Somewhere in Japan

Dispatch № 98: Ode to the Kotatsu

The kotatsu’s a table that heats
Bringing comfort to legs and to feets
Our apartment is old
Its interior cold
But we’re happy in blanketed seats

With a click of the switch on the cord
One enters a toastier world
The element hums
Electricity comes
Down the line to add warmth below board

The strength should be carefully set
Too high, an uncomfortable bet
It’s radiant heat
And could cook you like meat
Or at least get you soaking with sweat

Almost nothing in life could be cozier
Though it will make you feel dozier
A great place to nap
With a cat on your lap
Few situations are rosier

They’ve recently lost popularity
As Japanese builders gain clarity
Insulation’s the new
Cool thing to do
So freezing inside’s more a rarity

But a favorite for me they remain
For the easing of wintery pain
If the song of the season’s
A cold one, I’ve reason
To sing my kotatsu refrain

Featured photo kindly provided by @TBeanpod

Let’s talk about the kotatsu1, in case you are unfamiliar. It is a common sort of low table found in homes in Japan, often in tatami2 rooms. During the warmer months, it’s just a low table. On the underside, however, it has an electric heater, and during colder weather, one adds to the table something like a heavy blanket that forms a sort of skirt around the perimeter of the table.

Image of kotatsu heater by Hustvedt on Wikimedia Commons, used under CC license

Switch it on, put your legs (or whole self sometimes, if we’re being honest) underneath, and enjoy what is just about the coziest thing you can experience at home.

Though they could be a comfortable addition to many western homes as well, their popularity in Japan comes from the fact that Japanese homes in much of the country are notoriously badly insulated, perhaps not insulated at all. It’s getting better bit by bit, as people and homebuilders catch on to the fact that insulation is actually a great thing to have, but if you live in Japan, there’s still a very good chance that your home is very cold in the winter months.

Which is exactly the case with my apartment. We have a heater, but keeping the apartment warm all the time is economically unviable given how poorly insulated the place is, so the kotatsu is a very functional piece of furniture. It is also extremely pleasant, especially when paired with a hanten3 or heavy sweatshirt.

Besides being functional, the kotatsu has substantial cultural cachet in Japan and is a common seasonal reference point. My favorite example is probably Kotatsu Neko, a giant ghost cat from the manga and animated series Urusei Yatsura who loves to sit at the kotatsu (pictured below).

Though in the long run my partner and I intend to renovate an old house and fully insulate it, even if our home is someday toasty warm in the winter, we’ll still have a kotatsu. It’s just too nice a thing in the home to pass up on in the winter.

  1. View the Wikipedia article on kotatsu. ↩︎

  2. Tatami mats are firm, rectangular flooring mats covered in woven rushes, commonly used in traditional Japanese-style rooms. Many Japanese homes still have at least one tatami room. View the Wikipedia article on tatami. ↩︎

  3. A traditional garment that’s sort of a roomy jacket, padded with thick cotton stuffing, and with sleeves that come just past the elbow. View the Wikipedia article on hanten. | View google image search results for hanten ↩︎

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Picture of David R Munson

David R Munson

Photographer, essayist, wanderer, weirdo. Everything is interesting if you give it an honest chance to be.

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