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The Kotatsu Warm Furniture In Japan

Experiencing the Japanese winter when I first arrived, I knew I was facing a challenge. The snow fell and the wind howled. The bitter cold outdoors is part of winter, but I expected warmth indoors. Central heating in residential housing was not common. Positioning a kerosene heater in the center of the room was just not the same. The foul fumes from the kerosene heaters caused dull headaches. Opening the window cleared the air, but let the biting winter cold inside as the room temperature dropped. Given the expensive price for this old technology combined with the wretched smell, I did not buy a kerosene heater for my first apartment. Houses and apartments in Japan rarely came with heating; my little apartment was no exception.

The kotatsu was one answer. My first kotatsu had a small reddish brown plasticky square table top somewhere between two and three feet across. The table top rested on the table base with four short stubby legs that were about as high as the bottom half of my knees. The kotatsu came with a quilt that was placed between the table top and the table base, covering the sides of the kotatsu, going down to the floor, and even spreading across the floor a bit.

The light blue quilt had tiny red cars going down the road, but it did not match the reddish brown table. Still both were cheap. The quilt caught the heat that the heat lamp radiated downward from the table base. Not knowing better, I didn’t have a pad underneath the kotatsu to both trap the heat in and protect the tatami, the woven straw mat flooring in some rooms and houses in Japan.

During my first winter in Japan, I remember sitting at my kotatsu on a cushion, resting my back against the wall and keeping warm with just the kotatsu and a small electric space heater in my little one room apartment while the snow fell and the wind blew. My legs were toasty warm under the kotatsu. My upper body was warm where the space heater reached it.

When I was small, I used to build caves inside my room in the winter. I would throw a blanket over a couple of chairs and huddle inside, imagining myself a bear in winter in my centrally heated cave. Given the biting cold that I was imagining, I would bring in a lamp for warmth. The cave was perfect until I burned myself on the light bulb. I never burned myself under my kotatsu, but I did get uncomfortably warm. My new world in Japan was like my childhood, but without central heating.

The coal heated kotatsu dates back hundreds of years in Japan but today almost everybody uses electric kotatsu. The two kinds of kotatsu are the kotatsu I have just described and the horigotatsu, which is simply a kotatsu that goes over a hole in the floor. You sit at the horigotatsu and stick your legs into the hole. I remember going to a soba restaurant in a rural area. The restaurant, with its high ceiling and beams, looked like it was built over a hundred years ago. Each large table had its own horigotatsu. Eating there in the summer, I could only imagine how cold the giant room was in the winter as people enjoyed warmth from the waist down.

Hundreds of year ago, when the kotatsu was first invented, everyone wore robes in Japan. The heat would enter at the bottom of the robe, go up the body, warming it, and leave the robe at the neck, heating the entire body. I wore Western clothes in the winter so my entire body did not get heated.

If you still don’t have a clear image of what a kotatsu is, google and you can find pictures. If you to go Ask Metafilter, you can even find instructions to build one. Kotatsu are marvelous, but winter in Japan is a cold and uncomfortable business. Due to the very high electric prices, insufficient insulation, and building codes and laws not requiring heating, people turn to devices like the kotatsu. My friend Reiko has a kotatsu, a heated blanket, and a heated pad that she places under her feet at her desk. These are just a few of the many devices in Japan that people use to fight the cold.