Japanese Style Rooms-Washitsu

A washitsu or Japanese-style room is a Japanese room with traditional tatami mat flooring that is commonly referred to as a “tatami room” in the west.  Washitsu also features sliding doors (fusuma) between rooms rather than conventional doors.

Traditional Japanese Washitsu room with sliding doors, Tatami mat, and Tokonoma

They may have shoji screens (paper and wooden lattice) and if the room is intended to function as a welcome area for visitors, it may include a tokonoma (recessed area for plants or scrolls).

As a general rule, the Tokonoma will contain Calligraphic or pictorial scrolls, as well as ikebana (flower arrangement). Bonsai and ornamental items (okimono) are also popular. Traditional Japanese Washitsu room design relies heavily on the tokonoma and its contents. 

Tokonoma area displaying a large bonsai tree

Elements Of The Washitsu

The toko-bashira a support pillar on one edge of the tokonoma is generally constructed of wood that has been carefully selected for its appearance. It may be anything from a raw tree trunk with retained bark to a square piece of heart timber with a very straight grain.

The amount of formality for the tokonoma is determined by the toko-bashira used.

Tatami Traditional Straw Mats

The number of tatami mats in a washitsu is measured using the counter word jo which ranges from 1.5 to 1.8 square meters, depending on the room.   In a private house, the typical room size is six or eight tatami mats. In a 4.5-tatami room, there are half-sized mats as well.

Etiquette In The Washitsu

The most important visitor should be seated with his or her back to the tokonoma when seating guests in a Washitsu room. This is due to the modesty of the host as they should not appear to be showing off the items of the tokonoma to the visitors, thus pointing special guests towards the tokonoma is not desirable.

Even when months and days are long, life is short

Japanese Proverb

It is absolutely forbidden to enter the Tokonoma unless to modify the exhibition, in which case great care must be followed.

Guest are seated on the tatami mats, on zabutons (a type of cushion or pillow), or on legless chairs placed on the tatami. A low table on which a family may eat or entertain guests, as well as a kotatsu, a sort of low table with a heating element used in the winter, may be supplied as additional furniture in a washitsu.

Japanese room with two chairs and one heater table (Kotatsu)

Because most Japanese houses do not have heat pumps as in the west, the kotatsu might be quite useful in the wintertime.

The majority of rooms in an older traditional Japanese home were designed in the washitsu style.

As a general rule many modern Japanese homes, have only one washitsu, which is occasionally utilized for entertaining guests, while the majority of the other rooms are Western-style. Many new Japanese homes and apartments lack washitsu.

Furniture and Layout Elements Of The Room

Tatami Rooms Often Look Out Over A Small Garden

Zabuton Seating Cushions Or Pillows

Japanese Zabuton

A zabuton is a Japanese sitting cushion. The zabuton is most commonly used when sitting on the floor, but it may also be utilized in a low chair. The zabuton can be paired with a zaisu, a sort of Japanese legless chair, with or without an accompanying kyosoku, a Japanese-style armrest, in a more informal environment.

Chabudai Or Low Table

Chabudai or Low Table

In traditional Japanese houses, chabudai is a short-legged table. The original chabudai was just 15 cm tall and could reach a maximum height of 30 cm. The four legs of a chabudai are usually foldable, allowing the table to be conveniently transported and stored.

Tokonoma or Alcove

Tokonoma is a recessed area where objects for creative enjoyment are presented. A tokonoma is similar to an alcove in the west. a raised dais in front of which things such as an incense burner, vase for flowers, and a bonsai could be placed, and wall space where scrolls can be hung

Tokonoma or Alcove

Shoji Doors or Window Covers

Shoji is lightweight sliding doors, they may be moved aside or removed off their tracks and placed in a closet, allowing access to other rooms or the outside. Shoji normally slides, but may occasionally be hung or hinged, especially in more rustic styles.  Made of wood and mulberry paper.  

Shoji Doors or Window Covers

Chigaidana or Built In Shelving

Chigaidana is built-in, stepped wall shelves that are usually located near the alcove and are used to exhibit decorative items such as decorative scrolls, flower arrangements, bonsai, or items of artistic value.

Chigaidana or Built In Shelving

Futon or Japanese Style Bedding

A lightweight mattress and a duvet make up a full futon set. During the day, both components of a futon bedding set may be aired, folded, and put away in a closet, enabling the tatami room to be used for other functions.

Futon or Japanese Style Bedding

Fusama or Solid Sliding Doors

Fusuma are horizontal rectangular wooden panels that move from side to side to create areas inside a room or function as doors. A black lacquer edge and a circular finger catch are common features. Fusuma were traditionally painted with images from nature, such as mountains, woods, or wildlife.

Fusama or Solid Sliding Doors

Ranma Transom Above Entry Doors

Ranma is wooden transoms that are seen above fusuma. They can be ornately carved and assist in the process of allowing air and light to flow through rooms.

The Ranma Transoms seen above these highly ornate doors

Byobu Partition or Folding Screen

Folding screens are typically made up of numerous connected panels with beautiful paintings or calligraphy on them and are used to divide interiors and enclose tatami rooms for added privacy, among other things.

Byobu Partition Beautifully Painted Folding Screens

Horigotatsu or Recessed Flooring

Some tatami rooms will have a recessed floor beneath the table for added comfort in seating. Sometimes used in the reception areas that have foreign visitors who find it uncomfortable sitting in a Japanese style for long periods of time.

Horigotatsu or Recessed Flooring Seen Here Below The Table

The traditional tatami room or Washitsu is a beautiful and relaxing area to spend time in. Its lines are straight and uniform, Its furnishing are pure Japanese in its lack of excessive decor and only decorated with a few items for artistic enjoyment and contemplation. The room itself is a true work of art.

Tatami rooms are often used at Ryokans or Japanese inns. The rooms can convert from a living room in the daytime and at night they can quickly be transformed into a sleeping area.

As seen in the image below the room is ready to be transformed from a living room into a sleeping area as noted by the futon neatly folded to the left.

Tea ceremonies, living rooms, areas of relaxation to contemplation, tatami rooms are something to be explored.

Tatami Room Seen Here With Futon
MT Lee
My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.