You have probably seen this scene in a Japanese TV-drama before: it is night time, everyone is at home, and the whole family gathers around this tiny low table on the floor with a thick heavy cover lying on top. Everyone look so warm and satisfied with their bodies under the cover. The family members have a great time while chatting, watching TV, and eating the plate full of mikan on the table. This is a very common scene when they depict an image of a warm and peaceful family.
So what is this little table that they are hiding under? The little table is called a Kotatsu (こたつ). Essentially, it is a little floor-level table with an electric heater underneath. It warms up very quickly, and it doesn’t require much energy because the heat is trapped under the heavy blanket. For about 140w-300w for a kotatsu, the energy costs only between 1 to 4yen per hour of this warm little heaven in the living room.
A modern kotatsu set has three pieces: the heater table, a heavy blanket to place on top of the kotatsu, and a thin futon/rug placed on the floor. Traditional kotatsu used charcoal heaters placed in a pit, and there are electric pit-type kotatsus as well, which are both uncommon nowadays. Once I bought purchased my own kotatsu, it immediately became the centre piece of my tiny living room.
A kotatsu isn’t expensive either. You can grab a brand new personal-size kotatsu for as low as 5000yen, and below 9000yen for a family size. Nicer ones with a better table would come more expensive, but essentially they all do the same thing of keeping your body warm. What might come as a surprise is that the cover (cover plus under-carpet) could end up costing more than the electric appliance itself.
The table is perfect to be used on the floor. Grab a comfortable floor mat or sitting cushion and stick your lower body inside. The wide flat surface up top means you can use it as a coffee table. In fact, many people enjoy sukiyaki and nabe from inside their kotatsu with the help of a portable butane stove. There is no need to bear the cold kitchen when you can cook from under the heated table where you will also dine at. During the summer, you can remove the sheets and let it remain unplugged to use it as a normal table, which is what I do. Or you might remove its legs for easy storage, if you prefer.
For many Japanese families, this is their savoir from the cold harsh winter. However, since it is so comfortable, it is also the downfall of productivity. A few of my friends (and their cats) fall asleep in their kotatsu regularly. Most kotatsu owners I know also agree that kotatsus are dangerous simply because once you get in, you don’t want to leave the comfort. They have warned me with statements such as “my kotatsu is ruining me, and it will ruin you too” and “this invention will make humans devolve”. As an owner of a kotatsu myself, I can firmly verify that the claims are true.
There are also various kinds of kotatsu, such as tall kotatsu suitable to replace a dining table, or tiny kotatsu only for your feet. Personally, I don’t care what the shape is as long as I am kept warm and comfortable.
If you are new to Japan, definitely find an opportunity to visit someone with a kotatsu to experience this little dangerous floor-level heaven. Getting into a kotatsu with friends and family is one of the warmest things you could enjoy in a Japanese winter, both physically and spiritually. And when the winter is really getting to you, purchase yourself a little affordable kotatsu to warm your life up. Just don’t blame me for all the nights that you will inevitably fall asleep in the too-comfortable kotatsu.