I try not to bore you too much with the day-to-day goings on of my life because I’m sure no one out there really wants to read about all that stuff. I haven’t gone on too much about the stresses of moving, the hassle of unpacking, and the endless flat-pack-furniture building. This is, after all, a blog about Japanese culture. However, when there was a chance for the ordinary to cross with my love for Japan, I couldn’t resist.
The flat I’ve moved into is unfurnished, which is great because it means I can make it my own. But moving in to a place with no furniture at all means you have to spend a lot of time (and money!) getting it all right. Choosing a bed was a big concern for me. Should I just buy something cheap from Argos or Ikea? Does it really matter? Or should I spend a bit more and get something I really want to put in my house and keep for a long time? I went with the latter.
I had the same bed throughout my student years and early 20s. I don’t remember where it came from now, but it was a pretty basic metal frame with an ordinary mattress. It did me well, but when I moved to Japan in 2008 I got rid of it. Throughout my three years in Japan I slept on a thin futon in a loft space in my Leo Palace apartment (both in Nagoya and Hamamatsu). I grew used to it, and it was all part of the adventure, but it wasn’t exactly ideal. After moving back to the UK in 2011 I live in furnished flats which came with beds. This wasn’t exactly ideal either!
Finally, I had the chance to choose what kind of bed I wanted, and this was what I had my eye on:
(Image: Futon Company)
According to their website, in 1980 the Futon Company first introduced the futon to Europe and it was an immediate success. By 1995 they had become the world’s largest producer of futons and they now have 21 retail stores throughout the UK.
I liked the look of this bed not only because of its simple design, but also because of one particular element – tatami. Yes, resting on the bed frame, below the futon mattress itself are two specially designed tatami (畳) mats. The tatami mats sold by the Futon Company are made traditionally from kiln dried and heavily compressed rice straw with rush (known as ‘igusa’ in Japanese), but are made slightly larger than traditional Japanese tatami mats in order to fit the bed frames. Actually, these mats are made in China, not Japan, but are made in a traditional Japanese way. About 4-5,000 pieces of rush are used to make one tatami mat!
My bed arrived flat-packed of course, but it wasn’t too difficult to build the frame.
Laying the tatami mats on top of the frame by myself was a little more tricky as they are REALLY heavy (about 22kg each).
I admit I did spend a while just looking at the beautiful tatami before finishing making my bed…
Oh and the smell! The tatami mats actually come with an information leaflet telling you how to take care of them, and warning you that they do give off a natural odour for the first few weeks. I didn’t need any warning though, and would have been very disappointed if my tatami didn’t smell! (If you’ve never smelt tatami, I guess it’s a little bit like straw or grass. I’d bottle that smell if I could!)
I finally put the futon mattress on the tatami…
And the futon topper on top of the mattress (the futon topper just makes it a little bit more squishy).
And finally I had a bed in my new bedroom!
According to the information leaflet from the Futon Company, tatami mats date back to 710AD when Emperor Shomu first used them as a bed. Back then, there were rules governing the use of tatami. People of different social ranks had different types of mat thickness and varying colours of edging fabric. However, by the Edo period (1603 – 1868) tatami mats had become commonplace. Apparently tatami have been reported to help clean the air of the room because the tatami absorbs nitrogen dioxide. Tatami also absorb moisture when there is high humidity and discharge it when the air is dry. In addition, tatami is a good insulator, keeping you cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
These days, tatami is used as flooring in Japan, but not in all houses. Even though a room will be described as being, for example, ‘6 mats’ in size, it doesn’t mean the room actually has tatami flooring, as this is just a measurement. Family homes may have one tatami room, but it is not common not to have tatami in every room of the house. I would have loved to have lived in a house with a tatami room when I was in Japan, but didn’t have the chance. If you want the experience of sleeping on tatami, the best thing to do is to stay at a ryokan or traditional Japanese inn, where you will sleep in a room which looks something like this:
At night, the table is moved and futons are laid out directly onto the tatami. Sleeping in a ryokan is a great experience, and very different to staying in a Western-style hotel.
So, I’m one step closer to my ideal Japanese-influenced home. Hopefully I should be able to get a good night’s sleep now I have the bed of my dreams!