The Japanese futon: culture and tradition

Everyone knows about beds, but did you know that there is a country where they are not the first option? Futons, in addition to setting trends in the West, have been comfortable resting places for the Japanese for centuries. Blanket, mattress and pillow, along with a routine cleaning process, make up one of the most iconic customs of the Japanese country.

Cultural differences exist between different countries, however, when it comes to continents, the distinctions tend to stand out much more. In the West, Asian traditions and customs are often a source of wonder and interest because they are so unique.

Japan, for example, is one of the best known and most visited countries in Asia. Thousands of tourists come annually to experience Japanese culture firsthand. The state-of-the-art technology of its structures and services, the varied and unique gastronomy, along with entertainment in the form of video games and anime are just some of the things that attract people’s attention. However, Japan does not only have singularities in great things, since the daily routines of its inhabitants also often have unique aspects that many people in other countries are not yet aware of.

When visiting Japan and staying in a hotel you will not notice the change when sleeping, as the room will probably be adapted to the “international” culture. However, when you visit a traditional hostel with tatami floors, you will notice that there are many Japanese who do not sleep on beds, but on a product called: futon.

What is a futon?

It is possible to get confused with the definitions, as a futon varies between Japan and other countries. The Japanese futon is a traditional bed that consists of a foldable and flexible structure filled with cotton and covered with a resistant fabric. This is placed directly on the floor when sleeping and, during the day, it is stored to let it breathe and offer space in the room.

In the West, a futon can refer to a thick, foam- or cotton-filled structure that sits on a wooden base and can be converted from a sofa to a bed.

Although there is a large percentage of Japanese who use beds, as we know them in the West, the vast majority still use traditional futons to rest. This occurs for several reasons, because, in addition to being an ancient custom and representing cultural pride, sleeping on the floor is also seen as a beneficial practice for the body.

The futon change

Another peculiarity that distinguishes the Japanese is that, although a person from any other country would not think of changing their mattress seasonally, those who use a futon do so whenever they need it.

The common thickness of futons is 5 centimeters and this is the one that is used regularly, however, when temperatures drop and the environment is very cold, it is necessary to buy a thicker futon.

This is because when sleeping on the floor, it is very easy for the cold to sink into the bones, and if a light and thin futon is used, people’s health may deteriorate. The positive aspect is that, since the futons are easy to fold and move, switching between the one used in winter and the one used the rest of the year is not complicated at all.

The complete kit to rest peacefully

A futon is much more than the place where the Japanese lie down to sleep, as the name is used to refer to a complete rest set that, together, provides comfort to children, youth and adults.

The bottom futon, which serves as a mattress, is called a “shikifuton.” The pillow that is used to lay down the head has the name “makura” and, finally, the blanket used is called “kakefuton”. The shikifuton must be used on both sides so that the cotton does not deform, and the change should be made about 9 times a year.

If you travel to Japan and one day you find yourself with the opportunity, or obligation, to sleep on a futon, you must be careful with the words you use. If you are missing the shikifuton from the set but have everything else and say you need a “futon,” the Japanese may interpret that you require the full kit. Therefore, it is better to remember the names and avoid confusion.

You should also know that, depending on the place, the materials used in the manufacture of futons can vary. If it is a luxurious place, it is possible that the traditional cotton is changed for feathers; This detail makes the product much more comfortable, but it also influences its price, so they are not the cheapest.

For its part, the pillow can be filled with wheat straw or red beans. This last material is the most used.

The futons on the balcony

If you ever walk early in the morning through Japanese streets and see futons on the balcony of homes, don’t think that people sleep there. This cleaning process is called futon-hoshi and it consists of leaving the futons in the sunlight for a while so that they receive light and air.

This simple routine prevents mildew and mites from growing and additionally also gets rid of any dust that may accumulate on the fabric. This needs to be done every morning in order to keep the futon spotless, otherwise it could start to deteriorate quickly. At the end of your morning airing, the futons should be stored in special cabinets to keep them safe and extend their useful life. These cabinets are called “shiires”.

In addition to this care, vacuuming the entire set on a monthly basis to get rid of any dirt that the air and sun can’t remove is a necessary part of futon maintenance. It does not matter if you have the best futon of the moment, because if you do not take care of it, it will inevitably deteriorate.

The use of the futon may seem strange to certain people in the West, however, in Japan it is synonymous with culture, customs and ancient traditions that are preserved today. For that reason, part of understanding the Japanese also means, from time to time, daring to sleep like them.

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