Five hours after landing at the airport in Japan, I had my first unique Japanese cultural experience in the form of flooring. Sure, the ride to my friend’s house in a car with the steering wheel on the other side was different. Store and road signs written in Japanese were surely different, too. We stopped for dinner along the way at Coco’s Restaurant with an American food menu, and I had Cajun food; not too different. But finally, we arrived at my friend’s house, and my first steps inside the house introduced me to traditional Japan.
“Shoes off at the door!” my friend kindly explained. “It is very important. Please put on house slippers.” Off went the shoes and on went the slippers. Of course, my friend did this faster than lightning, but I didn’t do too badly.
I trotted to keep up with her as she led me across polished wooden floors and upstairs to the guest bedroom. “House slippers off at the bedroom door,” my friend kindly explained. “It is very important. Please put on special bedroom slippers for walking on the tatami flooring.” Again, my friend could flip one pair off and another pair on faster than I could snap a photo, but then she’s had a lot of practice!
After a few times of stumbling with the house-slippers-off-and-bedroom-slippers-on custom–or completely forgetting to do the switch–, my friend told me it was okay to just wear socks on the bedroom tatami flooring. Needless to say I gladly opted for the sock option and, for the first time, felt the comfort of tatami flooring under my feet.
Tatami is firm, yet pleasantly soft to the feet. Tatami is also comfortable enough to sit or lie down on, very similar to the usefulness of carpet. Taking shoes off at the entrance door and changing shoes yet again before entering the tatami-floored rooms help keep the flooring clean and less worn, especially since it is common to sit, eat or recline on the floor.
Tatami flooring is traditionally made using rice straw layers covered with tightly woven soft rush grass, sewn together and bound with a black border. Today, it is less common for modern Japanese homes to use tatami flooring although many homes still furnish one room or part of a room with tatami mats. Additionally, placing mats in certain patterns can confer a sense of harmony, balance and beauty. I agree. Moreover, removing one’s shoes at the door says I’m home. Removing one’s slippers for the tatami room says good-bye to the busy day and hello to relaxation and peace.