A Blessing and a Curse

On Friday, as I waited for Theo's kindergarten bus to arrive, I noticed some men removing all of the tatami from a fifth floor apartment across the street. It was really neat to watch them lower each mat down  on a rope with a hook at the end from the balcony. While enjoying this new sight, I was able to reflect for a few minutes on how common tatami has become in my life in the last six months.

For those who don't live in Japan or have never visited, tatami is a thick mat of rice fiber and woven straw that is used as flooring in at least one of the rooms of a typical Japanese apartment or house. Each mat is about 2.5 - 5.5 cm thick and is usually 90 cm wide by 180 cm long. Since tatami size is fairly uniform, often people will tell you the size of a room or house by how many tatami are in it. In our apartment, the small kitchen and bathroom have wood flooring, but all of the other living space has tatami.

I still remember the feeling of stepping onto our tatami for the first time. It was firmer and denser than I expected, but still had a bit of give and springiness to it. Unfortunately, I was a bit dazed after traveling with the children and not sleeping in over 36 hours, so I wasn't able to properly savour the moment.

This is not our apartment; our tatami has never looked
this good!
In some ways, having tatami in our apartment is great. It is soft and silky smooth under your feet and Theo and William can play directly on it without needing a rug or play mat to cushion them. In the winter it does not get cold like the wood flooring in our kitchen and doesn't heat up too much in the summer. We are able to sleep on futons on the floor without needing tons of padding or losing too much heat to the floor. It also has a really nice, almost sweet, grassy smell that reminds me of fresh hay or straw. I also think that the shimmery green and gold cloth that binds the sides of each mat is quite pretty.

In saying this, I have come to loathe tatami, at least in this phase of my life. It would be fabulous in a bedroom, but we have it everywhere. This means every little mess our kids make, every piece of food dropped, every drooly patch from William, and worse lands straight on the highly absorbent, easily stained, and incredibly difficult to clean floor. We have put an area rug underneath our table to protect the tatami from inevitable foods spills each meal, but it still doesn't protect it from the occasional glass of water, juice, or even worse, milk, that gets tipped over by the elbows of our clumsy son. So far I have had the pleasure of cleaning all forms of food and drink, vomit, urine, and poop from our tatami. The only uncharted territory for me is blood and wine, but it is only a matter of time. I have become insanely jumpy about anything spilling on it, but short of trading our children in for robots, I can't think of any way of preventing the occasional unforeseen accident or emergency.

Our own little tatami model showing off the silky soft
qualities of our floor.
I have developed a sort of science when it comes to cleaning, disinfecting, deodorizing, and removing stains from our tatami. It seems to be working for the most part, or at least our tatami looks no worse than it did when we arrived. The good news is that the tatami was fairly old and worn when we arrived, so I am not quite as neurotic about it as I could be. I really wonder how other moms with babies and young children handle life with tatami? Any advice?

For anyone interested in the tatami making industry, and how and how often mats are changed, I found this photo essay by Keith Graff very interesting and informative.


Carol said...

I love that picture of William! I can understand how you feel about the tatami. I remember moving into an apartment when you kids were little and they put in new beige carpet. The first day, red Jell-O was dropped under the dining table, which I did not discover until the next day. I felt like going out and buying a dozen plastic tarps to cover all the carpeting.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed your tatami blog. My family and I were on the JET program in 2004 and lived in Kanazawa. My 5 year old and 3 year old managed to spill their fair share of everyday items onto our tatami. (including toilet training!) For the 12 months we were there it was in immaculate condition BUT after I had left it was 2 weeks later that the new JET arrived. The tatami had became very mouldy as the apartment had been locked up. I chuckled to myself when the American JET teacher who replaced me commented on his Blog that Australians must be very dirty people. Tatami mats remind me of the straw mats we lived on when I lived on Nauru Island when I was a child.Warm in winter, cool in summer) Good luck discovering Japan. The value of what you are doing will not be fully realised until you are back at 'home' and missing the quirky nature of where you are now.

Laura said...

Thanks for reading our blog Steve! I have heard that tatami can get really mouldy if there isn't proper airflow in the humid summer months. We are going back to Canada for a three week visit in August so I should make sure our neighbours check in on our tatami and turn a fan on every once and while. I would hate to return home to a mouldy mess, especially after all trying to keep it clean for so long!

I had to look up where Nauru Island was. I learned a bit more about geography today. Thanks! :)

The Freys said...

I've got to agree that the picture of William is awesome. James and I sat back and had a good laugh at your little poser!

Unknown said...

William!! Is this blog about anything other than that pose!?

Laura said...

Gotta show off those sultry thighs! For some reason he went through a week where he really liked lounging in this position. I am really glad that we remembered to take a shot of him doing it before he outgrew the phase!

tawnya said...

hello Laura! I'm tawnya, living in Utazu with my family of four. We are here, teaching English and learning to live much like you. I'm excited to read your blog, I write one too - www.ostrersimplelife.blogspot.com. Anyway...I need your help! I have a tatami with urine on it! What do I do?!?!?!

Email me please! Tostrer@gmail.com

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting about the tatami, as a mom I'm always concerned about the messes my kids make. I didn't even think about how badly the tatami would stain, I think I'll be a little more careful when I'm apartment shopping over there. I love your blog, its so informative for someone with a family moving to Japan.


Anonymous said...

To remove stains like rust stains use crayons. Use a couple of different colours like light brown and grey and follow the grain but don't stop on the stain. Put the dark colour on first then the light colour then rub the surface with a soft cloth to mix the colours. Crayons are greasy so that will also stop stains from getting in in the future.

Laura said...

Thanks for the tip Joe! I read recently that nail polish remover takes marker stains off of the tatami. A few days later, my son drew on the tatami with some of his markers (grrrrr....) and I tried the nail polish remover trick. I didn't work at all. I was pretty disappointed. I wonder if the crayons would work for marker stains? I am always up for an experiment!