Gather Around the Kotatsu!

by Emi Noguchi

We’ve raked the autumn leaves from the grass, and the air’s grown dry, the wind is blowing right through our collective sweaters. It’s time to take out the winter coats and heavy blankets, for the winter chill is setting in. If you live in a traditional Japanese house, that goes double, because it’s about to get frozen-glass-of-water cold. But why is a traditional Japanese house (and, to be fair, many a modern apartment) so drafty? Theories abound, but we have no time for questions of construction decisions and why so many Japanese contractors continue to eschew insulation! It’s time to take action. If we want to live in any comfort this long, frozen winter, we’re going to need a kotatsu!

Kotatsu Table

What is a Kotatsu?

Since the traditional Japanese house is built to allow lots of airflow, it’s an expensive fool’s errand to try to heat up an entire room. A kotatsu is a low table with a small, electric heater and quilt-like futon skirt. Instead of chairs, you can sit on zabuton: they’re thin, dense, square (and conveniently stackable!) cushions. Once your kotatsu table has been turned on and you’ve slipped your legs under the futon, you’ve entered a room within a room. Unlike the larger space, this little patch of floor beneath your kotatsu is pretty toasty. Good luck getting out!

Where Can You Find a Kotatsu?

You’ll find kotatsu in pretty much every house in Japan, but especially anywhere resembling a traditional Japanese house. Even in regions with mild winters, the temperature indoors is often not much warmer than that outside! It can come as a surprise to anyone spending their first winter in Japan. Woven through all the Bladerunner-style depictions of a hyperspeed, futuristic Japan is a streak of day-to-day life that’s downright historical. The lack of insulation in many Japanese homes is the perfect example of where society’s norms and technological advancement part ways.

Kotatsu Table

What Should You Bring to a Kotatsu?

One happy result of having one comfortable spot in the house? It gets the family together! You can eat breakfast and dinner here, watch television, play games, and eat snacks. (We’ve even heard of people sleeping from the neck down beneath their kotatsu!) Since we’re a snack-oriented bunch here at Bokksu, we need to shout out two recommendations for those about to gather around this hearth. First: crunchy senbei marinated in sweet and savory tonkatsu sauce. It’s called dondon yaki, and we sell them in a 15-pack because that is the number of packs you will want. Our second snack recommendation is a bit fancier. The matcha chocolate stick cake is the perfect sweet for classy tea time, and you’ll be wanting tea in this weather! Small, spongy, and mildly sweet, this little “stick” cake is perfect for the unannounced guest, too. That’s because each one comes prepackaged.

 A kotatsu table can be hard to come by, depending on the country in which you reside. If you’d like zabuton, however, you’re in luck. We’re now offering three traditional designs to suit whatever color scheme you prefer: a dark blue "love bird" zabuton, super cute red "welcome cat" zabuton, or a cushion elegant blue "Mt. Fuji" design. They’re all done in a traditional graphic style reminiscent of a Scandinavian, midcentury simplicity. Even without a kotatsu, zabuton are useful for when you have a few more guests than you have chairs, and they take up very little space. 

Brr, all this talk has us chilled! For some, winter means vacationing to warmer parts. The well-heeled among us know the pain of looking for a pair of sandals that can dress down for the pool and up for an impromptu dinner out. Well, move over athleisure! We’ve got black laquered Japanese sandals for women and men alike! Water-resistant and comfy, this footwear makes a statement. And that statement is, “I’ve entered into the resort-wear echelon of society.”

A (Short!) Kotatsu History

We’ve run out of space to really dig into the long history of how the kotatsu came to be, but to state it briefly: what started off as a place to cook over hot coals on the floor turned into a wooden platform for gathering. Eventually the charcoal heater was sunk into a pit into which one could dangle their legs. Put a table over that, and you’ve got the precursor to the kotatsu: a hori-gotatsu. Eventually, they went electric. Finally, the heating element was attached to the kotatsu table itself. Today, you’ll find cats and children avoiding school and chores beneath the kotatsu. (The latter are called kotatsu oni, or kotatsu devils!) Some very traditional Japanese restaurants have sunken floors beneath their tables, so if you don’t have a kotatsu at home, in the winter months you may be able to find a place to try one out for yourself!

Author Bio

Emi Noguchi is a fiction writer, blogger, and freelance writing instructor, and co-founder of MFA App Review. After studying standard Japanese at Columbia University, she picked up Kansai-ben while living in Osaka and some Awa-ben in her paternal hometown in Tokushima. Emi is a 2020 recipient of the John Weston Award and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. You can read her work in Essay Daily, The Spectacle, and Fairy Tale Review. Emi is currently writing a novel about diasporic illnesses, art-making, and traditional Japanese puppetry.