Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Futon Life, chapter 3

When last we left our hero (a cotton-fibre sleeping mattress), it was becoming lonely and thinking longingly of tatami mats to rest upon. Now read on.

So, tatami. It's a sort of thick mat, made from rice straw rush straw woven around a wooden frame, and a padded core. Traditionally the core was rice straw, but nowadays it's typically fibreboard. This makes them firm, with a slight give that's much nicer to walk or sit on than floorboards. You don't wear shoes on tatami because it can quickly wear down the grass; also, it is weirdly nice to walk on barefoot. I don't know why, it just is. This is no problem for me, because I have disliked wearing shoes for as long as I can remember.

As I hinted at last time, tatami is in many ways easier to find than a shikifuton. The main reason is very simple: "tatami" hasn't been borrowed into English in the same way that "futon" has been misappropriated for a kind of bed-settee. This means that, while there may not be many results to find, you can be pretty sure that all of them are somewhat relevant.

Another point is that tatami actually seems to be more widely wanted than shikifutons. A shikifuton is only really useful to someone who wants it as an alternative to a bed, which I imagine is pretty rare and mostly means Japanese expats. Tatami appeals to a much broader range of people. It can be used as flooring for martial arts practice. It can be used to create a little space for exercises, yoga or meditation. It can be used as part of a Japanese aesthetic, for Japanophiles or just someone looking for a particular style in their parlour/office/studio. It's a viable way to cover up a nasty bit of floor, while still temporary enough to shift easily if (for example) you're on short-term rents. You can build a genuine Japanese-style room if you want to hold tea ceremonies or other traditional cultural practices (probably mostly Japanese people, but there'll be others). Or you can use it for your bed.

One complication was that some other tatami products do exist. Primarily these are thin mats, just a single layer of woven grass as far as I can tell, without a frame. They look to be either aesthetic things, or used as a mat for yoga and so on. Not what I'm looking for.

Something I wasn't expecting to find (okay, I did mention them in my first post) was the so-called tatami bed which several companies were offering. This is a tatami mat (well, two) built into a very low bed frame, so the mats take the place of boards. It's presumably meant to be a little softer to lie on? I dunno.

What I do know is that it seems a strange compromise and I don't really understand the point. A low bed is much more inconvenient to get into and out of than a full-height bed, and I'm not aware of any reason not to make them full-height. I don't see how the mattress wouldn't absorb and negate any difference made by using expensive tatami in place of boards.

As I said previously, these seem sort of pointless. They definitely weren't an alternative to a shikifuton - they seem to have all the disadvantages of both beds and shikifutons put together. They take up the same floorspace as a bed. They're low, so you can put even less underneath them than under a normal bed. They'll also be harder to get into than either a bed or a futon: you can swing yourself out of bed, while with the futon you can safely roll yourself off and up. Roll off a tatami bed and you'll probably do yourself an injury. I'm pretty sure I would also constantly fall over them and injury my ankles on them.

Anyway, I did find a few possible sources for tatami: Japan Garden, Wabi Sabi Design, and the Futon Company. I think there were a couple more, but I'm not hunting around for them now, sorry!

I looked into this fairly carefully. I still wasn't sure about getting tatami. A serious concern was the practical side. I have no car and no reliable access to a car, so I couldn't go anywhere to get it. I work full-time, which means home deliveries are almost completely useless to me: most places offer either "sometime 8-6 on this date", or a 3-hour window within that time, so I can't guarantee being around. Having only recently started work, I'd already taken time off to move in, and didn't have much leeway for being at home for deliveries.

Small items I can have delivered to my office, but this doesn't work for furniture: even assuming I managed to get something delivered, manhandle it somehow onto a bus, persuade the bus to actually let me on, sit on a bus for the hour or so it'll take to do the 20-minute foot journey* and then manhandle it off again without damaging it, myself or anyone else... I'd then need to singlehandedly take it through a narrow alleyway, up three steep flights of narrow stairs with a 90-degree bend, to finally reach my flat. Oh, and not break myself in the process. These things are heavy. It's a six-foot wooden thing, what do you expect?

*This is just a matter of routes; I'm not claiming to be The Flash here. Buses between my office and my home go exactly the wrong way round the city, through the busiest part of town, stopping constantly.

I'd also had an enormous amount of faff househunting and moving in, and lots of life-related stuff going on, so I needed tatami to happen with the absolute minimum of time, effort and stress on my part. I wasn't necessarily going to find the objectively best solution in the long term, just something that worked now.

This being the case, the Futon Company was the one that caught my eye. They have a store a couple of cities away, which works for delivery, and got regular shipments. Their website is very clear about what's going on: here's the tatami, here's the description, here's the price.

I have to confess that I felt some (snobbish?) reluctance to go with this. The mats aren't traditional Japanese sizes, but designed for the aforementioned tatami beds. This shouldn't be a major problem, but would mean that if I ever wanted to assemble a proper washitsu they wouldn't actually fit together. Luckily, this is extremely unlikely, so I quashed that objection.

The main drawback with other websites was that they involved more steps. Japan Garden has set products and prices, but asks you to contact them to discuss your order. Others offer a genuine bespoke service, building mats to your specifications. The problem there is that you're making a certain level of emotional commitment and practical effort in contacting them, before you have information on things like prices, timeframes, delivery options and so on.

In the end, I was persuaded to the Futon Company by two factors. One was that it seemed to require the least effort. The other was that there was a sale on, and tatami was only £55 a mat plus delivery. I'd seen them offered for about £200 per mat elsewhere, and importantly, as yet I don't know whether they'll work for me, nor how well they'll survive in my flat. £150 seemed much more palatable than £500 for a tentative investment.

I can see it may sound like I have a lot of money to throw around, but that's very far from the truth. The money I'm spending on the futon and tatami together adds up to less than the cost of a good-quality bed and matress, and with luck, will last at least as long.

In case you wonder sceptically about all that money I spent going to Japan for six months, that was my life savings over eight years of work. I didn't save up specifically for that reason, mind. I'm just not naturally extravagant, except on books and food.

Ordering Tatami

I quickly found I was slightly off the mark, because the delivery information offered on the website wasn't enough for my needs. I couldn't find information on the days and times when delivery might be available, and this was vital for establishing whether I would actually order anything. Some companies don't offer weekend or evening delivery at all, and I wasn't going to assume this one did.

I sent a (slightly exasperated) email via the website and went on with my life. Very shortly afterwards, they got back in touch.

My contact wasn't some poor sod in a call centre, but an actual named person in the York Futon Company store. The store manager Kerry, no less. Her helpfulness immediately melted my cold, icy heart.*

*In all honesty this is mostly more of a thin veneer of frost over some kind of soppy goo.

Here's how this went:

If you would like to provide me with a contact number I can give you a call and help you with your order. The delivery method would depend on what it was you were ordering so I would require some further information from you and then explain the options. I can also place the order for you if you like.

I explained the situation and provided a phone number, with a disclaimer that I couldn't answer the phone at work. She got back to me within a couple of hours.

Not a problem. Tatami mats are very heavy things so I would definitely not recommend you have them delivered to your work address, they're not the easiest things to transport!

Here are your options for delivery:

ABACUS - this would be delivery direct from the warehouse to your home. ABACUS should call you within a few days of picking up the mats from the warehouse to arrange a mutually convenient delivery day. However, I am not sure that they would be able to give you a time during the evening. This delivery would cost £49 and is also a kerbside/pallet delivery so just to make you aware once you have signed for the items you would have to bring them into your home yourself.

Our self-employed driver, [anonymised] - We can order the mats into store where [he] can pick them up and deliver for £60. We are able to negociate specific times with [him] for your convenience and he will also bring the items into your home for you. Evenings shouldn't be a problem. He doesn't usually work weekends, but I can always ask if that would suit you best, the only thing is it may be more expensive. The next date we would be able to get them into store would be the 28th, so this delivery could be arranged anytime after then.

The Tatami Mats - So very popular! They look lovely and they also have health benefits by naturally clearing the air of carbon dioxide. I compare the smell to that of freshly cut grass. (I don't know about you but it's one of my favourite smells!) The smell is stronger when you first have them, but becomes less apparent over time.

It is important that you know how to care for your Tatami mats. As they are a natural, almost 'living' thing, they need to be aired quite regularly. If you are using them in your bed frame, we reccommend you lift your matress off and prop it against the wall once a month before you head off to work to allow the air to circulate across the mats for the day. Having a slatted bed also helps as the mats can breathe from below.

Please note - Tatami mats are not suitable for rooms which have damp.

I'll send you a text so you have my mobile number and then at least your phone won't be ringing if you're busy at work, so just give me a call back when it's convenient for you.

Yeah, I mean, what more could I have asked for really?

Given the couple of weeks before the next possible delivery date, and me having very little idea of my schedule, I left things for a bit. Basically, my parents might or might not be able to come over with some of my stuff around that date, and it would have to be a daytime trip. If so, I'd take another few hours off work to collect the stuff, and ask Driver to deliver that day. If not, I'd ask for an evening or weekend delivery. There was no particular hurry to arrrange it.

About ten days later, I finally knew what my parents were doing and could plan. As I was on my way home, I got a phone call. It was Kerry. She remembered that I'd asked about tatami, and wanted to check whether I was still interested and if so, what arrangements would suit me. I was able to quickly sort it out over the phone, and pay.

Driver arrived promptly as advertised, and helped carry the rather heavy mats up the stairs. Everything went smoothly.

A mat, freshly-delivered and ready for opening.

Guidance on opening your package, preparing the tatami for use, and actually using it. You need to let new tatami air for a while before using it. It also smells great, as Kerry said.

A mat leaning up against my cupboard, airing. They're big. The thing hanging next to it is a bedsheet airing, because I live in a little rented flat and have nowhere to hang sheets to dry other than this hook. My little airer isn't bit enough.

The tatami mats in place. I was a bit concerned about whether they'd fit here, but as I hoped, this otherwise random corner of my room is a perfect little sleeping nook.

Tatami in place and ready to use with my shikifuton! On the pillow you will see my buff, which I use as a sleeping mask (and shower cap, and running cap...), and my cuddly mandrill, Nelson, a present from my brother.


At the time of writing, I've been sleeping on this tatami + shikifuton combination for a couple of months, and it's been really good. Other than occasionally propping the mats up to air, and regularly airing my futon, they require no effort at all. I can walk across the space during the daytime, so it doesn't get in the way like a bed. I can also use the tatami as a sitting surface, practice my kneeling (for next time I visit Japan!) and to do my morning stretches when I occasionally remember. It also adds a really nice hay scent to the room, which is nice given that in a small flat there's a strong tendency for things to smell of old clothes, washing powder, or whatever I just ate.

I am very happy to recommend both tatami and shikifuton for anyone considering the idea. I'm also happy to endore these specific companies (though of course, I can't speak for other branches of Futon Company) and products. Both products seem of excellent quality and reasonably priced. Both companies have been very pleasant to deal with, friendly and gone out of their way to be helpful.

Return of Japanesefuton.co.uk

So, speaking of Japanesefuton.co.uk as I was... I actually got back to Kuniko-san to report how pleased I was with my futon, because I just thought she might like to know since she'd been so nice.

Actually she wrote back to me, with a very nice email telling me something about the history of the company, and also various information that I'd like to share.

EDIT: I misread the email the first time! Some corrections have now been made.

The first thing I realised is that Wabi Sabi is actually the same company as Japanese Futon. Their core business is actually designing and making all kinds of Japanese-style furniture and decor. Given how pleased I was with my futon, and how impressed I was with the company, I strongly recommend you check them out if you're looking for any Japanese furnishings. They make full sets of furniture for tatami rooms, screens, shoji (the sliding paper-backed room dividers), fusuma (a different kind of divider or door), and offer interior design consultations.

If I'd known that the same company could provide tatami for me, I'd probably have contacted them to at least enquire about the options available. Too late!

She also offered some advice. For bedding it's apparently sensible to use cheaper Chinese tatami (which I think I did, from the labels) where the craftsmanship was less important. For a really nice tatami room, though, particularly if you want to impress people, it's probably worth looking for high-quality Japanese work. The tatami I have is fine for me, but there are some minor imperfections, and the heri (fabric hem) is very plain. Plus, you'll need them to be the right size!

Kuniko-san also explained that if you find the tatami-futon combination too firm, you can use a bed topper. I haven't actually heard of this (English) term before, so I had to have a look - it's a kind of foam pad you put over a mattress to make a softer surface. With a futon, you would place it between the shikifuton and the tatami. Apparently in Japan some people use multiple shikifutons, and/or multiple polyurethane ("memory foam") mattresses. As costs are higher in the UK, a bed topper placed under the shikifuton is a cheaper alternative. So that's one option, and it might also be reassuring for anyone reading who's concerned about taking a punt on a shikifuton and then finding they can't sleep.

Finally, she has recommended that I use a fan heater to help keep my futon plump and fluffy during the colder, damper weather. It hadn't previously occurred to me.

I tried to go and buy a cheapish thing from Currys, but they had exactly one model of fan heater in stock and it was huge and expensive. And it was raining horribly (where I live has been not particularly unlike 梅雨 recently) and I was expecting a fridge delivery in half an hour and I was fed up, so I went to John Lewis because it was round the corner and has a substantial electricals department. And lo, I found they actually have lots of reasonably-priced fan heaters that are probably good quality, and bought a nice portable Bionaire model (BCH160B-IUK, in case the link breaks) for £30.

Final note

I'll probably post an update in a few months, to let you know whether anything's changed. For now I'm probably done.

What I will say is, given my interactions with Kerry and Kuniko-san - if you're considering a futon, or tatami, or really anything that either company sells, I would really recommend getting in touch with them. They have been extremely helpful, offered suggestions and advice, and been keen to help me find products that suited me and arrange convenient delivery. Exemplary service, and also very nice. The delivery drivers from both companies were also pleasant, helpful and punctual.

And obviously, if you have any questions, comments or advice, please write below.

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