I Don’t Want a Bed
Sleeping in Japan isn’t as straight forward as you might expect. Houses in Japan have unique features that have led to differences in the appliances and things people use in the home. One of the most significant differences is the way people in Japan traditionally sleep.
With raised floors and often muddy outdoors, it is understandable that removing shoes before entering one’s house became commonplace, and then the rule. Since they are raised off the ground and cleaner without boots tracking in dirt, floor space is used differently in Japan.
With no impetus (dirt and bugs) to develop western style bedding and furniture, and the need for efficient use of space (Japan is and island nation), the bedding of choice is most often a futon.
What’s a Futon?
This is not the futon you’re looking for.
A Japanese futon is little more than a thickly padded quilt, usually accompanied by a pillow and comforter-type sheet to go over top. There are now many different styles depending on the season and temperatures where they’ll be used, but the main idea stays the same.
They’re a type of bedding that can be folded up and put away in a closet when not in use. They allow a room to be used for multiple purposes. This is a feature that western-style houses, with rooms for specific uses, do not always make practical.
I Threw out a Bed
As a part of the JET programme it is common to take over an apartment after your predecessor leaves. There’s good and bad about it. After living on Kitadaito Island for three years, I transferred to Kume Island and got my first look at my new apartment. As with my previous apartment it was standard teacher housing with one 6 tatami mat room and a kitchen/dining area about the same size. Although it was a similar size, the configuration of the rooms meant that if I tried to use each room for a specific purpose I could never have guests over and that the small apartment would feel small in addition to being small.
On the tatami mats was a bed with a questionable mattress. One look and I knew I wanted it gone. Since the tatami mats were in bad shape we had them replaced and I got to work turning what had long been a westernized space back towards its roots.
Long, Long Ago
My interest in getting rid of beds did not begin in Japan. In high school I had my own room, but as it was my only personal space I wanted to find the best way to utilize the limited area I had.
As a child I had a water bed (I was born in the eighties), but when we moved and I ended up on the second floor and that was a no starter. Essentially I had this giant frame taking up half the room. I thought of going to a hammock, but that would have required either expensive frames which would have defeated the point or drilling into walls. I didn’t win that one.
My next idea was to get a futon. I made my arguments but was eventually shot down there as well. First of all because I couldn’t find anywhere to actually get a real Japanese futon, and secondly because baby scorpions like to run around houses in Phoenix which make beds a good idea there.
Still, the idea stayed with me, and so when I arrived in Kitadaito I slept on a futon. I’ll admit that at first it did take a little getting used to, but I quickly found that it was much preferable to having a bed that would take up a quarter or more of the available living space. As you might know, I like to cook, so when people came over, there was plenty of space.
Getting rid of the bed on Kumejima allowed me to remove the sliding doors between the rooms (and actually use them as tables) when guests came over. Instead of one or two people, I could invite my coworkers over for a party and actually have room to sit. I now have a bit of a larger place, but I plan to stick with my futons going forward. The best part is that although you have to put them away, you never have to make a bed.
More on Futons
There are a few things you’ll want to know if you decide to go the futon route. First off, it’s not always easy to find a place to clean them. Generally you can buy coverings for both the quilt and the futon to help protect them, and you should air them once a week to prevent mold, etc. In Japan, you can find single sets for 7000 yen or less, or as much as several hundred dollars. There are various sizes as well with variations in the thickness. Some have special properties such as anti-bacterial stuffing. There are also generally summer and winter types for obvious reasons.
If you go to a Japanese-style inn or ryokan, you generally won’t have a bed. Instead there will probably be futons in a closet that may or may not be set out by staff for you. Generally there will be linen coverings for both the futon and comforter.