Introduction to Kotatsu & Kotatsugake

Modern Day Kotatsu

Modern Day Kotatsu. Photo credit: www.johnharveyphoto.com

I have no doubt that many of you may have seen a kotatsu, or a low, wooden-framed table that is covered by a heavy blanket or maybe a futon or a heavy blanket. On top of this frame would be a wooden table top. And while many of you may have seen such a table, did you realize that its design was more than just a place to eat?

You see, underneath a kotatsu is a heat source. The more traditional type is a cotatsu flame placed over a recessed floor. A pit is cut into the floor about 2 feet deep and heated charcoal is placed in the bottom of pit. Nowadays, an electric heater attached to the underside of the table is used in place of the charcoal method.

Some of you not familiar with the Japanese culture may be asking why? Why such a heavy tablecloth? Well, let me explain how it’s more than just a tablecloth.

Typically, a blanket is draped over the frame under the table-top. A person then sits on the floor with their legs under the table with the blanket draped over the lower body. While this may seem as though it would only heat up the lower body, it can keep the entire body quite warm. This way of getting heat was suitable for the way we used to dress with traditional kimono. Heat would enter through the bottom of the kimono to warm up the entire body.

A kotatsu is used almost exclusively in Japan. During the summer months, the blanket is simply stored away and the frame of kotatsu can be used as a normal table. In my childhood, a kotatsu and a kerosene stove were a room’s only heat source.

Let me explain a typical setup or arrangement. We sit on a zabuton (oversized pillow use to sit on) which is on a kotatsushiki (under rug). Then a shitagake (a blanket goes under comforter type of futon) is placed first over the kotatsu and covered with a kotatsugake; a main home décor to show your sense and taste.

Kotatsugake

Sashiko stitched on Kotatsugake from early 1900's. Image property of property of Sri Threads has been used with permission.

Some of the kotatsugake I remember were decorated with Sashiko stitches and its pattern seemed to be very complicated to me.

As most homes in Japan are not as insulated as homes in the western world and lack central heating, space heaters are relied upon. Because of the lack of insulation and the overall draftiness of a home, heating is expensive. A kotatsu is a relatively inexpensive way to stay warm in the winter, as the futons trap the warm air. Kotatsugake was very heavily layered and stitched for insulation purpose.

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