Washitsu: the Japanese Room with a Profound Meaning

The exciting thing about learning from other cultures and their traditions is discovering where the differences come from. Take Japan, for instance. The language, food, spirituality, and cultural production all indicate a way of being completely different from what you can find in the West. But what about their homes? Today, we want to talk about washitsu, also known as the Japanese room, or the Tatami room. This space is a good reflection of how culture, identity, and traditions are present everywhere.

What is a Washitsu

In Japanese, Washitsu literally means a Japanese-style room. It’s a space in a traditional home with three distinct features. First, it boasts tatami flooring. These are the typical Japanese mats, used in dojos and local restaurants for seating. Tatamis have a standard measure, about 2:1, depending on the region. The size of a washitsu (or even a house!) can sometimes be measured by the number of tatamis.

The washitsu walls are usually shoji, the traditional sliding screens made of wood and thin rice paper. In the present, these doors are made of the same materials, but stronger and more versatile. They even come in different colors! In Japan, people usually sit directly on the tatami instead of using chairs. Sometimes they incorporate a traditional cushion named zabuton.

The third key element of a Washitsu is the tokonoma. We can say this is the heart of the space. About 5 inches above the floor, this is a nook, an alcove specially built to display family tokens, personal treasures, or even flowers. It’s a particular sort of shrine dedicated to tradition and family.

Plus, as traditional Japanese houses don’t have central heating, a washitsu may also include a kotatsu. This is a low table with built-in heating and a blanket that people can use to cover themselves when they sit around it. It’s as cozy as it gets! Another traditional element may be the butsudan, a wooden shire passed on through generations of Japanese families to honor their ancestors.

The Purpose of a Washitsu

This is where it gets (even more!) interesting. Although a washitsu is mostly used to welcome guests and to entertain, truth is you can use it however you like. Traditionally, the Japanese didn’t assign specific uses or purposes to their spaces. They didn’t have a living room or a bedroom. Each area of the house didn’t feature particular pieces of furniture. It’s the occupant’s task to define the purpose of the space (similar to hygge!), which is so different from how we experience our homes in the West. 

In the present, of course, this has changed a bit. Most houses have incorporated the Western-style way of assigning spaces to a specific function. Also, now you may find a TV in the washitsu. Or toys, books, even an art studio. However, most of the elements named above remain, which give the space its distinct identity. The tradition of gathering around a warm kotatsu, sharing the space with loved ones, praying, or just having quiet me-time in this precious room still remains.

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