For three generations, the Morita family has been wrapping, stitching and trimming modular blocks of woven grass, known as tatami, in Tokyo’s old downtown. But now, beset by cheap knockoffs and changing lifestyles, the craftsmen have been forced to up their game.
Besides traditional grass and straw mats, they now offer low-maintenance synthetic options.
And they’ve been forced to seek customers far from home, like supplying a soft runway for a Paris fashion show …
… or furnishing the mats for a Bond villain’s minimalist lair…
Artisan Takashi Morita, who supplied the flooring, said he was taken aback: “When James Bond prostrates himself so low his head touches the tatami, that was a little shocking,” he told correspondent Lucy Craft.
Shocking, because in Japan, tatami is synonymous with shoes-off relaxation, particularly at country inns like the Okasen.
Owner Takako Ota said tatami’s distinct fragrance is part of the allure: “Tatami has the same soothing effect as herbs, like rosemary,” she said. “The aroma helps relieve stress.”
Tatami epitomizes the sustainable lifestyle of old Japan, where almost nothing went to waste. Even today, worn-out tatami can be chopped up and used for compost.
Japan-based architect Azby Brown said the gold-colored floor mats are perfectly suited for human habitation: “It reminds me of a freshly-mowed lawn,” he said. “It feels like being outdoors. It really makes you feel like it’s alive.”
Once a luxury allowed only to emperors and aristocrats, tatami went mainstream around the 17th century, enabling a family to live well even in just a single room. Said Brown, “It makes the entire room into kind of a big bed, a place for reclining, a big, cushioned surface where you can sit or just relax anywhere you like. People realized, wow, this is a really nice way to live.”
But across the country at another old workshop, artisan Kenze Yamada says tatami must transcend simple flooring. His key to the preservation puzzle: making tatami an art form in its own right. Thanks to clever positioning and use of light, the 200 tatami jigsaw pieces of this dragon appear to be different colors.
“Like textiles, tatami have a textured surface,” he said. “By varying the angle of the weave, I can change how the pieces reflect light, creating the illusion of white, green, silver or gold.”
There are signs of a quiet tatami resurgence. While families like the Moris have embraced carpets and hardwood floors, they’ve set aside one room for tatami — grasping a straw link to a thousand-year-old tradition.
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Story produced by Lucy Craft. Editor: Randy Schmidt.