By Courtney Schley
When I moved from Philadelphia to Tokyo for a year with my husband and three young kids, we had to furnish our light-filled, two-bedroom apartment in a hurry. But there was one item I knew we wouldn’t buy: beds. With a family of five in 650 square feet, I didn’t want to clutter our limited space with heavy mattresses and bulky bed frames. Instead, I headed straight to Nitori, a popular budget furniture store, and for less than $300 I bought a set of futons (this model is similar to what I bought) and foam pads.
Unlike the sofa beds called “futons” in the US, Japanese futons are quilted sleeping pads that are stuffed with cotton or fiber fill and can sit directly on the floor or on a foam, tatami, or wooden mat. Although many people in Japan have Western-style mattresses and box springs, futons remain a popular choice, especially in compact apartments, because they’re easy to move or store away. For my family, sleeping on a couple of inches of foam and quilted padding didn’t feel spartan, rigid, or even particularly minimalist. It felt just right.
The surface of the futon was pleasantly pillowy, and the foam platform and firm floor beneath provided the perfect amount of support. It was cool in the sticky summer heat and cozy in the damp winter chill. My back felt great. This might be because of the futon’s combination of cushion and firmness. While some people swear that sleeping directly on the floor or on other hard surfaces helps with back pain, experts say that mattresses rated medium firm are ideal for alleviating back pain. Although a typical Japanese futon setup does offer a fair amount of cushion, it’s harder than very soft pillow-top or memory-foam mattresses.
Unlike a bed, a futon isn’t a piece of furniture, dominating the bedroom. A futon serves its purpose when needed, at night, but then it disappears into a closet with ease. My kids could use their entire bedroom floor space for play during the day or pull their futon into our bedroom when they got sick. Futons don’t harbor dust bunnies, either.
In fact, they’re very easy to clean. People in Japan routinely air their futons and other bedding, often by hoisting them out of windows or over balcony railings. About once a week, if the weather was clear, my husband or I would strip and wash the sheets, gather the futons, comforters, and pillows, and hang them all over our balcony for a few hours of sunshine and fresh air. It was a chore, but worth it for the pleasure of snuggling down into a sweet-smelling, fresh-feeling bed at the end of the day. In Japan, you can even send your futon to the laundromat for a deep clean. Suddenly the idea of sleeping for years and years on a mattress that I could never wash seemed kind of gross.
These days, I’m back in the States, and as an editor on the Wirecutter sleep team, I’ve gotten to test all manner of innerspring, memory-foam, and latex mattresses—but to be totally honest, I really miss my Japanese futon.