If you’ve ever stayed in a traditional Japanese bedroom on your travels, you’ll be familiar with the custom of sleeping on the floor. If you haven’t had this experience, you might be a bit baffled at the thought. Let me assure you, it’s a lot comfier than it sounds – this fussy Westerner has had some of the finest nights of sleep of her life on a thin tatami mat.
Let’s explore a little bit more about Japanese sleeping customs – where they came from, and why it is still done today.
A Brief History of Japanese Sleep Customs
Evidence of sleeping on the floor in Japan dates back to the 10th century when hemp mats were laid down over the hard floors for sleeping purposes. During the Nara period, richer people began complimenting their hemp mats with textured cushions. Medieval times saw the introduction of comforters to be placed over the body while sleeping on the hemp mat, for purposes of retaining warmth.
While materials have advanced largely since these times, this history forms a clear premise for the type of bedding we see in today’s Japan.
How Does Sleeping On The Floor Work?
When you hear sleeping on the floor, you might have mental images of Japanese people dropping straight down onto cold tiles and heading off to the land of nod. It’s not quite like that.
Generally, the surface Japanese people sleep on is called a tatami mat – which is made from rice straw. The closest thing I can compare the texture of tatami to is a very thin yoga mat. Some houses have portable tatami mats that are folded during the day, others have installed permanent tatami flooring in the bedrooms. Older houses may be made up entirely of tatami floors – as this was the traditional style.
Many Japanese people choose to put a futon (a kind of foldable light single mattress) on top of the tatami. A Japanese futon is much thinner than its Western counterpart – it tends to be about three of four inches thick, as opposed to “mattress” thickness. The Japanese futon is made up of cotton fill. This futon may also be known as a “Japanese bedroll”.
Then there’s the usual bedding. Many Japanese homes will have Western-style pillows, others opt for more the traditional soba gara makura. These are pillows stuffed with buckwheat husks – this gives a slightly spikier feeling than your average pillow, and certainly creates more noise when you move around. If you're interested in trying a buckwheat pillow, you can find them here.
The traditional Japanese duvet is known as a kakefuton, and is generally made up of silk fibers. The kakefuton is thin, but the silk allows for heat to be retained or spread appropriately depending on the weather.
Practical Living Arrangement
There are a number of practical reasons for sleeping on the floor in Japan. One such reason is space. Think about how much space a generous double bed takes up in your bedroom. This may not be an issue if you have a large living area – but when you’re crammed into an apartment or living with multiple generations of your family, space is very much at a premium.
Sleeping on the floor means the room can be used for various purposes during the day. Pack up your duvet and pillows and suddenly you have ample area to host guests, study, relax – wherever the daytime hours take you. If your guests decide to stay the night, all you need is some extra bedding and you can convert a single room into a comfortable sleeping space for as many guests you want.
Co-sleeping is a common phenomenon in Japanese families – children will often sleep in the same room as their parents. The futon arrangement has safety benefits in this instance, as it allows appropriate space between each person and as such prevents overheating or accidental injury to small children and babies. For children who require regular naps, the futon set-up allows play areas to be converted into sleep spaces at a moment’s notice.
Going back to the point on safety, it is no secret that Japan is prone to earthquakes. In the event of an earthquake, a large and heavy bedframe could cause injury to people in the room, or block exits from evacuation. The futon is a much safer choice in this instance.
The futon is fantastically easy to transport, taking away some of the headaches of moving house. Many even choose to fold up their futon and pack it in a weekend bag when visiting friends! In recent years, there's a big move to living a minimal lifestyle. Perhaps throwing out the clunky bed frame for a nice roll-out futon is the next big thing.
Do The Japanese Sleep With The Light On?
While the Japanese generally do turn the lights out to sleep when doing so during night time hours, there is also a popular sleep culture known as inemuri. This basically refers to people sleeping whenever their body demands it – often in working situations.
Inemuri is socially acceptable in Japan – in fact, it’s even encouraged. The glorification of overwork in Japan has been widely discussed and is perceived to be working so hard that you must nap at your desk is something that is praised in Japan. There are even people who will pretend to be having a nap in a public place in order to be perceived as a hard worker. Next time you fall asleep on the job, tell your boss you’re paying tribute to the Japanese culture of inemuri.
Benefits of Sleeping on a Tatami Mat
In the summer months, Japan can be stiflingly hot – especially in urban spaces. Thick, raised mattresses and all their associated bedding are notorious for retaining heat – leading to a sweaty and uncomfortable night’s kip. Tatami mats are light and breathable, and their position on the floor allows cool air to circulate (warm air rises, cool air settles to the floor). In hot weather, the choice is there to forgo the futon and sleep just on the cool tatami.
Many experts believe that sleeping on a tatami mat is good for the spine. This is because the tatami mat encourages the spine to take a more neutral position, and allows the body to move around during the sleep cycle. When sleeping on a mattress, the cushion tends to sink the spine into a curved position for the night – making the body stiff and achy upon waking up in the morning. You can actually get yourself your very own tatami mat here if you wish to try it out.
The smell of tatami is very distinctive, and aromatherapy experts argue that it has a naturally calming effect on the nervous system. More and more sleep hygiene experts are recommending pillow sprays and aromatherapy oils for Westerners struggling with insomnia – perhaps the Japanese were a step ahead on this one.
Some believe that the Japanese way of sleeping allows for a smoother transition into the morning rituals. Without a cushioned mattress and layers of duvet sucking you back in, getting up may very well be an easier process.
Do I Have to Sleep on the Floor in Japan?
Many modern style hotels in Japan will have room options that allow you to either sleep on a Western-style bed or opt for a traditional Japanese set-up. In more traditional accommodation options, such as inns and guest-houses, sleeping on the floor may be the only option.
While it can feel strange initially when you’re used to sleeping on thick mattresses, I would advise any Westerner to experience the traditional sleeping set-up at least once when traveling through Japan. You will likely be surprised at just how good your night’s sleep will be without the usual trappings – many Westerners have brought back futon culture with them after being converted in Japan.
Please note – sleeping on the floor may not be an ideal option for those with thinner skin (particularly elderly people) as it could lead to the development of bedsores. If you usually use a specialized mattress at home for back pain or other conditions, it might be wise to consult with your doctor before trying out floor sleeping in Japan.