In this column, I write about my life and experiences in the Kansai region of Japan. Since June, when I was adopted by a young kitten, that experience has involved sharing my house with a Japanese cat.
I woke and turned on the coffee kettle and padded to the bathroom, barely awake. On my way back to the kitchen, I suddenly felt three rapid taps upon the top of my head. That is the daily method in which my cat Kame-chan informs me that I have been pawed by a puma and therefore did not survive until breakfast. I look up and he is upon the water pipes running near the ceiling to the water heater.
This happens every day. Not just before I am fully awake, but anytime during the day. While I am passing any of the various high points in the house, I might be “pounced” by the triple-tap of the delicate paw with the razor-like claws, carefully sheathed.
Living the High Life
How did this little jungle beast learn to always gain the high ground? I had put up a shelf for my laundry supplies and even when the kitten was only ankle-high, he was jumping onto the laundry machine and then hopping onto the supply shelf. Of course, I learned about this only while hearing the kitten making a delightfully satisfied mewling in its throat (Hey Dad, guess what I can do!) amidst the clatter of clothes pins cascading to the floor. I went to the laundry room in time to watch the box of detergent make its own path to its demise.
Just days later, I found him on top of the 6-foot-tall dish cabinet in the kitchen. I realized that I had better make some accommodations to our home. I purchased some carpets from the local 100 yen (dollar store) discount shop and made a sling “hammock” suspended from the clothesline under the skylight in the laundry room (pictured below). This is another perch from which I am often pounced by a panther.
The Panther By Ogden Nash
The panther is like a leopard, Except it hasn’t been peppered. Should you behold a panther crouch, Prepare to say Ouch. Better yet, if called by a panther, Don’t anther.
Lord of the Land
Since Kame’s sling was easy and made no alteration to the apartment, I could put it up without consulting the property owner. I however also made a corner shelf for him with another bargain carpet piece. This meant adding a step shelf for him to launch himself from. This certainly requires getting the landlord’s permission which can be exceedingly difficult in Japan. Luckily, I have an unusually easy-going landlord.
Kame enjoys hopping up to this high shelf on his corner perch.
It is, in fact quite difficult to find a residence that even allows animals. If you want to have an animal, it is necessary when apartment hunting to search for places that are “petto sōdan” ペット相談 (pets are negotiable.) Some advice on how to find pet-friendly apartments or homes is to look at places more than 10 minutes walk from a subway or rail line, older buildings or city suburbs. Don’t lie to landlords and try to conceal altering your rooms or having pets, as it can get you immediately kicked out and losing your deposit money.
For Kame to quench his primeval spirit, even being able to run up and down stairs in our two-story home and his shelves and hammock, it is not enough. He wants the window into the bathtub room open. He supervises filling the tub and then gives himself a bath while I take mine.
With all of these options to play the lord of the jungle, he is happy most of the day while I am working at the computer. But sometimes he calls me from the second-floor with urgent meows as if he is trapped or injured. I will go upstairs only to find him prepared to spring upon his unwitting prey.
In Japan, there are many public parks in the cities and towns where you can go for a stroll, exercise, socialize and relax. Many have a variety of facilities for sports, children’s playscapes, public swimming pools and more.
Another common feature is BBQ areas, some supplying everything you need even the food while others offer the BBQ pits for the D.I.Y. crowd to bring in their own feast. While tents tend to spring up on the park lawns on any nice day, many of the parks have designated day camping facilities
Tsurumi Ryokuchi Park https://www.tsurumi-ryokuchi.jp/ ,situated between the Northeast of Osaka and Moriguchi Cities, is one of Osaka’s hidden gems. It covers over 300 acres, about half the size of New York City’s Central Park, and offers a lake, botanical gardens, a variety of recreational facilities and kilometers of trails. It is also known for Sakuya Konohana Kan, one of Japan’s largest greenhouses.
A surprising feature of this park is a campground featuring 10-place centered on a BBQ area and best of all, it is free. While some campgrounds are budget, most charge 2,000 and up.
I was bouncing off the wall with cabin fever because of Covid restrictions and I was eager to test out a new tent under actual conditions before taking it on longer cycling trips. During a week of rainy weather, I went directly to the office that manages the camping and BBQ and there was no problem booking an open spot. They even offered registration forms in English.
People often go to enjoy a bit or exercise or relaxation in a park, but it is an unusual experience to sleep in one. Thankfully, there was a break in the rain while I set up the tent. Even with the rain there were a few other campers who were not driven inside by the soggy weather and the happy sounds of children echoed around the crackling fire.
For being within the city limits of Osaka, the park became amazingly quiet. It is even protected from the traffic noise. By 21:00, the barbeque feasts were complete and kids were getting ready to climb into sleeping bags, exhausted from the day of playing in the park.
This was an evening that kindly granted us a break in the heavens to see the full moon rise. I was able to leave my tent and wander among the many people using the park even at night. Like most Japanese parks, it is open 24 hours a day. The Moon did not disappoint.
The residents of the campsite beside me also marveled at the moonrise. They were an Osaka single mother and her daughter seeking an escape before the summer holiday ended. The mother said that due to Covid restrictions, they did not get much of a chance to travel this summer so she wanted to do something special. The chance to be in a park, distanced from all the crowds of the city was a nice experience. She said it was better than going to a theme park during the ongoing emergency. Her pre-teen daughter rolled her eyes but remained silent.
The clouds soon enveloped the sky and blotting the Moon so I retreated to my tent. A park security vehicle, blue light rotating on top, did make its rounds a few times during the night. A cat yowled its disappointment at the lack of BBQ leftovers since nobody had used the two BBQ areas adjacent to the camps. I had some food in my pack that the kitty appreciated and so it was quiet for the night, as the rain began.
I woke before the dawn in darkness and the rain had ceased. I was pleased to find my tent had weathered the storm quite well and my sleeping bag was dry. I quickly grabbed my camera. Life would soon be stirring in the park.
The predawn golden hour was beckoning me and I wandered beyond the park to find a morning coffee. With another stormy day on the way, the morning sunrise was stunning. But this breathtaking view was short-lived, returning to leaden-grey overcast within minutes.
The morning summoned people and wildlife alike to congregate in the park. This was a weekday so there were many joggers taking their dogs for a run before work. It struck me how friendly and full of life the morning was.
Even on a cloudy morning the beauty of the park was overwhelming. The gardens in the park have a variety making some flora in season year-round.
The day was starting and a storm was threatening, so I returned to my tent and packed up my campsite. I made sure to carefully gather my my gear and to pack out the trash.
The campsite beside me was coming to life. Mother and daughter busily preparing breakfast. I asked the shy child if she had fun. She hesitated. Her mother answered for her. “Yes, she had alot of fun.” The daughter? She did not say otherwise.
It certainly was a memorable experience. It was nice to take advantage of this park that is just a few kilometers from Osaka station and a stop on the Nagahori Tsurumi Ryokuchi subway line.
Free campsites & Cheap campsites information in Japan – A listing of select free or low-cost campsites, mostly provided by local municipalities. https://camp.tabinchuya.com/en.html
Convention and Tourism Bureaus for cities or regions will often have listings of interesting tourism sites including campgrounds and day camping sites provided supported by the towns or local businesses.
Camping is still not a large industry in Japan so when searching for campgrounds assure that overnight camping is allowed and what facilities are offered.
Reserve ahead. Japan campgrounds, even if they have a vacancy, often will not rent spaces on the same day. Unplanned wandering is not advised. Make your plan and reservations well in advance.
Pet ownership in Japan has been on the rise over the past decades. According to recent statistics, over 25 percent of Japanese households now include a cat or dog. In fact, Pets outnumber children in Japan. Government data shows there are less than 17 million youths under the age of 16 but there are over 18 million pets. A pet can be a great addition to your life and can bring endless joy and companionship but it also requires some responsibilities and planning.
It is a sad fact that many people buy a pet and then later decide it is not working out and abandon their pet. Ten years ago, in 2012, the Environment Ministry reported that there were 400 to 500 stray dogs or cats killed every day across Japan. The government in that year enacted a zero stray action plan which lead to rounding up 210,000 dogs and cats of which 160,000 were killed.
But the number of destroyed cats and dogs has been drastically reduced in recent years as more shelters and non-governmental charitable organizations have been developed to help rehouse these animals. Recent figures show less than 8,000 dogs and about 30,000 cats are still destroyed annually.
Pawer is an NGO that was created to educate people on the sensible option of adopting rather than purchasing a pet. Pawer’s motto is “Don’t shop, adopt!” More than 1,600 dogs and cats are purchased from pet stores in Japan daily. Most of the stock in pet stores come from large-scale breeding mills. These animals may suffer from long term or genetic health problems. If they are not sold, the futures for these puppies or kittens are in doubt and many will be slaughtered or sent to shelters.
Meanwhile, the number of abandoned pets exceeds 43,000 annually, according to PeaceWinds Japan, an NGO working to eliminate the slaughter of dogs and cats by working with governmental agencies, corporate partners and communities to provide alternatives for our furry friends.
Also pets sold in stores are quite expensive and even with that cost, often have not received proper veterinary care nor been spayed or neutered. Shelter animals have had complete medical care. Obviously, shelters charge a fee of about 20,000 yen ($185) usually including neutering or spaying, which is a bargain considering that at a vet office, that operation will cost considerably more.
Each shelter has its own process for adoption but this will usually include assuring the financial security and stability of the family and proof that pets are allowed in the home, especially in the case of rented apartments. Many landlords do not allow pets and that could lead to abandoned animals.
When you adopt an animal, you will usually be required in the adoption papers to maintain the pet’s routine medicals and to never sell, give away or euthanize the animal. If you must surrender the animal it must be only back to the shelter.
Aside from the NGO shelters, each town or municipality has their own animal control department. The town or district animal pound is also a great source for furry friends. Only a small percentage of animals taken in by authorities are reclaimed by owners. The vast majority are directly adopted, rescued by shelters or slaughtered. Pawer has assembled a list of shelters across Japan. This is not necessarily a complete list. http://pawer.jp/en/dont-shop-adopt/shelter-map/
Cats on the rise
There are now 9.64 million cats in Japan according to the Japan Pet Food Association and that number is growing by more than 1% annually while dog ownership is on the decline and currently there are less than 8.49 million dogs, down from over 10 million in 2014.
Cats are not a native species to Japan. Domestic cats arrived in Japan during the 6th century C.E., concurrent to the introduction of Buddhism to the islands, some scholars claim they were brought to protect sacred texts from rodent damage. Genetic data shows Japan’s common domestic cats came from China but originated in India.
So why have cats surpassed their canine counterparts? One factor is economic. The average cost of lifetime ownership for a cat is just over 700,000 yen ($6,500) while a dog will cost about 1.2 million yen. A large portion of this added cost is higher vet bills including rabies vaccine, city registration fees and larger dogs eat more.
Cats also better fit the modern and more urban lifestyle, according to many younger Japanese. Cats are seen as cleaner, take up less space, and require less fuss and grooming. With busy lifestyles, many professionals do not want to have to walk a dog 2 to 3 times a day.
Pets are forever
It is easy to fall in love when you see a kitten or puppy and pet ownership is rewarding and fun, but it is important to understand that adopting a pet is also a responsibility. A rescue animal has already suffered the upheaval of losing its home and maybe even hunger, living on the street or even abuse. The last thing you want to do after rescuing an animal is subject it to more hardship.
Remember pets might live up to 20 years. If you are not settled down and expect to move about or are not financially stable, maybe the time is not right to get a pet. You can still volunteer at shelters or even offer to be a foster home in the short term. Many shelters do not have enough spaces in their own facilities and rely on loving temporary homes.
If you do decide that you are ready to add on a new family member, then there are still some points to consider.
-As mentioned above, there is the cost over the lifetime of the pet. Some people consider pet insurance as well, if they might not be able to afford an unexpected medical cost in case of emergency.
-If you are renting, most landlords in Japan do not allow pets, so a shelter or city animal control will want to see your permission from your landlord or proof of home ownership so they can assure the home can accept pets.
-As part of the adoption process the shelter will want to know the number of people in your home, any existing pets, how you will fit the new member into your family and your lifestyle. They will want to know how long the animal will be left on its own daily and what are your plans if you will travel for work or holiday.
-They will ask for proof of employment and financial stability. Many shelters will want to inspect your home. This is all to ensure that the animal can be a proper fit for both the pet and the family.
-If you are a foreigner, most shelters will only allow adoptions to people with a permanent residence of family visa status because they do want to assure stability of the adoption for the long term. It is an all too common tragedy for a person returning to their home country to leave their pet behind.
-Find the right pet. Most of the animals in the shelters are capable of offering love and joy and becoming wonderful additions to your family. However, many of these animals did face some hardships or even abuse, so take time to get to know them and their emotional quirks before you decide. It is hard for both parties if things don’t work out and you must return an adopted animal.
-You will also want to find a vet you trust. Even smaller communities have neighborhood vet clinics and there are large chains of pet stores that cooperate with a veterinarian to have a clinic in their store. If you go with the chain store, do have an option if there are emergencies in off hours.
-Once you have decided to take the step and get a pet, it is important that you both have a great experience from the beginning. Prepare all the things for your new family member such as its bed, water and food bowls, feed, a leash, harness or carrying case, treats and toys. You also want to organize a place in the house that is quiet and out of the way for the pet because it might feel anxious or scared at going to a new place and will need to feel secure in its new home.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Richard Trombly (with additional reporting by Jude Jiang)
A History of the futon
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.
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
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.
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 amakura 枕.
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
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.
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.
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 炕, 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.