Keeping cosy in Japan: Why we all need the kotatsu table

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If you’ve been into a Japanese home or even just seen some pictures of one, it’s likely that you will have seen a kotatsu table proudly taking centre stage in the middle of the living room. This heating table is a must in any Japanese house and once you’ve sat at one, you’ll soon understand. If it still seems a little baffling then we’re here to explain the wonders of the Japanese kotatsu.

So what is it?

The kotatsu table is essentially a heated table. It is a low-level table that is either covered by a heavy blanket or surrounded by blankets attached to the edges of the table. There is then a heating element on the underside of the table and the heat is retained underneath the table by the blankets.

While modern-day Japanese kotatsu are electric and commonplace in Japanese homes, they originated a long time ago and took a slightly different form.

As in many countries the cooking hearth or the irori in Japanese (伊織 sunken fireplace), would take centre stage in a home and it’s from this that the kotatsu developed. Over time people started to build a seating area around the irori, this then became a sunken dugout to warm the feet. Then a wooden platform and blanket were added and eventually a more familiar form of the kotatsu table developed. Moving away from the irori, the heated charcoals would be placed in an earthen pot and the table and blankets placed on top of this. This made the table a bit more flexible as it could be moved around somewhat. Once electricity became more commonplace the electric kotatsu table was a regular feature in every Japanese home.

Studying on a kotatsu

Why have one?

The structure of the Japanese home is quite different compared to that of a western home, walls are thinner and the build techniques are different. This is partly due to tradition but also to account for the fact that earthquakes are common and buildings need to be flexible to reduce the likelihood of them falling down. This means that the walls aren’t as thick and insulation isn’t as central to the design. Further to this, there’s the consideration that central heating is not commonplace and even in more modern buildings, air-conditioning units are used to heat a room in the winter rather than radiators. These factors combine to make chilly buildings in the winter in Japan.

Even if you’re able to heat your house in a reasonably straightforward manner, it can be costly and a much more efficient and cheap way is to heat yourself as you’re only ever in one room at a time anyway. What’s the point of heating the whole place?

While all this may seem a little unusual to us, it’s what led to the common use of the Japanese kotatsu. There is a long tradition of sitting on the floor in Japan, given that tatami is considerably more comfortable than wooden or concrete flooring, even with a carpet. It makes a lot of sense to combine this tradition with the practicalities of the kotatsu table and simply heat yourself while sat on the floor.

The uses are numerous as with any table. Studying, reading, eating, watching tv, conversing. During the winter, the kotatsu table becomes the hub for family life with a variety of activities taking place there.

There is some debate around whether you can or should sleep under one but I’m pretty sure that most Japanese people will have tried to once or twice, or at least dozed off for a nap at some point. Be careful though, if you’re tall you’ll actually find you’ll get quite cold as it won’t cover all of you when you’re lying down. There’s also the risk that you might burn yourself on the heating element if you’re not careful.

If you’re not used to sitting on the floor for extended periods of time you might want to think about investing in a zaisu (座椅子) to go along with your kotatsu table. These are essentially chairs without legs. The supporting back section can make a world of difference though if you’re worried about slouching too much.

So there are the wonders of the Japanese kotatsu. Be sure to try one out when you make it to Japan, particularly in the chilly winters, you’ll be very grateful for the comfort and heat that you get from one.

For more useful tips about life in Japan keep following our Go! Go! Nihon blog.

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