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Japan Life!
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Chapter: 10 Lesson: 0 - What is the Kotatsu and Horigotatsu (Editorial)
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Lesson added on: January 1, 1970 12:00am
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What is a Kotatsu? Why, the best part of winter of course!

We are now in the middle of winter and cold air breezes through the poorly insulated homes in Japan. Unfortunately, most Japanese homes do not have central heat and air and rely mostly on space heaters and the kotatsu to stay warm. It is a common belief (while traditional) that heating all rooms in the house is considered a waste (mottainai 勿体無い), and in Japanese culture, waste isn’t good. Heating only the rooms that are used is common practice and with that it is my privilege to present to you the Kotatsu 炬燵.

What is this Kotatsu?
A kotatsu is arguably one of the most beloved, coziest invention Japan has to offer, it is a table covered with a blanket or quilt with a heater situated inside. The kotatsu is used to stay warm during cold winter days and doubles as a table. They are usually situated in the dining room or living room in front of a TV. Sometimes in larger homes, a kotatsu can be placed inside bedrooms too.

The purpose of a kotatsu is to snuggle underneath the blanket, staying warm from the electric heater, eating snacks, doing homework, watching TV or adults drinking Sake (Japanese alcoholic drink).

The Different Parts of the Kotatsu (Anatomy of the Kotatsu)
Each kotatsu is designed differently but assembling them together is fairly straight forward as there are usually only four pieces.

The Kotatsu Frame
This is the frame of the table and is very short unlike most tables. It consists of a frame to host the electric heater and the top of the table sometimes doesn’t have a top at all, but just a few wooden beams.

The Heater
The heater is usually placed inside the kotatsu frame and plugs directly into the wall. It uses Japan’s standard 110v for electric heaters and coal for the traditional kotatsu as we will discuss later.

The Cover
The cover of the kotatsu can be a blanket (shitagate), quilt or a heavy blanket called the kotatsu gake火燵掛布.The cover is placed over the frame but underneath the table top.

The Table Top
This piece is placed on top of the blanket and is meant to be used as a table.

The kotatsu was design by traditional clothing customs (wafuku 和服) such as the furisode (振袖), kimono(着物), uchikake (打掛), yukata (浴衣), and so on… This meant that the heat coming from underneath the kotatsu would travel inside the dress/robe and exit out of the neck. With that said, wearing traditional Japanese clothing is still very much liked when using a kotatsu particularly in public settings.
What is the history of the kotatsu like?
The history of the kotatsu is pretty interesting because it’s not a modern invention, it came to be many centuries ago during the Muromachi era 室町時代 (1336-1573). It’s safe to say that they didn’t have electric heaters at the time, but instead housed coal inside an Annka 行火, which is a box type heater. The Annka was made of either wood or clay and placed in the irori 囲炉裏, the fire pit of the house.

Back in the day, people needed something to keep the home warm and to cook food. The Irori was used to do just that, it was a traditional Japanese hearth, a square pit dug in the middle of a room filled with fire wood and ashes. On top of the Irori there would sometimes be an Annka. The Annka was developed into a larger size, the hearth was dug deeper to about 40cms deep, and it had scaffolding covering the entire irori.

The type of coal used varied, but it was primarily charcoal (essentially smoked, dried wood). A blanket covered the scaffolding to keep both legs and feet warm. As mentioned earlier the design moved the heat throughout the body in due part of the traditional clothing style making it an incredible soothing experience for anyone using the kotatsu.

The Horigotatsu 掘り炬燵 (Sunken kotatsu)
Hearing about the kotatsu outside of Japan is rare enough but the horigotatsu is much rarer even though it has western roots. Once upon a time there was a British art teacher named Bernard Leach whom lived in Japan and he loved the kotatsu but was too tall to really use it comfortably. He decided to dig deep enough so that it would be possible to sit comfortably with legs dangling inside underneath. In the center, there’s also a slightly deeper hole for the modern electric heater.

This concept took off and became widely used around restaurants in Japan. Many natives and foreigners love this style since there’s no need to sit in seiza 正座 (proper sitting position) in public. Some alterations don’t even have a heating element inside, instead they use ducts similar to western culture.

Animals Love the Kotatsu!
In the western world where floor heat racks are commonplace, animals love to sit on or near them and the same is true in Japan with the kotatsu. Both cats and dogs love to huddle in or around it, making it not only enjoyable to humans but also for our furry family members.

Purchasing a Kotatsu in Japan
Finding a Kotatsu to purchase in Japan is fairly simple, they can be found in department stores, in malls, furniture stores, and in many other places. When purchasing a kotatsu customers are given many different options from what type of frame, table top, heater, and even blanket.

It’s truly a customizable experience and no two Kotatsu is made the same. With that in mind, the cost can be pretty hefty. The electric heater alone can cost between ¥5,000 – ¥20,000 (roughly $42 - $165USD). The frame can easily cost over ¥36000 ($300USD) although cheap models can run as low as ¥2400 ($20USD). The cover can cost as much as you would like to spend as there are many different types.

Purchasing a Kotastu Outside of Japan
Purchasing a Kotasu outside of Japan can be difficult as it isn’t widely adopted, in fact all parts of the kotatsu is usually imported. Because of this, the cost of a Kotatsu can easily double what it costs in Japan. If there are no local Asian supermarket or department stores that carry kotatsu parts, it may be best to either purchase them via the internet or if you’re brave enough, you could build one yourself and you could easily just saw table legs off a table for the right height. If you know where to get one, please let us know where in our forums!

Are you in love with the kotatsu yet?
Now that you have learned just about everything you will ever need to know about the kotatsu, are you interested in having your own or trying it in Japan? Please let us know what you think about the kotatsu!
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