the mat is known as the tatami-omote. It is made from dried Japanese rush grass, or rice straw that is woven together. Hemp or cotton yarn is used to keep the rush from separating.
Tatami-doko refers to the inside or filling of the mat. Traditionally, this was made of compressed rice straw but in some modern mats, this has been replaced by wood chips or polystyrene foam.
Tatami-fuchi is the cloth that is wrapped around the edges of the tatami mat. This cloth holds the layers of the mat together and covers the woven ends of the rush. Learn more about tatami mat materials in our blog: "What's in a Tatami Mat?"
Sleeping on a Tatami Mat
Tatami mats are made from natural materials that provide adequate yet firm padding and comfort to sleep on. In Japan, many people choose to sleep directly on tatami mats simply placed on the floor. The helpful guide "Buying a Tatami Mat: The Guide on Purchasing Your First Tatami Mat" by BedLyft.com provides insight on how tatami flooring provides comfort for sleeping, sitting, and walking.
Sleeping on a tatami mat on the floor could help reduce back pain and realign your body’s natural posture. While a tatami mat placed on the floor provides for plenty of padding for a good night’s rest, it is firm enough not to mold around your body. This helps to keep your spine aligned - unlike the plush mattresses often sold in the US. Similarly, a buckwheat hull pillow helps your spine hold its natural curvature while you sleep by offering a firm, breathable, and comfortable pillow surface.
Because your body is now in a more natural position, you will get better rest from a firm sleep surface - no more tossing and turning to get comfortable. Yes, it might feel a bit odd at first, but that is just because your body isn’t used to it – even if this is a more natural position for you to sleep in. Sleeping on a tatami mat, like a buckwheat hull pillow, allows your body heat to escape so that you don’t overheat, allowing you a peaceful night’s sleep.
If sleeping on the floor is not your thing, a tatami mat is the perfect base for a Japanese futon mattress (shikibuton/ shikifuton). At J-Life, we refer to this bedding set (tatami and shikifuton) combined with the kakefuton duvet, Japanese style pillows, and custom covers as the Japanese Sleep System. Visit our blog to learn more about customizing your very own sleep system here.
How to Clean Your Tatami Mat
Tatami mats don’t like humidity and moisture, as they can cause the natural rush grass to become moldy. As outlined by LiveJapan.com in their article "All About Tatami – Japan’s Traditional Straw Mats" You can use a dry cloth or mop to clean your tatami mat. Use strokes that follow the grain of the rush (instead of moving across them) to avoid bending the rush grass and potentially breaking and pulling it out from the threads that binds the grass together. For a more thorough breakdown of proper tatami mat care, please see our Tatami Mat Care Guide.
Tatami mats are made from natural material that are both friendly to you and the environment. They are comfortable and cool to sleep on and help you get a good night’s rest, while also offering a comfort and versatility in the home.