Okui Factory, Kobe – Mini Tatami Making in a Family-run Factory
In a previous article, we introduced you to the rich Japanese tradition of tatami. Join us for a sneak peek inside a real tatami shop, and enjoy a step-by-step making of a mini-tatami!
Tatami is an exceptional bit of the Japanese culture that has been unfortunately suffering a decline in popularity for several decades now, which leads to family-run factories closing down and the younger generations choosing not to continue with the business.
But fear not, as tatami is not dead yet! Many small tatami shops still believe in the future of tatami and vow to keep it alive. Such is the case of Keita, who chose to join his family’s tatami-making factory and trusts this unique token of Japanese culture still has a long future ahead.
To take a closer look at this Japanese cultural icon, I took a trip to the lovely seaside city of Kobe, where my friend Keita and his mother invited me to their workshop to, not only learn about the process of tatami-making but actually make a miniature-sized tatami myself!
The Okui family has been in the tatami business since 1958 and has been passing on the art and love for this craft for 3 generations. Keita, the youngest and newest addition to the team, speaks passionately about tatami, and his young energy combines wonderfully with his wide knowledge of the craft.
During our afternoon at the Okui factory, he patiently explained every step of the process and guided me in making my own mini tatami.
As this is a miniature scale tatami, the process is a bit different from the one they use for making the full-size tatamis, but the results are pretty much the same. I couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome!
The first thing we did was line our small board with the woven rush mat. There are different qualities with varying prices; we used a pretty nice one, and you can clearly see the difference when comparing it to more affordable kinds, as shown in the picture below.
We then secured the mat to the board using thumbtacks to tighten it as much as possible and keep it in place. After that, we secured the mat to the board by stapling it. In the full-size version, they do this by sewing it by hand with a very large needle! I haven’t tried it myself, but it looks like it requires a great deal of strength!
Next, the heri is attached. Heri is the ribbon used to cover the edges of the tatami, and they come in various types of fabrics, typically with some sort of patterned motif. You can find heris with sober, folk designs, Japanese culture icons such as the Maneki Neko cat or, nowadays, you can even find kids-themed heris to use in your children’s bedrooms. We chose a sober, classic heri for our mini-tatamis.
This part requires precision so that it’s perfectly lined, and there is also a standard width for the heri edge, so we used pre-measured cardboard strips to make sure we achieved this. When folding the heri over the cardboard, you should use your fingernails to crease it tightly.
You then have to trim a bit of the heri in order to fold it neatly into the corners of the board. It’s a bit of a tricky part of the process and you can’t be sloppy here, as it’ll make the difference between a pro-looking tatami and a school art project.
Finally, we used some duct tape to finish the reverse side of our mini tatamis, but in the full-size version, this doesn’t happen. In fact, actual tatami boards are reversible! This helps extend their lifespan since it means that after around 3 or 4 years of using your tatami board when it’s starting to look old, you can flip it over and voilà! You have a new tatami board, ready to be used for another 3 years or so.
That’s it! Our mini tatamis are ready!
After an afternoon learning about tatami and making my own, I gained a new appreciation for this type of flooring and art. Making tatami isn’t easy and, standing by it in this modern world is a real struggle. But thankfully small shops like this one still exist and are not planning to give up anytime soon.
Hope you enjoyed this process as much as I did. I’m thrilled whenever I set foot on a tatami room and inhale its characteristic scent and, after this experience, I’m always reminded of the careful processes involved in making it.
Let’s keep the tradition of tatami alive!