Kotatsu Cat is watching you
January 27, 2011 2:11 PM   Subscribe

A kotatsu is a piece of furniture used in Japan, consisting of a short table, a heating element attached to the underside of the table, a blanket or light futon to cover the table to the floor, and a flat surface on top. As Japanese houses are usually poorly insulated and not centrally heated, kotatsus are considered a cost-saving alternative to space heaters. • Example: five people sharing one. • It's called a korsi in Persia. • How to make a kotatsu.Cats seem to love them, as do dogs. • Kotatsu vs. Stepladder.
posted by not_on_display (57 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
How fire-safe are they; does anyone know? It sounds lovely, to have a nice warm table radiating warmth, but not if it's going to burn down my house...
posted by limeonaire at 2:13 PM on January 27, 2011

We could really use one of these; I remember seeing Osaka go nuts for it in Azumanga Daioh, and the first floor of our apartment has such a cold floor... thanks for the reminder!
posted by jtron at 2:19 PM on January 27, 2011

Does anyone else see a lucrative business opportunity joining one of these things to a snuggie/slanket? Think about it: Instead of a blanket coming from the under the top of the table, have SNUGGIES attached to the table! A four person, heated snuggie-plex with a tabletop. Seriously, you heard it here first . . .
posted by scdjpowell at 2:20 PM on January 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

My friends had one of these and it was the best!!!
posted by wherever, whatever at 2:26 PM on January 27, 2011

Kotatsu Maru!
posted by ooga_booga at 2:27 PM on January 27, 2011

How fire-safe are they; does anyone know? It sounds lovely, to have a nice warm table radiating warmth, but not if it's going to burn down my house...

You just reminded me to increase my renter's insurance... and build one!
posted by Mister Fabulous at 2:28 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am fascinated at times by Japanese furniture. I completely lost the plot in Inugami for about ten minutes as I marveled over the brilliant idea of making an entire wall into drawers for the bedroom. Whatever it is (probably something-dansu), it is a lovely concept and would be nice pretty much anywhere.
posted by adipocere at 2:33 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

This reminds me when my family fired up a new woodburning stove for the first time. The cats made it their god, immediately and for the rest of the winter.
posted by longsleeves at 2:50 PM on January 27, 2011 [13 favorites]

Kotatsu are a hold-over from the days when Japanese houses had no central heating. Modern houses mostly do but older ones most certainly don't.
posted by gen at 2:55 PM on January 27, 2011

Oh yeah, CATS like 'em. Cats probably invented 'em.
posted by Faze at 2:57 PM on January 27, 2011 [14 favorites]

So I could eat tonkatsu on my kotatsu while reading Kotaku? I'm on it.
posted by phong3d at 3:00 PM on January 27, 2011 [13 favorites]

consisting of a short table, a heating element attached to the underside of the table, a blanket or light futon to cover the table to the floor, and a flat surface on top

You forgot the bowl of mikan on the top.

What are these modern houses of which you speak? The house we bought new two years ago didn't have central.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:03 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Can you actually purchase these in the US? Or at least the heating element part? I could find the other parts, but as said above, wouldn't want too large a heating element and burn my house down. I would definitely be interested if it could be reproduced state-side.
posted by garnetgirl at 3:07 PM on January 27, 2011

These seem so inefficient and awkward that I am confused.

Insulate your living quarters and then just put on a god-damned sweater already. Or maybe a hat.
posted by codswallop at 3:18 PM on January 27, 2011

I can go one better... the house I just bought has one level with a cement, radiant heat floor... It's been cold as a witches...well, you know...here in Michigan, and you can set the temp in the house at about 64 degrees and walk around barefoot, 'cuz the floor is toasty warm....

I guess I could throw a blanket on it and have an extended version of a Kotatsu
posted by HuronBob at 3:22 PM on January 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

thank you second video link, you have tricked me into spending half an hour watching videos of Maru.
posted by sawdustbear at 3:28 PM on January 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

What's good about a kotatsu: your feet, legs, butt and lower torso stay warm and toasty but your head stays nice and cool. You don't get that drowsiness that can come from the air in the room being overheated.

What's bad about a kotatsu: you are reluctant to ever get up, so you wind up sitting at the table for hours when you should be up and about and getting things done.

Insulate your living quarters

Heartily seconded. The lack of proper insulation, even in brand new buildings going up as we speak is a bizarre feature (that is, bug) of Japanese home construction. Why in the hell people here still haven't learned about insulation is, well, it's just maddeningly inexplicable. This is one of the few instances where I really do go, like, WTF Japan?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:36 PM on January 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

Yay, kotatsu! They always fill me with this warm, misplaced sense of ancestral pride. Even growing up in sunny Southern California, I always wanted one, and now that I live in snowy MA, my frozen toes certainly wouldn't mind parking under one. They probably aren't all that efficient, but it sure beats huddling under the covers shivering.

They're often used as visual shorthand on Japanese TV, symbolizing cozy family togetherness. Sometimes they'll show rich people becoming absolutely fascinated by them, since they're mostly associated with less-affluent households. Poor = no central heat = kotatsu, I guess? There's also a joke in Nodame Cantabile where a kotatsu turns everyone into lazy slobs who only want to bask in the warmth, so basically kotatsu turn people into cats.
posted by Diagonalize at 3:48 PM on January 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

The Turks and the Bosnians have a similsr sort of table for Winter use. I have only ever seen one in a museum. It probably would not be allowed where I live, which is fine. If I am too cold I just put on some more clothes.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 3:56 PM on January 27, 2011

Expat living in Japan here. Kotatsu are indeed warm. If you keep your lower torso warm and wear a few layers up top you'll have no problem keeping warm in a typically freezing Japanese house.

There are other problems, though.

Virtually all kotatsu are simply tables set on the floor. So you sit on the floor. Sounds charming, but I'm talking no sofa, no chairs, no back support. You sit on the floor for hours, reading watching TV, eating meals. If you aren't used to this (and most Westerners are not), it gets pretty uncomfortable after 30 minutes or so, and just goes downhill from there. But you can't leave that kotatsu because it's the only warmth in the whole house. (Some houses do have a sunken space underneath the kotatsu to place your legs, which eliminates this problem.) And hope you don't need to, you know, get up to go to the bathroom or anything, because every other place in the house will be freezing cold.

I love Japan in many ways, but the absurd lack of insulation in houses and apartments is not one of them. I've braved many a winter here, but this winter, for me, has been the worst, and I spent a week in the Japanese Alps at my in-laws' house, constantly, constantly cold. Except for the hot bath every night.
posted by zardoz at 4:12 PM on January 27, 2011

Yay for kotatsu! Life saver!

I'm sitting in mine now as I read this. Temperature in the room is ... let me check ... 8º (C). I have a down sleeveless jacket on, but my bottom half is toasty warm. My kotatsu is the ultra-modern old-fashioned type known as hori-gotatsu ('dug out' kotatsu). A 60 cm deep hole exactly 1/2 tatami size is built into the floor (covered by a panel in summer) and the kotatsu fits over this. So even western guests can sit here in comfort! (There are no kotatsu of this type in modern apartment buildings, obviously).

My place here is four stories - bottom two concrete, top two wood - and the only heating element in the entire structure is this little 500-watt kotatsu. (House built seventeen years ago). Nobody in the country would think that strange ...
posted by woodblock100 at 4:14 PM on January 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Thanks for posting this! I just got back from Japan (and had some great tips from MeFi on where to stay and things to do) and while I was there, I was invited into the family home of a new friend of mine who lives in Osaka. They had a kotatsu in the living room, where an American family might have a coffee table, and I was invited to sit with them as we had coffee and chatted. It was really nice and cozy. They told me that you will find one in "every Japanese home." I hadn't ever known about them before and I thought it was a great idea. I was trying to explain the kotatsu to my father and had forgotten the name...so this post clears that up!
posted by jnnla at 4:14 PM on January 27, 2011

Everything I need to know about Japan I learned from Katamari Damashi.
posted by theredpen at 4:15 PM on January 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you can't get kotatsu, then wait until you get a load of kerosene space heaters. You need to leave a window open (!) to get rid of carbon monoxide and water vapour.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:15 PM on January 27, 2011

To answer some of the questions in the thread:

How safe are they?

The heating element is infra-red; it is always contained in a 'cage' so that nothing can come in direct contact. In the normal type of kotatsu, it is screwed to the underside of the table, and doesn't touch the floor. This is a page where you can see the elements for sale (as replacement units). Many years back, we bought one of these, screwed it under the top of our dining table, and enjoyed a 'hi-rise' kotatsu.

no back support ...

This is true. But legless chairs are very common, and I think most people have some of these in their home nowadays (or something similar ...)
posted by woodblock100 at 4:31 PM on January 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Some day, when I become a reknowned Japanologist, I'm sure one of my masterworks will be the exploration of the effect of increased wealth on the cohesion of the family unit, and the further negative effects on society as a whole. This will sound strange, but hear me out (at least until my fingers stop working, because one of the people in my office just decided to open all of the windows and turn off the heat, even though it's probably about 6C outside):

In postwar Japan during the winter, the kotatsu was the center of the family existence. Houses were (then as now) uninsulated, and in the winter, the family would have to gather around the kotatsu for warmth. Junior does his homework at the kotatsu, dinner is eaten sitting around the kotatsu, and so on, until bed time.

Now, with the general increase in wealth, many families can afford to buy air conditioner/heating units for individual rooms. They aren't cheap (a standard size room unit can cost between $400-$2000), but they are pretty popular, and it's not uncommon for families to have one in the living room, as well as each bedroom. This means junior can do his homework in relative comfort in his room, and that each member of the family can hang out in different rooms, again, in relative comfort.

Where this gets interesting is that, with the family hunkered around the kotatsu, for better or worse, it's a crash course in conflict resolution*. If you get into a fight, you can't really storm off to another room because that room is freezing. If you want to stay warm, you need to avoid fighting, and you need to know how to get along with people.

And while, yes, this is an attempt to frame 'kids these days...' as a sociological phenomenon, I would be interested to see the actual data, if it's possible, on politeness and civility in Japanese society since single-room aircon units reached wide adoption. With more and more of the students I teach, it seems like basic concepts of politeness, or even understanding how to behave according to the situation they are in, are missing, or fundamentally different from students I taught ten, or even five years ago.

*Of course, it also means you have to learn to put up with a potentially remote, unpleasant, or outright abusive parent, which is the downside of the kotatsu family.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:54 PM on January 27, 2011 [8 favorites]

I remember the kotatsu in our apartment. I used to have a legless chair to sit in front/under it. I believe it's called a Zaisu!
posted by Randwulf at 5:01 PM on January 27, 2011

... and you need to know how to get along with people

It's also very interesting to consider how this has affected popular culture. When you go back a couple of decades, to the time when the family sat together like this in the evenings, everybody of course had to watch the same programs on TV. So programming (in general) had to be stuff that 'everybody' could/would watch. Grandma would listen to the same music that the kids listened to.

Nowadays, popular culture is - same as anywhere else - totally fragmented by age group. I wouldn't totally 'blame' this on the loss of the 'kotatsu life', but I do think it is a factor.
posted by woodblock100 at 5:03 PM on January 27, 2011

And about insulation: I don't remember the exact rules, but Alex Kerr mentioned in his book Dogs and Demons that there are specific rules about insulation the prevent it from being used, and the same laws apply to central heating. It had something to do with affecting the ratio of footprint to lot size, so that adding one or the other essentially made it impossible to build a desirable house on any standard sized lot. These laws, Kerr said, had been written at the behest of construction companies the housing industry.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:03 PM on January 27, 2011

Those interested in kotatsu might also be interested in the older-style irori (いろり) hearths.
posted by jet_manifesto at 5:21 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I hate kotatsu for the reason zardoz gives above about my lower back beginning to hurt after 5 minutes on the floor, but the hori-gotatsu at my grandma's place was pretty cozy in the winter. But her dog (my dog now) didn't like it for some reason and never went inside the thing. That shibainu in the "dogs" link is so cute.

Some types you can buy here:

"Simple modern."
"Modern stylish."
"European classic."
"Dining table kotatsu."
Specialty store.
"Scandinavian design."
For cats only.

pts: Goddamn... untranslatable furniture.

I want to use that as my new username!
posted by misozaki at 5:28 PM on January 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Of course, it also means you have to learn to put up with a potentially remote, unpleasant, or outright abusive parent, which is the downside of the kotatsu family.

Yeah, the cliche of the angry father flinging the chabu-dai over. Heh.
posted by misozaki at 5:34 PM on January 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Thanks for that link, jet_manifesto! I was trying to figure out what they were called and kept getting side-tracked into tea-ceremony stuff which wasn't quite what I was after.
posted by ninazer0 at 6:34 PM on January 27, 2011

Ghidorah, that's interesting about the construction companies. I guess it's Dogs and Demons where I got the idea that the construction companies--which are very powerful, politically--prevent insulation from going in homes. To their advantage. A typical house or apartment building in Japan aren't built to last long, especially houses: only about 20 or so years. Then knock it down, build another one. For a construction company that's a long term win-win. Why would you put in insulation for a house that will just be knocked down and when no one expects insulation?

It's really quite amazing in a country that leads the world in technology in so many ways must be dead last among developed nations in terms of efficiently heating (and cooling) houses. Even something simple like double glazed windows are a pretty new phenomenon here, though they've been around other places in the world for decades.

The exception to the rule in all this is Hokkaido. Basically the Canada of Japan, it's cold and snowy probably 9 months out of the year, and insulation and even central heating are common there.
posted by zardoz at 7:37 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

zardoz, that's exactly what I was trying to remember. If a house was properly built and properly insulated, they wouldn't need to be torn down every twenty years, and the construction firms would lose out. The only* thing that Fukuda did that I remotely respect was calling for '200 year homes' (this is the only English link I could find discussing it), or houses built to last more than 20 years and would retain their value. Our house, luckily has double glazed windows, which is nice, but as far as I can tell, the walls are essentially hollow. And the floors are made of particle-board, which was kind of a shock when I found that out. I look at our house as a ten year lease. It'll take that long to pay off the value of the house, and if land prices stay stable, we'd maybe break even if we sold it, even though it was brand new when we bought it.

* I do love Fukuda for the あなたとのは違うんです。 moment. It still provides amusement for my wife and I.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:56 PM on January 27, 2011

Living in Japan, I recently asked a co-worker why they still use a kotatsu instead of heating a whole room (or house). Her answer: "When else will I see my whole family?" Well, it does bring you closer together...
posted by serf4luv at 8:11 PM on January 27, 2011

Years ago, I wasted far too much breath and energy on trying to convince my company higher-ups that they should forget the joke that is Cool Biz, turn the air-con back on so workers weren't passing out from heat exhaustion at their desks during the summer months, and instead install some damned insulation, which would save the company both XXXyen on heating/cooling costs, and do more for the environment than any of the other all image and no substance so-called "eco" initiatives they took so much pride in...


More wasted energy banging on a keyboard.

The single biggest problem Japan has:

The words "shouganai"...
posted by jet_manifesto at 8:40 PM on January 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


damn straight.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:48 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

More Japanese furniture, please.
posted by nzero at 8:49 PM on January 27, 2011

What's the, uh, sexual... undertones for this?

I remember freshman year in res which were cinderblock structures, in -40'C winters.

Shared blankets were so totally awesome!
posted by porpoise at 10:11 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, footsie is ridiculously easy, but it's kind of tricky, since you can't see who you're playing with.
posted by Ghidorah at 10:21 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is there a reason that there's always a bowl of oranges on the top?
posted by anotherkate at 10:31 PM on January 27, 2011

Is there a reason that there's always a bowl of oranges on the top?

Oranges are tasty, duh.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 11:20 PM on January 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

I would burn the shit out of myself with one of these.
posted by mollymayhem at 12:21 AM on January 28, 2011

i was introduced to these through maru and i've wanted one ever since!

on top of that - the conversation about building codes and insulation and such is very interesting.

it's 3am and i'm about to go to bed, but i'm gonna go ahead and say this is my favorite thread of the week. well done, everyone!
posted by nadawi at 1:11 AM on January 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Portuguese and Spanish folks use something similar, the "braseira" in Portugal and "brasero" in Spain. Often just a metal receptacle filled with hot coals from the fireplace, tucked into a frame under the table and covered. There are electric ones too.

Lots of Japanese things are Portuguese imports as a result of active trading & religious in the 1600s. Including tempura and the word "arigato", among many others. Maybe this is one of them. Or a Japanese import to Iberia?
posted by chavenet at 3:18 AM on January 28, 2011

chavenet, it's true that Japanese has many loan words from Portuguese, but arigato isn't one of them. It even says so in your Wikipedia link. It's a popular misconception stemming from the fact that arigato and obrigado happen to sound similar, but arigato comes from the adjective "arigatashi" (有り難し), which existed long before the Portuguese came to Japan.
posted by misozaki at 4:56 AM on January 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd just like to point out that poor insulation is not just a Japanese thing. There are other first world countries that are absolutely horrible about it. I am looking right at you England from the unbelievably cold and drafty living room of my flat where I have setup my own improvised Kotatsu which I will be modifying to be more japanase..
posted by srboisvert at 5:14 AM on January 28, 2011

I was such a scrooge when I lived over there and to my eternal regret never had a kotatsu. Loved hunkering down under one at my friend's house, but spent my winter nights in the furo with a steaming mug of ume-shu. That chases the cold right away.
Ghidorah - thanks for reminding me of Dogs and Demons. I read before I lived there but have been meaning to re-read it and the Looking for the Lost post-Nihon-life.
posted by ikahime at 8:13 AM on January 28, 2011

I used to fall asleep under my kotatsu, and was told numerous times by Japanese friends that that was just unhealthy. But if toasting my torso is wrong, I don't want to be right.

I ended up shipping my kotatsu to New York with the rest of my stuff when I left Japan, knowing I wouldn't need it as much in a better-insulated home. But it's just one of those things you associate with comfort from the bitter cold of winter, like a hot cup of cocoa or a blazing fireplace. So in that way, I sort of get why people wouldn't want to give them up for central heating. It's all about fond memories and warm, fuzzy feelings. (And I might just turn it on this winter since my landlord is being stingy about the heat.)

Anyway, even though you wouldn't need it in the states, you can buy them online. I noticed a while ago that Amazon has a limited selection. You wouldn't have the choices that you'd get in Japan, including the variety of blankets and blanket covers.
posted by zerbinetta at 8:49 AM on January 28, 2011

Typical winter conversation at work, Monday morning:
Japanese colleague: How was your weekend?
whatzit: great, yours?
J: fine, but my neck is so sore today!
w: what did you do?!
J: I spent all weekend under the kotatsu.
w: and...?
J: I fell asleep under the kotatsu.
w: uh...?
J: then I stayed under it Sunday, also.

I lived under one for 2 months. I miss my kotatsu.
posted by whatzit at 1:48 PM on January 28, 2011

What's the, uh, sexual... undertones for this?
- A lot of footsie.
posted by whatzit at 1:49 PM on January 28, 2011

porpoise: "What's the, uh, sexual... undertones for this?"

posted by not_on_display at 3:15 PM on January 28, 2011

chavenet, there's also a charcoal burning table here in Japan as well. You can find them in antique shops (and used furniture shops). I guess these are actually called hibachis, but I never knew that before just now. I've seen some beautiful ones, even dining room table sizes, with essentially a fire pit in the middle.

The only reason you could get away with one of these in Japan is that old style houses are so drafty. To some extent, draftiness is considered a feature, not a bug, here, and people seem to be trained to prefer drafts and breezes in a house.

I mentioned my coworker opening the windows yesterday to air out the office in near freezing weather. Other fun cold weather facts: Spring cleaning happens before new year's, and traditionally, this means people open all their doors and windows to air out the house while cleaning. Rather than just a cultural difference, I find it to be outright insane. We have spring cleaning in the States because that's when it gets warm. Still, I imagine it's a lot easier to open all the doors and windows when you have a nice charcoal fire blazing on your dining room table.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:02 PM on January 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

If it exists, there is a 'Hello Kitty' of it!  =^..^=
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 10:15 PM on January 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I mentioned my coworker opening the windows yesterday to air out the office in near freezing weather. Other fun cold weather facts: Spring cleaning happens before new year's, and traditionally, this means people open all their doors and windows to air out the house while cleaning.

I just remember when I was on JET having to do 150 oral speaking tests out in the unheated hallway. Damned cold.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:43 PM on January 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

people seem to be trained to prefer drafts and breezes in a house

Well, I certainly am now! Because I live here alone, I have complete freedom to 'run' my home in whatever way I wish, and I am now completely happy with the basically natural system I have here (no heating other than the kotatsu, or air conditioning other than the 'green curtain' I grow on the south side every summer).

This is kind of anecdotal I admit, but I absolutely feel healthier and better than I did when I lived in buildings (home and office) that were essentially the same climate all year round. My body knows what season it is; I sleep longer in winter, and (far) shorter in summer. (I don't use an alarm, but wake up when I'm 'ready'.)

I guess that being in 'shiver mode' isn't what everybody wants to do all winter, but it sure burns a lot of calories!
posted by woodblock100 at 11:02 PM on January 28, 2011

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