What is a kotatsu?
In case you are already familair with the concept you can scroll down ;). A kotatsu is a Japanese heating appliance consisting out of a table, a futon (a sort of thick blanket / quilt) and a heat source. The futon, is placed over the kotatsu table, which has a heater unit placed under its top. (see the picture below for more details) These three items (table, heater and futon) together form one comple kotatsu set. The heat generated by the heating unit is trapped under the blanket, thereby providing a warm and cozy area for people to sit under. Most people only place the lower part of their body under the blanket, and it is not recommended to sleep under the kotatsu, because moving during your sleep can cause you to accidentally touch the heating unit. In winter times Japanese families tend to gather around the kotatsu and play games, eat or watch television. It is somewhat of a tradition to eat mandarins under the kotatsu in winter.
Kotatsu come in various shapes and heights. Since Japanese people tend to sit on their tatami mat floors, the height of the devices used tends to be pretty low. In other places higher tables might be wishful. In this case you can sit on a chair or couch, and still enjoy the warmth provided by the kotatsu. Even though high kotatsus are rare within Japan, outside of Japan they can be bought online at Amazon. When buying a kotatsu make sure to always carefully read the description! Sometimes the item sold is just the blanket or heater, and therefore does not form a complete set! (This is of course no problem if you are looking for a DIY project.)
A selection of kotatsu available online: The price of a complete set can vary, and usually depends on the type and quality of the product you like. Japanese people generally value high quality products, and these come at a price. At big sites like Amazon kotatsu of different prices and qualities can be found. When you buy a complete set you usually get a discount compared to buying the table, futon and heater seperately. Since sets can be quite large, it can happen that the costs of sending the kotatsu overseas take up a large portion of the total price. However, I am convinced that if you find the right kotatsu for you it will give you a lifetime of pleasure, warmth and comfort! One of my mother her friends bought a kotatsu recently, and she told me that since she bought it her family spend more time together, watching television and playing games together while enjoying the warmth of the kotatsu. Of course this only works well during cold winter days.
There are different kind of kotatsu tables available on the market. The most important difference between the various tables that are used for kotatsus are the height and the size of the surfaces of the table top. One important thing that needs to be considered is if the table will be used for other purposes as well. Some kotatsu tables allow the option to be used as a normal table, or even as a desk when the futon is removed. The traditional Japanese heater tables are usually fairly low, at a height of about 40 centimeters or about 16 inches. It should be noted that some tables that can be ordered online come with a heater, while others come stand-alone and require you to purchase the heater separately.
The kotatsu heater is the beating heart of a traditional Japanese heater. In the older days heaters used to be small stoves or furnaces, which were heated using coal. However, this caused serious health and safety concerns. Nowadays practically all kotatsus are heated using electrical warmth elements. One should still be cautious not to accidentally touch the heat elements, as this can result in serious burns.
Sometimes a heater stops functioning, in which case it needs to be replaced. This can easily be done by detaching the screws, and attaching a new heath element. Heaters come in both 120V and/or 230V configuration and can be bought separate from the futon and table.
Kotatsu futon The kotatsu futon is a thick blanket, similar to a quilt, under which you can sit and enjoy the warmth of the kotatsu. Some people prefer to buy multiple futons with their kotatsu, because this allows them to wash the futon in case it has gotten dirty. When buying a kotatsu futon always make sure that its size actually fits your table, as well as your own personal preferences. The price of the futon can vary significantly, and usually depends on the quality and fabrication method of the blanket. In Japan some very expensive traditionally hand made futons can be bought, but these tend to be rare in the United States. Please note that a shikibuton, which is generally used to sleep on, is not the same kind of futon as needed for the kotatsu!
Where to buy a kotatsu table?
If you stubmled across this site, you probably want to know where you can buy those warm and comfy kotatsus! To be honest, I was struggling as well since there are not many sellers (if any) of kotatsu outside of Japan. In the end I decided to buy a kotatsu online. Here are the options for buying a kotatsu outside of Japan:
Amazon offers a variaty of Kotatsus from different sellers. I have ordered products from sellers on Amazon and I had no problems so far! One time an item didn’t get delivered as it was supposed to, but Amazon was quick to take care of it!
Rakuten is the international site of the Rakuten shop in Japan. Basically it is the Amazon of Japan, and I have ordered things from this site both in and outside of Japan and never experienced any problems!
Ebay does this website really need an explanation? Ebay has proven a safe and reliable place to buy stuff for many years now. One disadvantage of buying on E-bay is that most things offered there are second hand, which some people might dislike.
Sitting under the kotatsu (physical issues)
The kotatsu is mainly used in Japan, and Japanese culture is very different from Western culture. In Japan it is not unusual to sit on the ground for extended periods of time. As a result, Japanese people have gotten very used to this. Me and most of my Western friends however, got pretty uncomfortable after sitting on the floor with our legs crossed for over 20 minutes. Even though I have gotten used to sitting on the floor, it is still hard for me to spend extended periods sitting on a hard surface. When using my kotatsu table I always make sure I have some extra pillows or futtons to sit on to relieve this pain. However, since kotatsu tables sometimes are pretty low, please make sure that there is enough space for you to sit under when using an extra pillow for comfort.
Another option that you can consider is to purchase a zaisu along with your kotatsu. A zaisu is a typical Japanese floor chair that provides you with a backrest, while sitting on the floor!
Difference in voltage and plugs
Another important thing to check when buying a kotatsu table is the voltage and plug that the kotatsu you buy requires. Since some of the kotatsu tables that can be bought online are shipped from other countries, these do not necessarily match the ones in your country. Both Japan and the U.S. use a voltage of 120V, and they also use the same plug. However some other countries might use a higher voltage. (Some countries use a voltage of around 230V or 240V, and the frequency of the current can also vary!) This is an important thing to check! Most electrical devices can handle a voltage lower than intended, but this does not work the other way around. One of my friends brought a television set home from Japan, only to see it burn out once plugged in.
When purchasing a kotatsu, please make sure that it is suited to handle your country’s respective voltage!
When using a futon there are some simple (some might call it common sense) rules or guidelines that need to be taken into consideration. It is usually not recommended to sleep under a kotatsu, because this can cause you to accidentally touch the heating element when moving in your sleep. Depending on the type of heater that you are using, this can result from small blisters into serious burn wounds.
You should also not let your babies or toddlers in the kotatsu, because they do not have the strength or realisation to get out. There are some known cases were babies were placed under kotatsus and got dehydrated and / or an increased body temperature to very serious extent.