As temperatures continue to drop, households around Japan will begin setting up their kotatsu: low tables covered with a heavy blanket whose underbelly holds an electric heater. Central heating is uncommon in Japan, where the preferred method of keeping warm are site-specific heating solutions like this one. And we often think of the kotatsu as a modern-day luxury but they’ve actually been around for hundreds of years, way before electricity was harnessed for household usage.


“Narcissus” (1769) by Suzuki Harunobu

Japanese woodblock prints are fun to admire not only for their artistic and aesthetic qualities but also because they are a first-hand record depicting what life was like hundreds of years ago. Case-in-point: the kotatsu. Woodblock prints dating back to as early as the mid-1700s show that the heated table was already well in-use. And as the Ota Memorial Museum of Art points out, even back then housecats loved them. Some things never change.

And while they obviously weren’t powered by electricity, the print below highlights the preferred energy source of the time, which was charcoal.

from the series “One Hundred Beautiful Women at Famous Places in Edo” (1857) by Utagawa Unisada

from the series “Thirty-two Aspects of Costumes” (1888) by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

from the series “Women Compared to Elegant Melodies” (1823) by Utagawa Kunisada

“Month 1” from “Picture Book of Flowers of the Four Seasons” (1801) by Kitagawa Utamaro


“Ayatori” (1765) by Suzuki Harunobu