Hopping The Third Rail

By Richard Trombly

When one envisions Japan, a bullet train speeding between vast cities is one of the most iconic images. Amid the robust rail network traveled by long trains moving at breakneck speeds, Kansai’s Hojo Railway operates at an entirely different pace.

With 13.6 km of rail and only 8 stations on its single line, it is a charming step into the past for tourists but also remains an essential lifeline between the towns of Kasai and Ono in rural Hyogo province.

Ao Station, Ono, Hyogo
The brightly-colored passenger locomotive “Flower-2” diesels into Ao Station, Ono. Photo Credit: Richard Trombly

Flowers 1, 2 and 3

Railway lines crisscross Japan in a 30,625 km network with two-thirds of that belonging to JR, a group of companies that were formed with the privatization of the Japan National Railways in 1949. Most of the remaining rail lines serving the over 7 billion annual rides are with major regional rail lines.

Hojo Railway, opened in 1915, however, humbly operates its single line. Brightly-colored diesel-powered cars run on the antiquated 1.067 meter narrow-gauge rails, while most of Japan has adopted the standard-gauge 1.435 meter tracks. There trains, named “Flower-1, -2 and -3, are a single-unit commuter rail much like a subway train and even though it could pull additional rolling stock, there is only the single locomotive car with a capacity of 55 seats and about the same number of standing passengers.

Ono is a small but prosperous industrial city famed for exceptional quality “banshu” scissors, knives and razor-sharp scythes as well as abacus makers. It attracts many from Kobe for a day trip or weekend out of the city to enjoy a hike on the Monogatari range, rocky hills under 200 meters known as the “Ono Alps” and to enjoy the natural hot springs. It lies inland and west of Kobe along the route to Tamba-Sassayama and the northern coast.

Touching The Third Rail

If you board the Hojo Railway at that Ao station terminal in Ono, you will find that the station is a JR station and the ticket machine does not offer Hojomachi or Kasai as a destination. If you ask the JR station master he will point to one turn-style that is open and will tell you to go to track 3. There are only signs for track 1 or 2 and no other platform is visible but the station master indicates to head towards track 2 by a pedestrian bridge. The third rail finally becomes visible, an overgrown narrow-gauge track veering off from the JR rail lines which connect Ono to the cities Kobe and Himeji in one direction and the villages of Kato and Tamba in the other.

passengers at Hojomachi station
Passengers disembark at Hojomachi Station, Kasai, Hyogo. Photo credit: Richard Trombly

A Link to the Past

Except for spring cherry blossom or autumn leaf viewing season, one might not expect this train to carry many passengers but it is a link to bring day hikers from Kobe to the historic World War II remains of Uzurano Airbase and the brisk climb up to the vistas of Furubokke Nature Park. It is also an essential lifeline for Kasai residents to get anywhere by public transportation via transfer at Ao.

The Runway and hangars of the Uzurano Airfield memorialize this former WWII training base. Photo Courtesy of Kita-Harima Regional Tourism Assn.

While an array of vacationing families and day-tripping elderly in full hiking gear queue up to board the train at Ao, locals arriving from Kasai and the farm villages along the way disembark to do business or, luggage in tow, head to the JR platform for parts unknown.

Find Your Own Pace

Though the Shinkansen trains speed along at over 300 km/hr, the Flower locomotives make the trip to from end-to-end in a leisurely 22 minutes. It is a chance to leave the city behind and truly find a countryside experience just an hour away from Kobe.

Greener Pastures
The Hojo Railway traverses rural countryside with views of nearby mountain ranges and pastoral farmlands. Photo credit: Richard Trombly

As the train pulls out of Ao Station it almost immediately plunges into a tunnel of forest encroaching on the overgrown tracks, leaving the cityscape of Ono behind. When the train emerges, it feels like being magically transported into a distant countryside. The train traverses a carpet of green farmlands and quaint farmhouses to service the historic stations on its way to Kasai.

Plan to have plenty of coins since transit cards like the ICOCA are not accepted and there is only a station master staffing the Hojomachi station terminal in Kasai. You pay as you exit, so if you are getting off it is hard for the conductor to make change. Full fare is 420 yen and half fare for children. The fare table can be found at the Hojo Railway website. The midway stations are also not staffed but some of these quaint old stations are historic landmarks and may have a concessions booth within.

Hokkeguchi Station was built in 1918 and currently houses a rice-flour bakery. – Photo Courtesy of Hojo Railway

If you take the train all the way from Ono to Kasai, there are rental bikes to peddle around to some of the local sites (see map). Attractions in Kasai include a charming old street with some well-preserved historical homes and businesses, Maruyama Total Park offers a hilltop vantage of the city and there is the Tamaoka Historical Park where visitors can explore ancient burial mounds. Folding bikes are also allowed on the train so you can ride to explore sites along the railway and then hop aboard when you want to return.

Separation Anxiety

Getting Trashed in Japan

By Richard Trombly

Every new place you go to in Japan seems to present a different set of rules for分別bunbetsu, (classification or separation of trash) and the process can seem confusing. In some serviced apartments, shared living spaces and housing developments, the residents need to do very little sorting, as facility management handles the dirty work. But if you move out to a house or flat on your own, the rules can seem daunting.

Some individual apartment building, housing complex or whole neighborhood may share a long series of labeled trash bins with strict rules for separation of waste and various classifications of recyclables. More rural neighborhoods tend to have scheduled curbside pickups but the angst around separation is no less critical. Each complex or neighborhood will have its own system and when you register your address, you will get information about the local rules.

Trash sorting in Japan image courtesy Penn State University Center for Global Studies

The four basic categories are burnable, non-burnable, recyclables and plastics. There is a certain gray area for some items, so study the rules closely to be free of “separation anxiety.”  In most places, you have to wash and dry the recyclables and divide the PET bottles, beverage cans, glass bottles and recyclable paper and cardboard. There is a fifth category of trash known as “oversized” garbage but that also includes items like old electronics and electrical devices that require special handling and each city has a system to schedule pickups. There is a fee that must be paid per item with tax stamps that can be purchased at the post office and in some cases are available at local convenience stores.

If you have curbside pickups, each of these may be collected on a different schedule, so you may find yourself bringing something out every morning of the week. Many towns will require specific bags which will be available in supermarkets, convenience stores and 100 yen shops. There might even be different color bags for different types of trash and a voucher system to limit the number of bags used per person each year.

If you don’t properly handle your trash, sanitation workers might tag the bag with a refusal sticker and leave it behind, which will publicly shame the offender. Further violations may lead to fines. Also keep the workers safe. If you are discarding broken glass or sharp objects, wrap the sharp edges and mark the bag as キケンkiken (hazardous.) Remember to make your life and the lives of the sanitation workers easier by assuring that you sort properly and use the correct bags.

Fantastic plastic

Despite all the efforts to effectively and efficiently handle recycling, Japan has a huge problem with consumption, most notably with plastics. Japan’s annual production of single-use plastics topped 9.4 million tones. It is seeking to reduce that 25 percent by 2030 as part of a commitment to the 3Rs (reduce, reuse and recycle.)

Japan has a high standard of customer service and a high standard of living. In the modern world, that has lead to a love affair with convenience and consumerism resulting in a deluge of single-use plastic. Every consumer item seems to be heavily overpackaged, in big boxes and plastic cases, or wrapped in plastic sheeting. Also, there are so many plastic items that were designed to be discarded like straws and utensils. Shopping for groceries will inevitably lead to aisles of single pieces of fruit or vegetable showcased on a Styrofoam tray wrapped heavily in a cocoon of plastic. It seems like there is no end in sight, but a new policy may give Japanese people cause to examine their plastic habit.

Major chains like Aeon and Ito-Yokado were forward thinking and have already adopted the practice of charging for plastic bags. Starting in July 2020, this will be mandated across the nation. The initiative to reduce plastic waste involves banning free plastic bags and encouraging reusable bags. Japan currently discards about 30 billion bags a year, yet that accounts for only about 2 percent of the annual plastic waste.“The proportion of plastic bags among plastic waste is not big, but charging would be symbolic,” said Environment Minister Yoshiaki Harada in a June 2019 press briefing. 

Global concerns

Countries around the world are grappling with the ever-increasing concern of handling garbage but in few places is it as critical as the mountainous islands that make up Japan. The country’s 1,661 landfills have remaining capacity of 100 million cubic meters. At the current rate of consumption, the nation’s dumps will be filled to capacity by 2040, according to the Ministry of the Environment.

Much of the waste produced in Japan is incinerated, which does keep it out of the landfills but contributes to air pollution and global warming. Trash generation has decreased from a peak of nearly 1200 g of daily waste per capita in the late 1990s to a current rate of about 950 g according to EU-Japan Centre for Industrial Cooperation. Clearly, however, other measures are needed to address this growing concern.

Yao, Osaka’s $730 million Maishima incineration and waste management facility designed by Austria’s Friedensreich Hundertwasser looks like a theme park but processes 900 tonnes of waste daily. Image courtesy Osaka-Info

Osaka hosted the 2019 G20 Summit, an annual meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors, where there was special emphasis placed on implementation of the 3R policy in Asia. Though Japan has a well-defined recycling framework, it only recycles about 20 percent of its municipal waste while Germany leads the world at 65 percent and S. Korea at 59 percent, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Japan’s industries produce nearly 10 times the amount of waste annually compared to households. With stringent standards on industrial recycling and waste management, recycling rates approach 50 percent but industrial waste remains a significant problem.   

Japan refused to sign a 2018 G7 ocean plastics charter, despite 60,000 tonnes of the over 8 million tonnes of plastics entering the ocean annually originating from Japan. Introducing an agreement to reduce marine plastic became a focus for Japan at the 2019 summit.

Getting Burned

While Japan has made the claim of recycling over 85 percent of its plastic waste, up to 20 percent is exported and a vast portion of the remainder undergoes so-called “thermal recycling,” in other words it is incinerated for the heating value.Though it produces thermal energy from waste, most countries would not consider that as recycling. The “clean incineration” process does remove many of the toxins from the exhaust but still produces CO2 and other pollutants.

Japan does rate highly in other areas of recycling. The metal recycling rate approaches 98% and beverage cans have a recycling ratio of 87.4 percent. Furthermore Japan recycled 498,000 tonnes of PET bottles for a recycling rate of 84.8 percent. The majority of electronic appliances and electrical products are recycled with up to 89 percent of the materials recovered. 

A mountain of PET bottles awaits recycling Image Courtesy Asahi Shimbun

So why is the overall recycling rate for municipal trash among the lowest in the OECD countries? Foods and consumer goods are heavily over-packaged and consumption remains high. The ubiquitous presence of convenience stores might be seen as a sign of the Japanese addiction to consumerism.

Another answer to the waste equation is food waste which is incinerated. About 20 percent of the overall waste produced in the country is household food waste, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries. This accounts for a staggering 6.5 million tonnes annually. Combined with the huge amount of food that expires on retailers’ shelves or in wholesalers’ warehouses without ever reaching the consumer, it is clear that there is a huge disconnect with the need to reduce waste. It is also of critical importance because Japan is only 40 percent self-reliant in terms of food production.

Trash and Carry

Since Japan does not have public trash bins, the need for reducing consumption becomes abundantly clear when traveling. Tourists or even anyone just roving about town meet with the challenge of the trash they create. Since you must pack it with you until you get home, you have time to consider reducing your trash footprint. The Covid 19 emergency has intensified this inconvenience. Most supermarkets and convenience stores previously offered recycling and waste bins for customers but many have suspended this service to reduce virus transmission. Drink bottles and cans may still be dropped in bins alongside most vending machines but other trash should not be deposited there.

One thing is clear, for Japan to successfully face the future, we will all have to examine ways in which we can change our lifestyles and our buying habits.

The rules for Osaka waste management can be found at this link:  https://www.city.osaka.lg.jp/contents/wdu020/enjoy/en/content_f.html

The rules for Kyoto waste management can be found at this link:

https://www.kit.ac.jp/wp/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Acceptable-Ways-to-separate-and-dispose-of-garbage-and-recyclables.pdf

The rules for Kobe waste management can be found at this link:

https://www.city.kobe.lg.jp/documents/1347/english.pdf

Creating “Burgerholics”

By Richard Trombly

If you find yourself in Yao, a small suburban community on the east side of Osaka, then it is worth dropping by the Kintestsu Yao station to grab a bite at Pedro’s Burger. Of course, Yao does not have many attractions to bring in tourists, so even though Pedro’s Burger only holds about 12 people, you will probably find a seat.

Last call at Pedro’s Burger Photo credit Richard Trombly

Yao, founded in 1948, is a rapidly-growing industrial town at the foot of Mount Takayasu with about 270,000 residents. It is centered around a general aviation airport which was founded as Hanshin Avaiation School in 1938. It remains a great place to catch a scenic flight.

Yao airport, Osaka Photo courtesy of Yinlei.org

Mount Takayasu, itself is perhaps the strongest draw to visit Yao. There is well-preserved historical architecture in slope-side villages and many paths along this peak which is a part of the ridge dividing Nara and Osaka prefectures. The most interesting feature of this mountain is the Takayasu Senzuka Kofungun, a series of hundreds of burial mounds that hikers can visit.

After exploring Yao, there are many local cuisines that are featured in the local restaurants, especially the locally-grown green soy beans. But “Pedro”, who opened Pedro’s Burger in 2016, is undertaking a mission to make Yao, and the world, better through burgers. He says burgers are addictive and he is creating “burgerholics” one burger at a time. The restaurant welcomes visitors with a unique mix of knick-knacks reflecting American and Australian pop culture.

Pedro’s decor is an eclectic mix Photo credit Richard Trombly

Pedro, who is now 40 years old, is an Osakan native with a past as eclectic as his restaurant. He backpacked to over 20 countries in North America, Europe and Asia and took an extended work holiday. He has learned the food industry from the ground up with experience at Japanese restaurants, ramen houses and American diners.

The burgers are well-made with a larger-than-expected patty of quality beef and a satisfying order of fries. There is a variety of burgers to suit various tastes, but the signature Pedro Burger is a must, coming in at under 800 yen. It features a solid patty of lean beef resting atop a garden fresh and welcoming pile of crisp lettuce, a house-special sauce and a layer of pickled ginger to make this a distinctly Asian burger experience.

The signature Pedro Burger Photo credit Richard Trombly

Like most Japanese burgers, the sauce is laid on heavily enough it will drip so the burger is served on foil. Thankfully the menu has pictorial descriptions of how best to fold the foil to enjoy the burger while trapping the flow of sauces.

When leaving, the proprietor will mention a burger that you should try next time. He is confident that you will be hooked.

How to get there:

Address: 14 3 4丁目, 3 Higashihonmachi, Yao, Osaka 581-0004 (about 5 min. walk east from Kintetsu Yao Station)

Opening hours: Daily 11:00-20:00 (Closed on Mondays and public holidays)

Phone: None

Website: None

Nearest station: Kintetsu Railway Yao Station (from Tsuruhashi Station)

Honoring The Happy God

Kick off a successful New Year by celebrating Ebisu, Osaka-style.

By Richard Trombly

11 Jan. 2020 – Osaka The Toka Ebisu Festival or Ebbesan, as the locals call it, recently filled the streets of central Osaka’s Naniwa Ward in an annual celebration. The event is centered on the Imamiya Ebisu Shrine in the Shadow of Shin Sekai’s Tsutenkaku Tower from 9-11 January each year. On January 10th, alone, nearly 1 million worshipers passed through the temple gates seeking this god’s blessing for the new year, according to shrine officials. The coincidence of the full Moon this year made attending the event in the evening even more alluring.

A full Moon rises over Tsutenkaku Tower as seen from Ebisuchou metro station. Photo credit Richard Trombly

Ebisu is one of Japan’s seven god’s of fortune but, unlike the other six, Ebisu’s origins are entirely Japanese. As the god of fishermen, he is portrayed as bearded, chubby and jovial with a fishing pole and a large red sea bream fish that is emblematic of his fruitful labors. Also, unlike the other deities, Ebisu is said to have been born crippled and tossed into the sea by his parents. He did not die and, instead, overcame his disability and learned how to work hard fishing for a living.

Ebisu, wood block print, 1795, by Toshusai Sharaku

The origins of the temple were as a gateway to Osaka’s greater Shitennoji temple in about 600 C.E. At the time, Osaka was still mostly a fishing and farming town but it rapidly became a bustling commerce center. Over the years, the Imamiya Shrine has taken on fame in its own rights and Ebisu’s fortune also smiles on commerce as well as fishermen and farmers.

While other gods of fortune represent good luck, Ebisu was not born lucky. He worked hard and the fish represents the bountiful rewards of good fortune favoring hard work. Perhaps that is why so many people come as they seek reassurance that their hard work will pay off in the new year.

Ebisu Festival Osaka crowd
A stream of visitors awaits entry to the Imamaya Shrine Photo Credit Richard Trombly

The press of visitors carrying dried bamboo stalks is shoulder-to-shoulder but everyone seems to be happy and move along in an orderly fashion. Many buy lucky charms as tokens of good fortune as the endless stream of visitors moves slowly forward. This is a friendly and casual event but one man dressed in business attire purchases a token representing a bar of gold. “I own a company and come here every year,” said the man surnamed Kawakami. “I hope my business will do well so I can prosper.”

Ebisu images and tokens flank this vendor. Photo credit Richard Trombly

Once finally passing the temple gates, there are friendly faces of volunteer temple staff to greet the newcomers helping them to make a sacrifice of the brown, dried stalks of bamboo. The afternoon of the 10th is special because there is a parade and 50 special temple maids called fukumusume are chosen from among thousands of applicants will cheerfully hand out token gifts to lucky fortune-seekers.

Temple maidens attach tokens to the signature bamboo branches. Photo credit Richard Trombly

These tokens or charms are also available for purchase from the temple if you are not fortunate enough to be honored by the fukumusume. Participants will each be given a branch of bamboo to sacrifice the following year along with the charms. There are many smiling temple maidens to attach the tokens to your bamboo branch.

Despite the scale of this event, it still has the friendly feel of a neighborhood gathering with everyone sharing in good cheer. In this crowd of many thousands there are chance greetings and random reunions happening everywhere. In the spirit of coincidence and good fortune, I even heard my name called out and found the familiar face of a friend from another district of the city greeting me from the booth he was staffing as a volunteer.

Kishihara Shu (L.) is a local film actor participating in this community event. photo credit Richard Trombly

For an event based around a shrine, there were very few strict aspects of religion. No sermons or strict ceremonies. Just people happily making their offerings including tossing coins into the temple coffers, getting their bamboo and charms, and then learning their fortunes. For 50 yen, you can get a printed fortune based on your birthday or you can visit one of the many booths where sooth-sayers predict your coming year’s luck.

A moving bamboo forest of Ebisu celebrants. Photo credit Richard Trombly

But the celebrants are reluctant to leave after making their devotions. They stay and have fun at the carnival-like atmosphere of the celebration whose stalls and vendors spread for several blocks to the north and west from the grounds of the shrine.

Pathway to Shinto Shrine 境内社 赤土稲荷社. Photo credit Richard Trombly

There are actually several other temples and shrines, such as the Hirota Shrine, are located within the festival and are swarmed by the crowds of people and merchant stalls, arcade games and endless selection of sweets and snack being sold. In the midst of it all is one small and quiet Shinto shrine.

A Shinto shrine remains quiet amidst the Ebbesan crowds. Photo credit Richard Trombly

境内社 赤土稲荷社remains nearly undisturbed as the crowds flow past the red lamp posts of its entry lane. The only sound piercing the tiny temple grounds is the occasional ringing of the shrine’s bell tolling from the rare visitor.

Revelers feast at one of the canteens that spring up during Ebbessan. Photo credit Richard Trombly

Ebisu is a character that enjoys feasting on the bounty of his hard work. Likewise, all of the celebration is hungry work. Aside from the endless snack stalls, a proper Osakan feast comprised of a wide range of local street food delicacies can be had at one of the many vast tent canteens that spring up for the festival. The din of joyous dinner conversations go on long into the night.

Ebisu, Hand-painting on silk, 華堂 喜田 Kadou Kida (1802-1879)

If you ever get the chance to visit Osaka around the new year, take the chance to participate in the Imamaya festival. Like Ebisu grappling his mighty fish, you might get a hold on good fortune for the coming year.

Spirited Away

Children hold a special place on Mount Ikoma

By Richard Trombly

With additional reporting by Jude Jiang

While tourists seek out the hustle and bustle of Namba markets, the historic sites at Osaka Castle or day trips braving the crowds to see the deer in Nara, they overlook the natural and cultural wonders that exist in-between. From anywhere in Osaka, you can look eastward and see an inviting ridgeline centered on the 642-meter-tall Mount Ikoma which divides Nara and Osaka.

Mount Ikoma, Osaka

It is worthy simply as a nice day hike with the family or friends but it has added treasures. On top of Mount Ikoma, the summit holds the Ikoma Sanjo Amusement Park that was built in 1929. The park rides are really only for young kids, but since the park entry is free, it is a great place to stroll about and the park has had a recent face lift that did not destroy its historic charm. There is also a cat and dog petting zoo that claims to house various furry friends from around the world. Hours are seasonal so it is best to call ahead.

Kintetsu Ikoma Cable Car 1918

If climbing up those 600 meters does not sound fun, there is another bonus. Just a short walk from the Ikoma Station of the Chou-line metro and Kintetsu railway is a cable car to the summit and amusement park. The Kintetsu Ikoma Cable Car, opened in 1928, is the oldest commercial cable car line in Japan running from Toriimae station up the mountain to Ikoma Sanjo. Some of the cars retain a classic look while some have been tailored to look like a dog or cat for the younger park guests. Kids will often ask the conductor to make the animals “talk” so as the dog and cat cable cars cross each other the cat calls out “nyao nyao” and the dog responds “won won.” After passing through the Ikoma hillside community and up to Hosan-ji, you must transfer to reach the top.

View of Nara with a dog-shaped Kintetsu Ikoma Cable Car

Long before the temple was built, Mt Ikoma was already venerated by the local people. It became a training site for Buddhist monks as early as 665. The temple, dating back to the Edo Period, is dedicated to Kangiten. This god is usually depicted as an elephant figure similar to the Hindu Ganesha, and is known for wisdom, joy and prosperity which made Kangiten popular amongst merchants and entertainers.

Small pilgrimages from Osaka or Nara brought worshipers here, so there developed a hillside village and a variety of  shops, restaurants, entertainment venues and guesthouses along the slopes that have been serving religious pilgrims and visitors ever since. However, unlike some crowded tourist sites, the shops are low key and there are no tour buses discharging throngs of temple visitors. On most days you will only meet a few other climbers, many taking a rest over a cup of coffee or a meal.

Climbing through the community, the lanes are very narrow and steep and even become a staircase in places. There are some traditional buildings maintaining echoes of historical architecture and the view of the Osaka cityscape is impressive. Soon you rise above the last outpost of civilization alongside the Hozanji station of the cable car line.

Ascending to the temple, there is a broad stairway but there are also winding forest paths which lead to the temple grounds. There are some unique features here. While the dark wooden framed structures with white stucco walls and grey ceramic kawara-tiled roofs are of typical Japanese temple construction, the altar and prayer halls are constructed from brown wooden walls with bark roofs which are indicative of Shinto shrines. A seated Buddha commands an alcove in the cliff behind the main hall. There is an outlook over the valley as well.

Hozanji Shrine on Mount Ikoma

A trail rising up behind the main hall leads through the peaceful forests on its winding way up to the summit. It is a steep climb through thick groves of bamboo or tall cedars with the silence only broken by bird calls and the cheerful murmurs of mountain springs tumbling down the slopes.

Jizo statues on Mount Ikoma

If you ascend the trail you will pass many smaller shrines and there are many statues of Jizo and other Buddhist figures. Jizo are usually stone-carved statues of a bodhisattva that is a spirit protecting known for travelers so they are often located at pilgrimage destinations and boundaries, both physical and spiritual. These figures are also often depicted with children or even holding an infant because they are seen as protectors of children, especially the spirits of those children who passed away young. You will see hats, gloves or bibs on many of the Jizo. Women make these clothes, often carefully knitted, as religious devotion however several of the Jizo here are wearing a sweater or hat, from a departed child, placed with care by grieving parents. There are offerings not only of fruits but also of children’s’ beloved toys.

On September 23 each year, the hillside and village is filled with worshipers, revelers and vendors celebrating the Ikoma Shoten Equinox Lantern Ceremony. A vast array of lanterns and candles adorn the mountain steps and paths lighting the autumn night in celebration.

Wisdom of Sleep

By Richard Trombly (with additional reporting by Jude Jiang)

A History of the futon

A simple, practical element in many futuristic furniture designs, the futon has become a common part of Scandanavian or Danish designs but this simple mattress was not created in Northern Europe. To find the ancient origin of these thin yet comfortable mattresses, one needs to look back long before the 1943 founding of Ikea and a continent away.

“Hitting the hay”

We spend almost one-third of our lives sleeping, yet we rarely consider the way in which we sleep. For much of the modern world, sleep means going to our own private bedroom and reclining on a raised bed with some sort of spring-frame and thick mattress. These beds, and the bedroom itself, are rarely used during the remainder of the day. This is not how people slept or lived during much of human history.

Sleeping children by Vasily Perov 1870

The earliest bedding discovered, consisting of compacted layers of sedges and grasses, dates back 77,000 years. Through much of human history people have slept on bundles of straw or other dried plants. For example, in Ancient Egypt bedding was piles of palm leaves. It may seem strange to modern social standards that ancient people often shared the same fire and shelter with extended tribal or clan members and had little privacy. They hunted, worked and ate together and even shared their bedding. They usually slept in a common hall on the floor except, perhaps, for their leader who might have a private chamber.

Some of the earliest raised beds can be found among the artifacts of the Egyptian pharaohs and nobles. Ancient Roman Empire elites also had beds and bed chambers but the commoners still slept on the floors. In Asia, beds could be seen as early as 220 in China’s Wei Jin South and North period when Buddhist influences brought raised furniture to the elite class.

Mattress culture

The Japanese word futon 布団 originated from the Chinese characters pu tuan 蒲团 literally meaning a bundle of cattails. These cushions are still commonly used on the tatami floor mats, woven bamboo mats lining the entire floor of a room, found in many Japanese homes. The Japanese futon is not like the thicker, often foldable European counterpart. It is a system rather than the mattress itself. A futon typically is a thin padded mattress, called a shikibuton 敷布団, a quilt, called a kakebuton 掛け布団, and a bean-filled pillow, called a makura.

Futon bedding set

Futons emerged from the abundance of cotton woven cloth that became available during the Edo period in the mid-1600s. First was the Yogi, an oversized sleeping garment shaped like a kimono but often large enough for two to share and were often given as a wedding gift. In essence, Yogi are more like a camping sleeping bag more than a piece of sleepwear. The futon emerged soon after.

Indigo dyed “yogi” bed clothing
Yogi bed clothing pictured in Edo period shunga art

The words mattress and mat both came into English from the Arabic matrah which means something thrown down. But there was an earlier culture of the mattresses in China. Mattresses are mentioned in the Li Ji 禮記 known as Book of Rites, a part of The Five Classics of Confucianism, a collection of rituals written during the Former Han Dynasty (206 BCE-8 CE.) It states that when more than five people gather in a room, the most senior person deserves to have a separate mattress. In fact, the word for leader or chairman, Zhuxi 主席 , literally translates as main mattress even as chairman refers to one who holds a position of honor but originally sitting in a chair, itself, was honorific since most sat upon benches or the floor.

From a bas relief stone carving, found in Chengdu, Sichuan, China showing a common Confucian lecture with instructor on his own thick, raised mattress while students shared thin mattresses.

Now these mattresses were not thick like those on modern bed frames and were not even soft. The Chinese pu tuan, though more refined than a mere bundle of reeds, were actually large mats woven from cattail, reeds, bamboo or other coarse materials. A finer layer of softer grasses might be used on top. They were shared and were used for much more than sleeping since there were few other pieces of furniture. The mattress was also where much daily life happened.

The heated kang remains the center of home life in Northern China

Dating far back into the ancient past, there were elaborate dwellings with heated floor systems, such as the Korean ondol 온돌, huoqiang 火墙 in China and the hypocast in Rome. Many more modest homes across the North of Asia were developed around a kang, a stove or oven combined with a raised platform that, topped with a mattress becomes an all-purpose place for sitting, entertaining and sleeping. These kang beds are still a common feature in northern China. Japanese Kotatsu こたつ are like a more portable version of a kang. It is simply a low table with a brazier or electric heater underneath and a quilt over the top to retain the heat for those sitting around the table.

Cluttered rooms, cluttered lives

As technology and societies advanced, a growing merchant class could own their own homes, were eager to show their status and readily adopted the styles of the wealthier classes, including furniture. Adopting chimneys allowed for heating of individual rooms. With these advances, bedrooms, and the exclusive privacy they entail, became commonplace. The multi-functional mattress moved from the center of daily life to become a mere bed topper mostly used during the night and shared only by couples.

The main benefit of the bed is that of being raised above cold drafts but it was also an expression of wealth and class. With the bed and a growing sense of privacy, a greater need for space becomes prevalent.Once the mattress moved into the bedroom, there also became a need for chairs and tables and separate living rooms, studies and dining rooms and more furniture to outfit them. Long-term homeowners with stable careers can collect furniture and fill their homes with treasured items but moving a household then can become a hectic process.

As the world population grows and becomes increasingly urbanized and costs of housing increase, smaller apartments drive a need to reconsider how we make use of space. According to Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, about 45 percent of Japanese people are living in residences with less than 20 sq. m per person.

In Japan, modern design aesthetics are about creating a feeling of emptiness. This is not unlike the essential Nordic design philosophy of simplicity which is based upon the Bauhaus movement of the early 1900s. The Japanese largely retained simplicity in their interior design by virtue of the futon culture.

Futon set on tatami mats

The sense of space is much different when there is no need for beds, tables, chairs and other furniture to permanently occupy the floor. Upon waking, futons are rolled and stowed and cushions can be used along with low portable tables to turn the sleeping area into a dining room or work and study space.

Reflecting the economic and environmental need for smaller apartments and the contrary desire for more space, designers are creating more co-living spaces where private rooms are small and efficient, yet many areas are shared spaces for cooking, relaxing, work, play, and recreation. These co-living spaces are not aimed only at the economically challenged but appeal to a growing number of youth that want to be flexible to travel or change careers and are reluctant to be shackled by the responsibility of owning cars or buying homes.

In this way, the transformable and multipurpose furniture like many Nordic futon designs are an answer to saving space with sofas and chairs that become beds and storage spaces or have foldout tables. Ingenious and stylish foldaway beds are also a trend for those with a taste for furniture to accommodate ever-shrinking spaces.

Another solution is to forgo the consumption and clutter of unnecessary furniture, to simplify and adopt tatami and futon living. Sleeping and living on floor mattresses is what humans have done for 70,000 years and it may be the way of the future.

Side bar

Breaking a bond

By Jude Jiang

Before chairs or beds existed, mattresses were nearly the only pieces of furniture and they were used for a wide variety of purposes and were at the center of life. On mattresses, people ate, did business, drank, huddled for warmth, loved, slept and studied. In China, the mattress also carried a deeper meaning portrayed in an ancient Chinese tale.

The scholar’s rift in values is signified by the divided mattress.

Towards the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty, the empire had become vastly corrupted by greedy ministers and traitors. Two scholars, Guan Ning and Hua Xin, studied at the same garden while living a simple countryside life. As long-time friends, they shared one single mattress during the course of their studies. They often discussed matters of philosophy and the state of the empire but differed in their view of wealth and power.

One day, a procession of nobles passed by their studio with a loud racket of carts and horses. Hua Xin started from his mattress, went to the window and looked onto the bustling street with gleeful admiration of the gentry passing there.

Guan Ning was no fan of the noble class. Disgusted with his companion, he cut the mattress into halves, vowing this act both symbolized the rift in their values as well as the breaking of their friendship. In that era, the mattress reflected a bonding, relationship or social status. In the modern time, we fill our homes with a variety of furniture pieces. Joining in a meal at the family table is a gesture of social bonding. Sharing a bed is an agreement of values and trust in relationship. The bed has become more personal and private than the traditional mattress.

Richard Trombly www.richard@trombly.com is a writer and film maker in Osaka and Jude Jiang jiangwenjude@icloud.com is a writer and film maker based in Shanghai. They are co-founders of Obscure Productions.

Osaka ain’t no party, It ain’t no disco, It ain’t no foolin’ around

By Richard Trombly

Osaka, 13 October 2019 – I was strolling through Nishinari Ward near DoubutsenMae (the zoo area), my neighborhood in Osaka, tonight enjoying the autumn scent encroaching into the air mixed with the rich smells coming from the many small restaurants in the close-packed store fronts. Admittedly, this is the low budget end of town despite being just blocks from the tallest building in Japan and the brand malls and boutiques of the prosperous Tennoji area, it is home to a notorious area of prostitution and dubious karaoke bars where 100 yen (USD $1) gets you one song and a bar maiden to be your audience, as well as homeless elderly folks camped under the eaves of a warehouse across from the Shin Imamiya railway station. So amidst the din of mealtime conversation spilling from these restaurants and the alcohol-fueled warbling rising out of these KTV, I came across and incredible, yet very common, find. It was a concert hall of about 12 square meters with a jamming guitar playing acoustic solo and heart-felt lyrics being belted out in a rich voice, gravelly with too many cigarettes and lost hopes. The lyrics of “Life During Wartime” by The Talking Heads came to mind.

This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco,
This ain’t no fooling around
This ain’t no Mudd Club, or C. B. G. B.,
I ain’t got time for that now.”

Earth Music Cafe in Nishinari, Osaka

Osaka actually does have time for that, though, I thought. It really runs at a different pace than other places, especially compared to fast-paced Shanghai, where I have spend most of my past two decades, or Tokyo. As the second-largest city in the island nation, it is the very antithesis of the capital. There is very little outdoor advertising here because people here are hard to market to. They seem to have little use for status symbols of consumerism. And there is an underground culture and art movement here that is quiet yet pervasive.

A concert hall? Not really, but it is a music cafe called EARTH that barely functions as a business. It is a gathering point for the proprietor, Daichi Terakawa’s friends, for music makers, and perhaps a dozen music lovers at a time. But that does not matter, because it is a place to perform. Here, art matters. It reminded me of that club CBGB in the Bowery, a rather impoverished area of New York City, or at least it was back in the day that bands like The Talking Heads,The Ramones, Patti Smith, The Police, and other bands got a chance to be heard in an ever-narrowing music industry.

CBGB was a pioneering music club in the Bowery, New York City

I am not saying that this bar is going to launch stars like Hilly Kristol did, but CBGB was created for performance, not for fame. This hole-in-the-wall is just that, a performance space. It is a place free of the studio-perfect meter and pitch and recorded perfection that destroys the very sense of the concert experience today, as most bands perform to a pre-canned music track and just do a stage performance, perfectly choreographed to death of any art.

It is so much more rewarding to see an earnest artist perform an imperfect and beautifully raw and flawed performance in a venue like this, or the famed Iron Horse performance space in the old stomping grounds of my youth in the western end of Massachusetts. The experience to see bands in a venue where you are one of less than 100 people packed into a venue is priceless. The performance there is genuine and the energy of the performers is powerful.

traditional Rakugo performers are “sit-down comedians”

Osaka is rich with this sort of art sensibility. Currently the city ward is in the midst of the Shin Imamiya Festival featuring traditional folk drama in non-traditional venues, concerts on the street, and even Rakugo, (literally “fallen words”), but it means a “sit-down” comedian, performing folk comic routines dressed in traditional attire. Osaka just hosted a citywide vibrant month-long celebration of this art that pushes the edge with the Fringe Festival https://osakafringe.com/home-english/. Venues across the city and even parks held a wide variety or concerts, stage plays and performance art but the energy and feel of this underground art culture is there year-round.

Richard Trombly is a writer living in Osaka and Shanghai. Email Richard@trombly.com