Selling tatamis used to be a profitable business in Hualien, with about 20 shops specializing in manufacturing the Japanese-style straw mats. That was 50 years ago; today, there is only shop left in the east coast city.
Ho Yi-hua (何益華), the 38-year-old proprietor of the last tatami shop in the city, said sales had declined due to changes in social trends, with fewer people using tatamis, as well as competition from machine-made products.
“Demand has dwindled over the decades, and the market has waned considerably,” he said. “The hand-made craft [of making tatamis] is in decline. Other shops shut down one by one over the years.”
Ho inherited his shop, founded more than 60 years ago, from his parents. However, producing handwoven tatamis is labor-intensive and not very profitable, so few people are willing to learn the trade, he said.
“My wish is to pass on my tatami-making skills to my children. If they do not carry it on, then this traditional craft will die with this generation,” he said.
“During their peak in the 1950s, the tatami shops employed about 20 workers each, turning out thousands of mats each year. This went on until the 1980s,” he said.
At the time a standard-sized tatami — about 2m by 1m — sold for NT$900 to NT$1,000.
“Now they sell for NT$4,000 each. Although the price is better, we now only sell about 400 tatamis each year,” he added.
Most of his orders come from old customers, bed-and-breakfast operators or projects in collaboration with interior decorators, he said.
“When covering the rooms and floors with tatami, the most difficult part is the edges and corners. The dimensions must be measured very precisely, otherwise it will leave small gaps,” he said.
“It can get very exhausting, because we have to deliver the tatamis to people’s homes. It is very tiring to carry a tatami weighing more than 20kg and walk up several flights of stairs,” he said.
Ho said it takes about an hour to make a standard-sized tatami. He uses a traditional bamboo-made ruler and set squares — passed down from his grandparents — to measure the dimensions and cuts the core of rice straws to size using a steel knife, then lays on the bamboo mat material and trims the excess.
“After that, I use a steel needle and thick nylon string to lace and bind them up into a mat. Customers choose the color and design for the fabric used to cover the sides,” he said.
Although business has slumped from its peak decades ago, Ho remains optimistic about prospects for handmade tatamis.
“Machine-made tatamis mostly use foam as the base, which can get hot in the summer as it does not dissipate heat well. After using it for a period, the mat looks flat and shrunken. Our handmade tatamis are warm in winter and cool in summer, and have good air permeability,” he said.
“Moreover, fashion is a cycle: Retro styles will become popular again. Our handmade tatamis are more refined, as we pay more attention to details. This can never be replaced by machine-made products,” Ho added.
“This is a precious traditional craft, handed down in my family for several generations. It will take all my life’s effort to carry on this trade, up to the day when my body can no longer take it. I hope this craft can be preserved and passed on for generations to come, ” Ho said.