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New Year Holidays in Japan : Kotatsu

Date Published: Last Update:2014/12/26 Traditional Culture , , ,

Kotatsu

- Kotatsu -
Photo from flickr

In Japan, except northern cold areas like Hokkaido, houses are usually built to suit Japanese hot humid summer.
This means many Japanese houses are drafty, and in other words, it can be freezing even indoor in winter.
Most of those houses are without a central heating system, so people keep warm with individual heating devices like air conditioner, heater and … of course KOTATSU!!!

What is kotatsu?

It’s a devil’s trap.

Fred The Red

- The devil in Manchester called Fred The Red -
Photo from flickr

Easily and quickly, it makes people useless.
Once you get in there, you wouldn’t like to get out and you may even wish if you could send somebody else to go to toilet to do your business unless your whole house is warmed with a central heating system or something.
You may feel like being in heaven when you fall in a sleep in kotatsu, but probably you will find yourself catching a cold upon waking up.

When the kotatsu-trapped people put away kotatsu in spring, they likely to see scattered things around it within their reach.
However, this will not happen to lazy people like me because they don’t bother to buy kotatsu.

Kotatsu is probably the most popular Japanese traditional heating device.
It quite often appears as a typical winter feature in Japanese manga, anime, films, etc.
Not really “New Year Holidays” stuff, but when I imagine peaceful, happy Japanese new year holidays, kotatsu is always there.

History

In the old times, people used “irori” to warm themselves.

-"Irori"-

-"Irori"-

The house at that time was much more drafty, so people couldn’t get enough heat even if they stayed around “irori” (cooking hearth).

In the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573), people started to put a paper-made cloth called “kami-ko” to “irori” when charcoal fire is dying (this state is called “oki” in Japanese), set up a wooden platform over it, then cover it with “futon” (quilt).

In the Edo period, charcoals were put in an earthen pot so that people could carry it around to keep warm anywhere.
This type of kotatsu was called “oki-gotatsu”.
You can see a photo here (Japanese page). (Sekigahara Town History & Forklore Museum)

Originally, charcoals were used as fuel, and then briquette coals (“ren-tan”, lit. kneaded coal).
“Mame-tan” (lit. bean coal), which is quite similar to “ren-tan” but smaller, was developed for domestic use.

In 1924, electric kotatsu went on sale, but not commonly used (because of its price I guess).
Then Toshiba started to sell an electric one in 1957 and this made a big success.
Two hundred thousand items were sold in the first year.
This was developed by the same person who was in charge of the development of the electric rice cooker.

Coal-burning kotatsu is still available, and if you use it, be careful for CO poisoning.

Types

Kotatsu is the combination of a few things.

Kotatsu image

- Heater and table -
Red square in this image shows a heater.

+

Kotatsu-buton

- Kotatsu-buton (Kotatsu quilt) -
Thick, square-shaped quilt filled with cotton.

+

Ten-ban

- Ten-ban (lit. Top board) -
Optional.
A plate to put on the top of the quilt-covered kotatsu.

=

Kotatsu image

You need to look inside to tell what type the kotatsu is.

[Heater underneath the table top]

Kotatsu image

Red square is a heater.

This type has been common since the launching of Toshiba’s product in 1957.
Before that, heater was just put on the floor.

The kotatsu my family used when I was a child, heater was simply fixed to the table top like a hump.
Legs of the table were removable, so it wouldn’t occupy too much room in the storage.
Now, there is a thinner heater, so you can use it as a furniture in warm seasons because the table top is flat and its appearance is just like an ordinary table.

[Heater in a hole in the floor]

Kotatsu image

Red square is a heater.

This type is called “hori-gotatsu” (lit. digged kotatsu).
It’s more comfortable to sit down than the other two, but not very suitable to lie down.

[Electric carpet]
Maybe this one is not exactly kotatsu.
Just put a table with futon on an electric carpet.
This would be warmer than just sitting on the carpet, but it probably costs you more than kotatsu with a heater.

The perfect traditional Japanese kotatsu

Thinking of kotatsu, there are several supplementary items.

- Mikan -
Japanese tangerine, known as "satsuma" outside Japan.

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Cat

- Cat -
I myself never had a cat, but the proper kotatsu image always comes with a cat sleeping beside it.

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Hanten image

- Hanten image -
Japanese indoor jacket (not to wear outside of your house) filled with cotton.

=

Perfect kotasu image

- The perfect kotatsu image -
Illustration from Illust AC

It will be more comfortable with “zabuton” (lit. quilt for sitting. Japanese cushion) or “zaisu” (lit. chair for sitting. Legless chair).

Zaisu

- Zaisu -
Photo from Ashinari

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kara

A Japanese living in Okayama. A proud "Otaku"! Loves animals, snacks, manga, games (PC, iPad, Nintendo DS, PSP), foreign TV dramas, traveling and football (soccer).

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