Tatami rooms are becoming less and less a part of Japanese homes. I know this because one of my uncles in Japan is a tatami weaver!
Tatami's are made with igusa (rush straws). I wish I had a picture of some igusa but I haven't seen a crop in decades. There are still some places that raise igusa in Japan, but the number has decreased over the years due to low priced straw from China. However, according to my mother, the smell of Japanese igusa is much sweeter than imports. There is also a lot of hype these days about the amount of pesticides used in China so now consumers are becoming more aware of what their tatamis are made of, and hopefully this will lead to more "home grown" and/or pesticide free tatami.
The igusa is picked when green and it is woven into mats. The mats are then sewed onto "boards" made of rice straws. (Some new materials have shown up to replace these boards too.) The rims of the long side of the tatami are then covered with a specially woven cloth.
This rim is called "heri" and these are mainly sewn on for decorative purposes. Ryukyu datami (or tatami from Okinawa) does not have any heri and is popular these days in places other than Okinawa.
In some (traditional) households, and during ceremonies, it is not polite to step on the heri!
There are several reasons for this..some are sort of superstitious but one is actually "eco friendly": The more you step on the material the faster it wears out!
Most "heri" is pretty colorful, but sometimes the material clashes with furniture or curtains, so these days a lot of people choose simple materials and earthy colors to blend in with the decor.
I didn't choose ours, it was already installed into our apartment when we moved in, so I'm afraid I can't show you "pretty ones"... ours is this....
...a simple dark brown. As you can see, we've had these mats for 3 years now and they are not the beautiful green they were when we first moved in. I'd like to change them but they aren't supposed to stay green forever and the fibers are not damaged at all since we hardly use this room.
Living in tatami rooms is supposed to be good for your health. That is what the "tatami weaver's association" (tatami shokunin kyokai) says. According to the association, studies show that the standing up and sitting down on the floor helps to strengthen bones. The mats also soak in CO2 and help clean the air... it's like having a built in air filter... on your floor!
Culture is largely sculpted by the natural environment, and tatami is a perfect example of this. If you have experienced the hot and humid summers of Japan, then you will know that the texture of the tatami floors are a blessing to sticky feet. They are dry and often cool to the touch in summer.
The best way to clean your tatami is with a rag soaked in hot water. Be sure to wring out all the water. Nothing is worse for tatami than a very damp rag! Wipe the tatami along the fibers so as not to snag them. It is best to "hang out" the tatami twice a year to keep them dry, especially after the rainy season (June). This is easier said than done, so not very many people do this anymore. A good substitute for this process is to add a few drops of vinegar into the hot water you soak your rag in. The vinegar acts as a natural disinfectant.
We hardly use our one tatami room for several reasons
1) It is being used as my library and I don't have enough shelf space yet so there's lots of books stacked on the floor.
2) I can't decide on a "look". (Couches, western style tables and chairs do not look good on tatami. They make indentations of the mats as well.)
However, when I was in Nagasaki last year, I stopped by Dejima - a small part of Nagasaki City (more like one block) that used to be the home of Dutch ship merchants from 1636 to 1839. Does the East India Company wring a bell? (For more information please visit the Dejima official website.)
This is where I found for the first time, a tatami room that didn't look odd with western style furniture.
I think I have finally found "the look" that I want.
Now I just have to save money to buy the right kind of furniture...uh oh!