While winter is definitely not my favorite season, experiencing it has brought about new delights for me. While my first experience of winter was by no means extreme as it was in Japan, sometimes it would be a challenge to keep warm because not many houses use central heating. Most houses in urban Japan are usually smaller than average, so individual space heaters or room heaters are usually the norm.
There is a particular type of heater however that made my Japanese winter experience very memorable. It is a traditional space heater called a kotatsu. While kotatsu are traditionally Japanese, there are similar devices in other countries such as the Persian korsi.
Today kotatsu consist of a low table with an electric heater hidden underneath its surface. Inserted underneath the tabletop and above the heater is a comforter-like blanket (futon). This blanket traps the heat coming from the heater so that the interior acts like a convection oven for your lower body.
The design of the kotatsu evolved over time together with the structure and needs of the Japanese house. In medieval Japan, homes were built around a cooking hearth which also served as the main gathering area.
As the use of tatami mats spread, the living area and cooking areas became separated, so a need for a localized heat source arose. Early pre-electric kotatsu simply had a table with a pot underneath, where charcoal was burned. The comforter was placed over the table to contain the heat.
As a symbol of winter in Japan the kotatsu is usually associated with feelings of warmth and togetherness. It is a common tradition for people to have a winter meal, often a form of hotpot, on the kotatsu.
Although traditionally the kotatsu uses a low, square table, some modern kotatsu sold in Japan are round or oval in shape, which allows for more people to gather around a smaller area.
The feeling of gathering and collaboration when sitting around a kotatsu is certainly a big component of its design. Unsurprisingly, a completely modern adaptation of the kotatsu I came across tries to echo these ideas, but this time placing the table in more diverse settings.
Designed by Kaiju Studios for Herman Miller, this version of the kotatsu does not have a heater underneath it, but it could definitely generate some heated discussions depending on where it is used. This table looks like it could be useful in both a creative office setting as well as in a home.
The kotatsu is a representation how traditions can be kept alive through adaptation, as well as how adapted traditions can keep certain values alive. Because it is still widely used, the feeling of winter as a time for people to gather together and share warmth (literally and figuratively) is maintained in some ways. Translated into modern design, it emphasizes how the act of gathering and collaboration are integral parts to a successful, memorable experience.