Wed, Dec 13, 2017 - Page 4 News List

Handmade tatamis a rare Chiayi County craft

By Cheng Nai-chiang and Sherry Hsiao  /  Staff reporter, with staff writer

Tatami maker Chiu Po, 85, makes a traditional straw tatami mat in his workshop in Chiayi County’s Jhuci Township on Nov. 21.

Photo: Tseng Nai–chiang, Taipei Times

Chiu Po (邱波), 85, runs one of two remaining businesses in Chiayi County that insist on weaving tatamis by hand.

Chiu said he left Chiayi’s Meishan Township (梅山) to develop his skills in Jhuci Township (竹崎) when he was 16 years old because of family circumstances.

Chiu opened his own tatami business when he was 26 years old.

Jhuci is on the Alishan Forest Railway route, so many Japanese-style hotels opened in the area for lumberjacks and tourists, Chiu said.

Most tatamis at the time were bought by hotels to repair or replace existing ones, he added.

Demand for tatamis sharply decreased in the 1980s with the rise of spring mattresses, Chiu said, adding that Japanese-imported bases made of compressed wood chips or polystyrene foam, which are waterproof and durable, were also introduced.

A tatami has a straw base in the middle layer which is made by placing rice straw horizontally and vertically in five layers to create thickness.

Minhsiung Culture and Education Foundation humanistic photography teacher Wei San-feng (魏三峰) said the smell of rice straw reminds him of his childhood.

Wei, whose students photographed Chiu’s handcraft, said that a tatami is neither too soft or firm and can be laid flat or folded, making it very versatile.

“As long as you put your heart into the work and insist on quality, you do not have to worry about customers not returning,” Chiu said.

Cheng Shun-hsing (鄭順興), 61, retired from his job as a physical therapist at Puzi Hospital two years ago and inherited his father’s tatami business in Puzi City (朴子).

Echoing Chiu, Cheng said the majority of tatami mats are sold to families rather than hotels.

Cheng said he has developed pillows, support pillows, coasters and other products.

The exterior of the pillow is made with foam while the middle layer is rice straw, Cheng said, adding that body heat is released through the straw making the pillows breathable.

Years of squatting to weave tatami have caused pain in Chiu’s lower back and hands, he said, adding that he has undergone cataract surgery, but he is unwilling to retire and regrets that there is no one to inherit the craft.

Cheng also wishes to pass on his skills and has taught people how to make tatami at community centers in Lioujiao Township’s (六腳) Wanbei Village (灣北) and Puzi City’s Shuntian Village (順天).

Wei said that a photography exhibition at the Chiayi District Prosecutors’ Office in March next year would show the process of tatami making.

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