Monday, 19 October 2015

Futon Life, chapter 1

So the last, oh, two months of almost total silence aren't just me running out of things to say. I've actually been moving across country to start my new job in sunny glamorous really quite nice Sheffield.

I eventually managed to find a rather nice attic flat over some shops in a bustling part of town, with half an hour's walk of the town centre and my job. This relatively modern, well-maintained 1LD・K* costs only slightly more than the single room I was renting in a cramped Victorian house in Oxford. There's that North-South divide for ya.

* Japanese real estate shorthand: 1 room, living-dining-room, and kitchen.

Ever since I started planning the move, I've been seriously considering getting a futon. A little clarification is needed here, because English has decided to be really annoying in that way it sometimes is with loanwords. See, a futon as we know it in the UK is almost (but not quite) entirely different from the Japanese futon that we stole the word from.

Language Point!

In the UK, and as far as I know occidentally in general, a "futon" is also known as a sofa-bed, because that's what they are: a piece of furniture designed to be used as a settee during the day, and as a bed during the night. Typically they unfold somehow to form a bed, although I think some of them you're just supposed to sleep on. The mattress is about as thick as a normal bed mattress, but more flexible to adjust from settee to bed use, and is usually separate from the frame with some way to attach it.

These tend to be built in the same way as a normal settee pad, because sitting is their primary use. They're stuffed with foam and layers of batting, which makes them comfy to sit on (although, in my experience, never as comfy as a real settee). As temporary bedding they're okay, but in my experience they're a poor alternative to a real bed. All that time being sat on tends to leave you with a lumpy mattress, and the folding frame creates an uneven surface - generally it slopes down towards one or other fold, so either you're gradually sliding into a crevasse or your spine is perched awkwardly on a ridge.

A western futon does save space, because you only need one item of furniture, which means as a guest bed it's not a bad idea. For a permament bed, though, not so great.

The Japanese futon (布団), on the other hand, is a bed. It's a mattress designed to be laid on the floor, rather than in a sprung frame. It's very much like a quilt rather than a mattress, so you can fold it easily. When you're not sleeping in it, you can roll it all up and tuck it away in a very small volume of space. It needs airing regularly to keep the cotton fibre filling fluffy and remove any dust.

Renting and beds

So, why the sudden enthusiasm?

Well, the fundamental issue is space. On wages like mine, while you may be able to afford a relatively spacious flat, it's still not exactly large. I've been in a number of rental properties, and one thing they have in common is that every single one of them - like many hotel rooms - came with a divan bed.*

Why yes, this is another example of English completely changing the meaning of a word for furniture.

For landlords, divan beds are great. They're light and easy to carry around, like upstairs around narrow corners into a cheap flat. They're simple and therefore robust, with no working parts. They don't require any assembly, which reduces the actual work required, always good. Best of all, because they consist of a few bits of wood covered in cloth, they're really cheap.

The downside is that they are, for the most part, a colossal waste of space. The bed is simply a hollow cuboid, with no space under it. Storage in accomodation is almost always at a premium, so what better way to prepare for your tenants than to put a solid six-by-five lump in the middle of the room? Divans are annoying because they squat dully on the floorspace where, given a more sensible bed, you could be putting away all kinds of boxes, suitcases, rarely-used bits of furniture, ironing boards and so on.

Some divans try to get around this by including drawers underneath. I have considerable experience with these, because for many years as a child I lived on an inherited divan with drawers. I don't know if you've ever tried opening or shutting a wooden drawer several feet long, several feet wide and a foot or two deep; believe me that it is not an easy task, and that's before you put anything inside it. They are very heavy, and their size makes them very prone to sticking. It's hard to build drawers that work smoothly, and the place where you are least likely to waste money doing so is under the cheapest bed it is possible to build.

Also, I have yet to sleep in a divan that doesn't squeak. They're built of flimy wooden frames with the smallest amount of reinforcement it's possible to get away with - after a bit of use, the frame starts becoming slightly wobbly, which means with every movement the frame creaks and squeaks as it shifts.

But back to the space issue! I could, of course, have just bought a framed bed with nice sensible space underneath, and that's what I've done previously (said bed is, alas, no longer fit for use). You can shove loads of boxes underneath, it's great. The thing is, though, that other than being a place to put stuff away, there isn't a lot to be said for the bed. When you're not sleeping in it, it's in the way. You shouldn't sit on it, because mattresses aren't designed to support a sitting body, so they tend not to be particularly comfortable. There's no back support, apart from anything else. And it distorts the mattress (like with occifutons!) so it will also become uncomfortable to sleep in. You can put stuff down on it, but a) if it's heavy that will also distort the mattress, and b) this tends to create a vicious cycle of untidiness where you move stuff from the floor to the bed every day and back every night. For me, anyway.

A shikifuton (敷布団, the mattressy part of a futon) offers the alternative of just, well, having more space. When you aren't using it, you simply bundle up the various bedding and they fit into a cubic metre - and a cubic metre you don't otherwise find useful, at that! It's so easy to move that you don't need to leave them taking up premium room-space like a bed. You can't put anything underneath them, of course, but then, you don't need to, because your room suddenly has an extra 72 cubic feet of space available. Because you only need the futon when you're going to sleep in it, you can lay it out somewhere where, if it were a permanent fixture, it would be utterly cramped and completely impractical. It doesn't matter that your futon is taking up the entire floorspace between door, bookshelves and wall, because it only does so during the time you are asleep, and inability to move about the room is not going to be a major concern at that time (for most of us, at least).

So having slept perfectly well in a futon in both Kurume and Kyoto, I began seriously considering getting one for my next place in the UK.


I began by trying to find out whether it's even possible to get a shikifuton in the UK, short of some kind of high-end London Japanese import business for the toffs. I wasn't interested in a status symbol for a couple of grand, I just wanted a bed.

One of the great annoyances of English randomly borrowing words and then changing their meaning is that you have to wade through loads of unwanted links for sofabeds to find anything remotely connected to shikifutons. There are places selling sofabeds. There are places selling "futon-style beds" which are basically indistinguishable from beds. There are places selling what they call "futons", but which are a foot thick and full of strange foams and can't be folded up. There are places selling average-looking Western mattresses designed to be put on tatami mats... which are then slotted into a bed frame in order to make the entire process pointless why, why would you do this?* There are places selling generic Japanoiserie that happen to mention futons.

* On reflection, it's probably a mixture of things. The frame will allow the tatami mats to get some air, which will help both mats and futon avoid deteriorating. Also, westerners tend to be suspicious at the idea of sleeping on or even near the floor, and the reassurance of a thing that looks like a bed probably helps reconcile them to using a slightly different kind of mattress. Plus, apparently (Internet tells me) westerners who get shikifutons tend to be lazy about putting them away or airing them, so if you're going to leave it cluttering up the floor anyway, it might as well be a little bit higher for ease of use and to try and keep that futon from rotting.

Previous paragraph reads like me looking down my nose at other westerners, which is not really the intention. I'm just looking for reasons.

I tried looking for people talking about buying shikifutons. I got some 5-year-old posts by people asking where they could do so, with no answers. Where there were links, they were broken. Where they weren't broken, they were American. There are a couple of blogposts too, which fall into the two categories of people who've moved to Japan talking about their shikifutons (good for you, but not helpful for me) and Americans talking about their shikifutons.

Sometimes I really wish the USA would just go ahead and switch to another language, because having shopping results clogged up with things that are only applicable in America is a regular inconvenience. America's so big and has so many different cultural heritages mingling that someone somewhere in the US sells pretty much everything, and once it's on the same continent and within the same national border, shipping tends to become affordable. But an American business selling futons is no more use to me than a Japanese one, and arguably less so (I'm probably paying for two lots of shipping and taxes). And taxes were a big concern, because actually importing something myself from any country seemed to risk paying an awful lot of tax on a relatively expensive product on top of the shipping charges. There was no guidance I could find on how much that would be, or how I might pay it. If I bought a futon from Japan, would it get held up in customs somewhere obscure in the south awaiting hundreds of pounds of taxes (and, inevitably, fines for not having paid those taxes in advance)? There were a couple of genuine Japanese businesses selling futons on eBay relatively cheaply, but I didn't dare risk it.

Eventually, I decided to try (where else, right?). The prices look relatively high at first, but when I worked out how much it would be for a bed and (decent) mattress... yeah, looking fine to me. Part of the cost comes from the need to import them, another part from the fact that it's hardly a mass-market item in the UK: you're basically selling to a few Japanese expats who still want a futon, and a few people like me who just want a futon.

I had some concerns about delivery, because although I probably could lug a shikifuton home from my office, I'd probably exacerbate my existing aches and pains. Using the bus was theoretically possible, but due to my location, would involve at least one transfer with huge bundle of futon. However, I ended up needing to take a day off anyway for other moving-in reasons, and managed to book the futon (plus a massive load of tinned food, cleaning products and similar non-perishables) for the same day. Hoorah!

Japanese Futon dot co dot UK

Although I was a bit uncertain to begin with, the company were really good. They emailed me within a couple of days to say my futon was available, and ask about delivery details. In fact, let me quote them:

Please could you let us know what day you would like the futon delivered and please could you give us a contact telephone number for the courier.
It can be delivered from Tuesday onwards and the courier company that deliver our futon will send you a text (or email if preferred) confirming the date and approximate time of the delivery slot.
If for any reason you would like to change the delivery time you can contact the couriers directly to arrange this. They can also offer a saturday delivery although there would be an extra £18 to pay for this service.
If you would like it delivered on Tuesday please let us know by 11.00am on Monday at the latest so we can book the delivery.

This was on a Sunday and I'd ordered on the Friday. I was expecting it to take at least a week to get anything delivered, to be honest, but here we were. And I was off work on the Wednesday. As they were so quick, I asked if it was remotely possible to get my futon delivered to my home on the Wednesday, rather than to my office as I'd originally asked. Of course, they replied! They contacted the courier, changed my delivery address and said some nice things about my Japanese.

I was emailing "", to a person called Kuniko, and there were some slightly telling quirks that indicated this was an actual Japanese speaker rather than a ninth-generation Glaswegian with an unusual name, so of course I dropped in a line. It seemed friendly.

There was a slight complication on the day, due to my apartment being really hard to find with GPS (but really easy to find with verbal instructions), but luckily I was standing outside. After watching the delivery van go past twice, I chased it down the road shouting the name of the driver, which Kuniko had kindly included in her email, and he pulled in. All those years of running paying off...

Arrival of the futon

This is not a small box. It's about 4' by 18" and 12" deep. I'm really glad I didn't have to carry it more than the 30 yards or so from the stray van to my flat (for our metric-using readers: sorry, I can't judge measurements in metric).

My beautiful blue shikifuton, airing on a clothes horse. I do this every day while I'm out, allowing it to soak up a bit of sun and air out.

Assembled futon with bedding, on the floor, ready for sleep. Yes, there is a pile of Japanese books next to it. That wasn't deliberate, nor does it indicate anything praiseworthy. When I moved, the books I brought with me were the ones I haven't read yet, which means (because of my dawdling over reading stuff in Japanese, because it's harder dammit) a huge majority of them are in Japanese.

Why are you telling me all this?

Okay, so why have I just written a huge number of words about acquiring some new furniture? Nobody cares.

Well, when I started considering a futon I discussed it with a few friends, including some who have also thought about buying a futon. And it turns out, none of us had been able to find anything of real use about buying, using and caring for futons in the UK. That country disclaimer is important. As I mentioned about, the buying and shipping options here are distinctive. The climate is also quite different from both Japan (home of shikifutons) and basically-California (where most of the futon-using Americans live), being significantly cooler than the former and far more humid than the latter. Would a futon really survive well under those conditions? Would we be able to air, sun and generally maintain it for any length of time? We just didn't know.

There's associated issues too. Japanese rooms with futons often have a tatami surface, but mine is a solid floor with a very minimal carpet. Would that be remotely comfortable? I'm actually getting some tatami after a bit of thought, but have been sleeping on my futon directly on the floor for three weeks now.

Plus, we have to consider vermin. The dust mites, moths, and other critters that might conceivably be interested in a shikifuton here will be different from Japan and California. Unsavoury, but it's a concern. Would a British futon be rapidly devoured by arthropods?

I decided that, having been frustrated by these questions, I should put my money where my mouth is and write an occasional blogpost about how I'm getting on with my futon. And I'll leave actually answering that question until next time.


  1. Thanks for that, John. An interesting tale and a good read. (Need to look up tatami. ?

  2. I'm glat at last, you have a job and a descent place to leave. The Futon looks comfy. Bye, Valerie.

  3. An interesting blog post about your new bed. Korea has something similar; from your photos I think it's a bit thinner than the Japanese version but otherwise the advantages of being better for your back and being easy to store away during the day are the same. I've wanted to get one but I think it'll be even harder than getting hold of a shikifuton was for you.