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What is a Japanese Futon Mattress?

If you have ever travelled to Japan for a vacation or business trip, chance are that during a warm, sunny morning, you’ll find strange looking, thick blankets hanging from virtually every window balcony across Tokyo or any other major urban center. Despite having made enormous technological progress, the Japanese people continue to maintain several elements of their ancestral culture intact, including the Japanese futon mattress.

Due to the Buddhist influence and focus on minimalist living, most Japanese families have foregone the use of traditional western beds and mattresses and have instead adopted the Japanese futon mattress, a staple of the culture and way of life of the Japanese people for thousands of years.

If you stay at a five star hotel during your brief stay in Japan, chances are that you will find the same type of bed and fluffy, western-style mattress that you would find at any Holiday Inn in the United States or Europe. However, smaller hotels, hostels and bed and breakfasts scattered around Japan continue to greet guests with the traditional Japanese futon mattress.

For people who unaware of Japanese culture, history, and traditions, the first thought to cross your mind might very well be: “where is the bed? A Japanese futon mattress is much simpler and unassuming in appearance than the traditional western-style bed and mattress. However, the simple looks of this eastern bedding option doesn’t mean that you will be waking up with an aching back.

The traditional Japanese futon mattress is made up of two separate parts, the “shikibuton” which is most comparable to the mattress part of the bed, and the “kakebuton”, which is like a thick duvet or blanketing used to keep warm. These two parts of the Japanese futon mattress are laid onto the ground, usually in a corner of the room in a usually inconspicuous fashion and then stored elsewhere during the day.

In most Japanese towns and cities, people gather up their futon and hang it on clotheslines outside during warm sunny mornings. By midday, or when the clouds roll in, the futons are then taken inside and stored in an “oshiire”, or a special closet in the home where the futons are stored. Thus, most rooms in traditional Japanese homes may look roomier than their western counterparts. The extra space freed up by the storing of the beds allows the rooms in a home to be used for other purposes during the day.

It is important as well to differentiate between an authentic Japanese futon mattress and the western imitation futons that are sold at virtually every furniture store around the country. Since most westerners are unaccustomed to sleeping on the floor, many imitation futons are simply a thick mattress that is placed on a wooden style sofas or sofa beds.

One of the main differences between the western futon (sofa bed) and the authentic Japanese futon mattress is that the Japanese futon is light and flexible enough to be folded 180 degrees to allow for drying on a line and easy storage. Most western-style futons are too thick and heavy to be able to be completely folded in half. Furthermore, the western-style futon is almost never placed directly on the floor, but rather sits on some sort of wooden frame or bed. Lastly, Japanese futons are usually considerably smaller than the massive queen and king mattresses that are so common in American homes. Most Americanized futons have adopted the larger dimensions that are most common in western culture.

Some Fundamentals of the Authentic Japanese Futon Mattress

If you do a simple search for “futon” on Google, chances are that you will get several different styles of beds. Most people in the United States equate futon with either the westernized sofa bed that dons the living room and can be converted to an extra bed in the case of unexpected visitors or the cheap throw-down mattress that characterize dorm rooms on university campus.

An authentic Japanese futon mattress, however, is much more functional, practical, and well designed than either of these imitations. Below we offer a couple fundamental characteristics that will help you to identify and recognize an authentic Japanese futon mattress.

1. Japanese futons are usually made from 100% cotton. Both the inner stuffing and the outer cover should be made from cotton or some other natural material. If a futon is made from synthetic fibers, chances are that it more closely resembles the American style imitations.

2. A Japanese futon mattress should be relatively hard. Traditional Japanese wisdom states that sleeping on soft surfaces will make your body “soft” and lead to certain diseases and physical ailments. For that reason, real Japanese futons should feel stiff, but not completely unyielding. If your futon feels like you’re sleeping on the clouds, you definitely have gotten an Americanized imitation.

3. Japanese futon mattresses come with a traditional pillow called a “makura”. These pillows for the futon are generally small in size, no larger than 20 by 30 cm. If you have large, fluffy pillows included with your futon, this is most likely not the authentic deal.

4. Lastly, a Japanese futon mattress should be flexible enough for you to be able to fold it completely in half. As mentioned above, this allows for storage and also facilitates taking the futon outside to dry in the sun. When staying at traditional Japanese hostels or inns, it is considered polite etiquette to fold and store your futon after a night’s sleep.

14 Benefits of Using a Japanese Futon Mattress

If you have never slept on a Japanese futon mattress, it might take some getting used to. For the first couple of nights, the feeling of sleeping on the floor might make you feel like you’re at a slumber party. Additionally, the firmness and rigidity of the Japanese futon mattress might also cause some discomfort at first, though a quality futon should never cause you any sort of pain and soreness, unless you suffer from some sort of chronic back or muscular pain.

Once you get used to traditional Japanese bedding, however, you will quickly find that there are several benefits to incorporating a Japanese futon mattress into your home. These benefits are related both to your own health, and also to the decoration and functionality of the different spaces in your home. Below, we look at fourteen different benefits that come with using one (or several) Japanese futon mattresses in your home.

1. The Essence of Green Bedding

Most western-style beds are made from synthetic fibers and fabrics. While the beds may certainly feel soft, these materials are almost always derived from plastics and petroleum. If you are looking for a green or eco-friendly bedding option, a Japanese futon mattress, when authentic, is made from 100% cotton. Many companies promise to make their futons cotton that is sourced from organic and sustainable production methods. Both the inner filling and the outer cover should be made from 100% organically sourced cotton if you are looking for the most eco-friendly option.

2. Helps to Ease Problems with Night Sweats

Thousands of people around the world suffer from night sweats. This problem can be associated with either mental or physical health issues, including anxiety attacks, improper functioning of the heart, amongst others. In all cases, night sweats can lead to an uncomfortable night in bed leading to tiredness, fatigue and insomnia.

Since an authentic Japanese futon mattress is made from 100% cotton, this material will help to wick away the moisture that accumulates due to night sweats and keep you fresh and dry due to the breathability of cotton. Synthetic fibers that characterize most western style beds often lead to a feeling of stickiness that make it impossible to get a good night’s sleep.

3. No Fear of Falling off the Bed

While falling off the bed might not be something that many adults worry about, almost every parent has suffered through the first nights when their infant or toddler moves into his or her own bed. The feelings of anxiety waiting to hear the “bump” when they roll off the bed can lead to many a sleepless night. Purchasing a Japanese futon mattress for infants, toddlers or children can help to assuage the fears of parents trying to get their young ones to sleep in their own rooms without having to deal with cribs or strange looking bed rails.

4. Facilitates Mobility

Most people will move several times during their lifetimes. When it comes to moving to a new home, the hardest (and heaviest) things to move are the beds, bedframes, mattresses, headboards, and other pieces that make up the place where you sleep. If you are thinking of hiring a moving company, the price they charge is often related to the number beds they are going to have to move. By purchasing Japanese futon mattresses for your home, you can essentially avoid the difficulty of having to move large, heavy objects every time a new job sends you packing into a new home.

5. Frees Up Space in Your Home

As we mentioned above, one of the nicest aspects of a Japanese futon mattress is that they traditionally were folded up and stored in a special closet in the home. When you look at your bedroom, chances are that the majority of space is dedicated to the place where your bed sits. With a futon, you can free up much space in the rooms in your home so that space can be used for other ends.

For people who live in tiny homes, apartments or studios, the lightness and portability of a Japanese futon mattress is essential for maximizing the amount of usable space in your home. Instead of trying to cram your office space into a corner of your kitchen, your bedroom can also be a functional office space once you store your futon in the morning.

6. Helps Get Rid of Allergens

Most western-style bedding is a high-risk place for people suffering from allergies. Since the bulkiness of western mattresses, duvets, and comforters make them close to impossible to “air out” on a regular basis, dust, mites, and other allergens can often take up residence in your bedding. A Japanese style futon, however, allows you to easily air out your mattress during sunny mornings. The UV rays of the sun will kill off the allergens and a gentle “beating” of your futon will get rid of accumulated dust and other particles.

7. Facilitates Extra Guests in Your Home

It is always a bit of an embarrassment when you are forced to offer your couch as a makeshift bed for an unexpected guest. A major benefit of having a couple of extra Japanese futon mattresses on hand is that you can always be prepared for a major slumber party when you least expect it. These futons can easily be placed in semi-private corners around your home to accommodate as many guests as you can handle while still offering them a comfortable, relaxing night’s sleep.

8. Better for Your Back and Posture

While many people might swear that a soft and spongy mattress is the best for their back, several studies have begun to show why firm (but not hard) bedding options are better for your back, spine, and overall posture. A Japanese futon mattress isn’t like sleeping on a board, however, and after a couple nights of getting used to the firmness, you should find that you feel better after a night’s sleep. These types of futon mattresses are recommended especially for people suffering from scoliosis and other back problems.

9. Much More Inexpensive Bedding Option

For new homeowners, the cost of purchasing a new bed and mattress for the 4-5 bedrooms in your new home might be prohibitively expensive. A new bed and mattress set might run you several thousand dollars, and if you are purchasing several new beds and mattresses, you will be looking at a sizeable cost. Most Japanese futons cost you only a couple hundred dollars allowing you to furnish the bedrooms in your home without causing a dent in your wallet.

10. A Closer Feel to the Natural World

Sleeping on the floor won’t exactly put you in contact with the soil or earth, but it does generate a feeling of closeness and proximity to the natural world. Proponents of biophilic architectural design stress the importance of finding ways to bring the natural world into our homes. A Japanese futon mattress will allow you to feel as if you are sleeping on a bed of pine needles underneath the forest every night you turn off the lights.

11. The Weight of the Kakebuton Brings Sensation of Warmth

The Kakebuton is the covering or blanket that accompanies the Japanese futon mattress. Just like the mattress, this duvet or covering is traditionally made from 100% cotton and brings with it a feeling of warmth and heaviness that is reassuring. The weight of the blanket will keep your warm in the winter but won’t lead to overheating warmer climates because of the breathability of the natural fabric.

12. Impossible to “Break”

Almost all of us were scolded as children for jumping on the bed or breaking the springs in our old-time mattress. Another quality benefit of a Japanese futon mattress is that they are essentially impossible to break. Unless your child takes a knife to the mattress or your puppy uses it as a chew toy, futons can be trampled on, jumped on, and submitted to all sorts of rough play that usually occurs in a child’s bedroom without the threat of breaking.

13. Makes Your House Seem Larger than It Is

While you can choose to store your Japanese futon mattress on a daily basis, most people decide to simply leave their mattress in place. Even if your futon is laying in the corner of your room on the floor, the fact that it is so low will make your room seem larger and roomier than what it actually is. This is a great benefit for smaller homes and apartments and can help get rid of the “cramped” feel of many smaller spaces.

14. Perfect for Side Sleepers

Every person has his or her own preferred sleeping position. For those who are used to sleeping on their sides, a Japanese futon mattress is a fantastic option that will give you the perfect balance of comfort and support. Super soft and spongy mattresses often lead to improper back angles and postures for side sleepers while the firmness of a Japanese futon offers just the right amount of support.

The Therapeutic Effect of the Japanese Futon Mattress

One recent study found that sleeping on extremely soft, spongy or excessively cushioned surfaces can exacerbate chronic back pain. Mattresses that “slouch” or sag under your weight can lead to a curved spine. When you are sleeping 8-10 hours in a position where your spine is not straight, this can cause serious problems to your back.

Furthermore, the firmness and compactness of a Japanese futon mattress is a great option for people suffer from muscle-related problems in the back. The firm cotton support of a futon will give you just the right amount of stability while not being so stiff and rigid to cause discomfort.

The ancient Japanese wisdom related to soft beds causing your body to go “soft” might very well have solid scientific evidence as more and more chiropractors and other medical professionals are beginning to recommend the use of futons in the home.

10 Best Japanese Futon Mattresses

If you are ready to switch from your typical, American-style mattress to an authentic Japanese futon mattress, the most important thing is to make sure that you are getting a genuine futon and not the Americanized imitation. Below we have short but complete reviews of the the best 10 real and dependable Japanese futons.

1. EMOOR Japanese Traditional Futon Mattress Classe Single Size: This unique futon is made by Japanese craftsmen and is fabricated from 100% hygroscopic cotton. It comes in twin, full, and full-short sizes so that you can find the best fit for you.

2. DHP 6-Inch Futon Mattress: This is one of the most inexpensive authentic Japanese futon mattresses that you’ll find online. While this option does include coils (which aren’t authentic) the price is hard to beat at just over $100.

3. FULI Japanese Traditional Shiki Futon (shikibuton) High Grade Mattress: The Japanese futon offered by FULI is another great option for people looking for an introduction to traditional Japanese beds. The mattress promises to be anti-mite and antibacterial which will keep you fresh during warm nights.

4. Emoor 4-Pieces Japanese Futon Set, Twin Size: For folks who are looking to furnish several rooms in their house with authentic Japanese futons, this four piece set also provided by Emoor is a great addition. Priced reasonably, the unique gray tone goes well with many existing bedroom décor. The pieces can be either used together for extra comfort or separate for a more rigid sleeping surface.

5. Magshion Furniture: Another great option for a Japanese futon mattress is offered by the company Magshion furniture. This product is extremely lightweight at just over 11 pounds making it a great option for people who want maximum portability. You can pack this bed with you anywhere you want to go.

6. Colorful Mart Grey Futon Tatami Mat Japanese Futon Mattress: While many people might think that futons are best suited for people of smaller stature, this Japanese futon comes in a full king size. While the cover material is made from polyester, the extra size is great for couples that don’t want to be fighting for space.

7. Niceday TEIJIN AcFit(R) Cotton Japanese Traditional Shiki Futon: Niceday is another provider of quality Japanese futons. This futon is designed as a three layer mattress to give you maximum protection and stability while sleeping.

8. Zinus Sleep Master Memory Foam 4 Inch Tri-Fold Comfort Portable Folding Mattress or Floor Mat: This quality mattress by Zinus isn’t necessarily marketed as a Japanese futon, but it certainly fits the description. This futon can easily be rolled up for easy storage and the memory foam core offers maximum comfort for people with back problems.

9. White Lotus Home Green Cotton and Wool Boulder Dreamton Mattress: This is easily the most expensive option reviewed here, however, it is also one of the most quality futons you can find for long-term durability and maximum comfort. The inner material of this mattress is a unique blend of cotton and wool while the outer casing is 100% organic cotton. Each one of these futons are hand made in the USA.

10. The Futon Shop 2-Inch Organic Cotton Mattress Topper, King: Lastly, we come to a unique product offered by the company The Futon Shop. This futon is only 2 inches thick which means that it will definitely have some firmness to it. However, the cotton core and virgin wool wrap go a long way to add maximum comfort.

About Author

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Tobias Roberts is a writer and permaculture farmer based in the mountains of El Salvador. He runs a natural building cooperative in the Central American region as well as a diversified permaculture orchard.