The Japanese are the ultimate masters of using space wisely, this is probably because homes and apartments in Tokyo are very small due to the huge costs of land in the mega-city.
However, that means they have much cleverness to share with the rest of us when it comes to furniture and one amazing invention that everyone should take advantage of is the kotatsu.
What Is A Kotatsu?
In our guide to kotatsu for beginners we’ll walk you through what the kotatsu is, what it’s heritage is within Japan, the different kinds that are available and the way that a kotatsu is used within a home in the 21st century.
We’ll also touch on some alternative items that have a very similar feel to the kotatsu but very different origins.
So, a kotatsu is a low framed table (made out of wood) over which a Japanese person would hang a heavy blanket or a futon (the sleeping mat that many Japanese homes use as a standard).
But underneath the frame, instead of empty space as you might expect, is a heat source.
The modern versions, as you’d probably expect, tend to come with electric heaters that are actually built into the wooden frame to make them convenient to use but the traditional versions had a full charcoal brazier of hot coals beneath them and yes, they were something of a fire hazard.
Where Does The Kotatsu Come From?
It appears that the first kotatsu came about back in the 14th century in Japan. It’s not clear precisely when it emerged but it was probably during the Ashikaga Shogunate. At that time, it was very common to find an irori (a Japanese cooking hearth) in most Japanese homes.
These irori were essentially charcoal braziers above which it was easy to cook your food. Then at some point during this part of the 14th century, somebody noticed that there was a lot of heat going to waste and that you could built a nice little wooden frame to go over the irori and then pop a blanket on the top that would trap the heat and allow you to use it for say, resting your feet on.
Thus, the hori-gatsu came about (this is a compound word as many Japanese words are and incorporates “hori” (ditch), “ko” (fire) and “tatsu” (foot warmer). The only trouble with these wonderfully handy devices was that they weren’t movable – you had to use them where you built your hearth.
Thus, the modern kotatsu came about in the 17th century during the Edo period of Japanese development. This meant placing the hot coals in a pot rather than in a fixed hearth and this was then placed on a rug (called a tatami) that you could then put a frame and blanket over.
It is fair to say that this was still something of a fire risk but it might surprise you to learn that the kotatsu’s move to an electric fire is fairly recent.
While the ability to incorporate an electric fire in the device was easy enough from the middle of the 20th century, Japan was, at that time, quite a poor country and not everyone had access to electricity or the funds to buy electric heaters.
Indeed, it wasn’t until about 1997 that the majority of kotatsu in Japanese homes were based on electric fires!
One nice advantage of this changeover is that the kotatsu became even more portable for it and you can position one anywhere in the home as long as you have an available socket for the power source.
What Kinds Of Kotatsu Can You Get Now?
By far, the most common, is the electric version which consists of a table with the underside devoted to an electric heater. This will typically be topped with a futon which makes it easy to keep the heat in and then a thicker rug is placed over the top to make it safe to rest your feet or anatomy on.
You can still get a charcoal kotatsu but usually only the traditional, non-moving, kind. For this a pit is cut about half a meter deep into the floor and the charcoal is placed in the pit and then the frame is placed over the pit.
The kotatsu radiates heat very efficiently keep a small space warm and toasty for hours.
You can remove the rug whilst keep it attached to a kotatsu to provide a sort of alternative to an electric blanket, but these rugs are often quite short and aren’t ideal for sleeping under. You may also risk burning yourself if you try this.
What Are The Alternatives To A Kotatsu?
In Spain and Portugal, you will find a brasero heater serves a similar purpose. In Afghanistan and Tajikstan they use a “sandal” and in Iran it’s called a “korsi”.