The Tatami of Dongshi
Visiting a Straw Mat Maker in Central Taiwan
Text: Dallas Waldie
Photos: Maggie Song
During the first half of the last century, Japanese-style tatami mats and mattresses were common furnishings in Taiwanese households. Today, tatami making is a niche industry, with entrepreneurs having to find new – and often ingenious – ways to attract customers.
Tatami are traditional Japanese floor mats, with a core originally composed of rice straw. They are also commonly used as mattresses. The solid surface is said to be good for bad backs, and the mattresses keep you cool in the summer and warm during the winter. Tatami are extremely durable as well, and can be used for over a decade before showing wear-and-tear.
Tatami were introduced to Taiwan by the Japanese during the Japanese occupation period (1895~1945). Toward the end of this period, a revolutionary discovery regarding tatami was made: the use of lemongrass. When the Japanese were waging war in northeast India and Burma during World War II, they happened to discover the miraculous qualities of this grass. Soldiers claimed that after sleeping on lemongrass beds they would awake with a rejuvenated spirit, as if pressure and evil spirits had been removed overnight (less superstitious folk might attribute these effects to what was, in fact, unintended “lemongrass aromatherapy”).
Along with the natural stress-relief effects, lemongrass has anti-fungal properties which are beneficial for the skin, and the grass is also a natural bug repellant. The Japanese soon made it the material of choice when making high-quality tatami and, thankfully, brought lemongrass seeds to Taiwan from South Asia.
To learn more about tatami making in Taiwan, Travel in Taiwan recently ventured down to the small town of Dongshi in central Taiwan to speak with Mr. Huang Zhi-quan, a seasoned tatami craftsman who is one of just a few remaining manufacturers left in the country. He operates a small shop, the Donglin Tatami Factory, easily identified by the numerous tatami slates scattered around outside.
The doors are left wide open for friends, customers, and curious pedestrians, and to let cooling breezes pass through. Upon entering the shop I see a stockpile of mats Huang has completed, and a knee-high workbench. Another thing that strikes me is that almost every piece of furniture in the shop has been fitted with a custom lemongrass-tatami cushion.
Huang has been crafting tatami since the tender age of 8. Studying under his father’s guidance, he completed his first solo project at the age of 16. He claims that you have to start that early – otherwise your body will be unable to adapt to all the kneeling that is necessary.
The workbench is kept low in order to take stress off the worker’s back, neck, and shoulders – ensuring a lengthier career. After a good deal of practice, says Huang, your legs won’t feel the strain any longer, and he is proud to say that his body doesn’t ache at all after decades of the repetitive work.
Huang is a member of the Hakka minority, known for its emphasis on education. He is highly educated, having obtained a bachelor’s degree in business management and a master’s in law. After completing his studies and returning home with his abundance of academic credentials, however, he ultimately decided to take over the family business, which his grandfather started. He’s extremely affirmative about the positive effects of lemongrass tatami, and is passionate about his work. Strongly inspired by Buddhism, he also believes that even when doing business, money should be secondary – helping others, he says, is his primary goal.
Despite the tatami’s professed physical/mental benefits and practical functionality, its popularity has waned over the past few decades. Fewer and fewer young people are opting to pursue this trade as a career, and as a result the skills required to make quality handmade versions of this product are being lost. Even though tatami can now be made with machines, since the 1950s the total number of Taiwanese producers of hand- and machines-crafted tatami has been reduced from a few hundred to less than twenty.
The advance of science and the imported substitutes that now fill up local furniture stores have also had a detrimental impact on the industry. Tatami craftsmen now have to compete with manufacturers such as Tempur-Pedic, which produces remote-controlled mattresses with built-in heating systems! I doubt that Japanese royalty still opts for mattresses made of grass.
Luckily, Huang has a creative mindset, and has adapted to meet the needs of the modern market. The tatami is no longer limited to floor mats or mattresses at his store – it has been expanded into a full-blown lifestyle concept. From the time you wake up to the time you hit the sack, “tatami” can be with you in the form of pillows, seat cushions, slippers, hats, and yoga mats. Even a windbreaker is in the works.
From the time you wake up to the time you hit the sack, “tatami” can be with you in the form of pillows, seat cushions, slippers, hats, and yoga mats
Huang has also started using technology to his advantage by adding artistic designs to his mattresses – something no one else in Taiwan does. He thinks of the concepts himself, hires a designer to make the prints, and has the finished product manufactured at a factory in southern Taiwan. Something like this would be a nightmare if crafted manually, even for an experienced old hand like Huang.
Custom designing of patterns would be too expensive. Instead, Huang has segmented his market, coming up with a range of designs that satisfy different needs. For example, there are cartoon prints meant for kids, and traditional bamboo prints more suited for mature clients. For married couples, separate floral designs on two mattresses become a unified whole when the mattresses are placed side by side. These beautiful pieces of art can even be used as a substitute for your floor panels, bringing an authentic oriental aura to any room in the house.
Incorporating artistic designs into his tatami has been among Huang’s most successful efforts at diversification and innovation, turning the heads of many and even gaining him exposure in major newspaper articles. Although most customers are attracted to tatami for their functionality and health benefits, enhancing their visual appeal has helped regenerate interest, blending modern styling with traditional craftsmanship. The master states that he is open to all new concepts, as long as they do not degrade the craft. For example, incorporating prints of movie stars and presidential candidates seems like a viable idea, but could also cause controversy. Mr. Huang isn’t that eager to make a quick buck.
Incorporating artistic designs into his tatami has been among Huang’s most successful efforts at diversification and innovation
Although product design is being moved along on the path of innovation, manufacturers still prefer to preserve the traditional methods of doing business. Huang has no website available to show his ten-plus varieties of tatami, and rarely takes the initiative to advertise – word of mouth is still the fuel for growth. He nevertheless has big aspirations for the expansion of the tatami market, hoping that public institutions such as hospitals or schools, for example, which are crammed with stressed-filled souls (and sometimes uncomfortable furniture), will pick up on the benefits of tatami.
If interested in purchasing your own tatami masterpiece, your best bet is to head to Huang’s workshop. Most people aren’t sure what type of tatami would best suit them, especially first-time buyers, so it’s worth your while to have a quick chat with him. After a brief interview, Huang should be able to sort out your needs and intended method of usage.
English and Chinese
Donglin Tatami Factory (東彬疊工廠)
Add:68, Ben St., Yanping Borough, Dongshi Township, Taichung County (台中縣東勢鎮延平里本街68號)
Tel: (04) 2587-4793