Tatami Mats Required? What Should I have Under My Futon?
Do I need to buy tatami mats as well? What should the surface be under my futon? Is carpet okay? Of the topics that we get asked about the most, questions about the surface under your shikibuton (futon) are extremely common. For this reason we've created this blog post to answer these in more detail.
Of course here in Japan our futon are typically placed directly on tatami, but this is not absolutely necessary. Although they're much better than carpet over cement or a wooden floor, tatami are still quite firm and don't add a lot of extra cushioning value. For this reason many people here in Japan may use a roughly 5 cm (2 inch) trifold cloth covered foam pad underneath their shikibuton. In fact, if you visit Japan and stay in a Ryokan (traditional guest house or hotel), you will definitely get the very common futon/trifold pad combination to sleep on. (However, their shikibuton likely won’t be as thick as what you will receive when you order from our website.)
Cushioning value aside, tatami mats also do help to absorb moisture a bit and keep your futon dry. (We’ve included some additional information on tatami below)
Tatami Beds or Platform Beds
One advantage of platform and tatami beds is they help keep your futon away from potential moisture problems simply by getting your futon up off of the floor, which can be a plus. That said, both tatami beds (wooden bed frames with tatami as the top surface) and platform beds (which typically have flat wooden top surfaces) are definitely quite firm. You may need to use a trifold pad under your futon when using these options as well.
We have to say that both tatami beds and platform beds look great with our traditional futon. Another distinct advantage as they may be easier to get in and out of. Tatami beds are often preferred by senior citizens here in Japan for that reason. (Of course, here in Japan 80 year olds often still have an impressive spring in their step. ;) )
Of course the disadvantage of these beds is . . . well, they're beds. You can't just fold up up and store them away, like you can when you have just futon, then use that space for other activities other than sleeping.
Using a Trifold Pad or Not
Another key important factor regarding the surface below your shikibuton is you. Your size/weight, sleeping habits and the type of sleep you need or prefer. If you're looking for quite a firm sleeping surface (due to back pain issues, for example) then your shikibuton on a blanket directly on carpet will probably be good. However, if after a few weeks you feel you need a little extra cushioning, we would recommend ordering a trifold pad from Amazon (or similar vendor).
As our sleeping habits in general all differ, we would suggest starting at first, for a week or two, with the shikibuton only, then add any additional cushioning beneath as you feel necessary.
Is your Futon Placed Directly on Carpet Okay?
Whether your futon works well or not on carpet depends on a couple of conditions. First, is the carpet covering a cement floor? Carpet on cement can be quite unforgiving. How thick is the carpet and carpet padding beneath it? How old is the carpet?
Also,if the carpet pad underneath is worn, it may not be a very good moisture barrier either and your carpet may be pulling moisture from the cement. (This is often the case when you smell that musty carpet smell in basements.) Eventually your futon will actually absorb that moisture from the carpet. We would recommend some sort of pad underneath if only just a folded blanket that you can throw into the wash with your futon covers while you're hanging your futon out in the sun to get air and dry.
If your carpet is installed over a wooden floor, moisture would likely not be an issue at all.
Futon Directly on Hardwood Flooring
We’ve gotten mixed feedback on this and believe this basically comes down to comfort. Whether you will need additional cushioning under your shikibuton or not depends upon your weight/size and sleeping habits/preferences. We've have had customers who have loved their futon directly down on a hardwood floor. One customer from NYC wrote and said that it was a bit too hard directly on the hardwood, but when he simply added a thick throw-rug it was a perfect solution for him and the "best bed he has ever slept on". However, others have needed the trifold pad to fit their complete comfort needs if they have hardwood flooring.
Other than comfort, your futon directly on a wooden floor would not necessarily be a problem beyond the dust/dirt that commonly accumulates on wood flooring, if you make sure you are hanging your futon regularly. (More on this below.)
Important: One additional issue with flooring, as we've gotten more feedback from western customers, is the potential of mold on the bottom of futon that have been placed on hard-wood or "Pergo" style laminate flooring. (This is still quite uncommon so it may have something to do with the type of material the flooring is made from.) We're not completely sure why this would be an issue, however as we've considered this, we have surmised that perhaps wood flooring tends to remain cool while the shikibuton gets warmed by body-heat and the temperature difference may introduce condensation/moisture. Or it may simply be because the wood or laminate doesn't allow the futon to breathe.
Regardless of the reason, we would recommend that if you're placing your futon on a hardwood or a laminate flooring, that you use some sort of natural fiber absorbent mat set such as a Goza or Igusa mat (These are essentially the outer material of a tatami mat) or throw-rug underneath. We would also recommend that you frequently (even daily if possible) lift your shikibuton up off of the floor and drape it over a chair so air can flow around it and allow it to breathe and shed moisture.
Futon on Slat Bed Frames
From time to time I get customers emailing about whether a our traditional futon will work on a
wooden "slat" bed frame they already had. The challenge with these style of beds is they're typically made for the Western style futon that are much thicker than traditional Japanese shikibuton. Because of this, it is possible that you might feel the spaces between the slats. Of course, this really depends upon the bed frame and how far apart the spaces between the latices are. All that said, the solution is fairly simple. You can purchase 1/4" Masonite (also known as "hardboard") to place over the slats. This is that wood you often see that has the holes in it to be used for hanging tools from pegs. It is inexpensive and most venders (Home Depot, etc.) will cut this to your specs for a small charge.
Once again, we would recommend testing with your new shikibuton first before heading off to the hardware store. Perhaps you'll have no problem at all. We think the bed example in the image above would have no problems, but we've seen other beds frames where the slats are quite far apart.
Additional Notes on Tatami Mats
If you do a Google search for "tatami" or "authentic tatami" you will find some tatami that will likely ship from within the US (or within your country). However, you will likely have no idea of the quality or if they were even made in Japan or not. These days (just like with futon) there are a lot of cheaper, inferior "knock-offs” available online. If you do find some authentic Japanese tatami, they will likely be more expensive.
If you want to see a true Japanese tatami master’s website that does ship overseas, you can GO HERE. (Unfortunately it
isn’t very user-friendly website and the English & French translations are likely done by automated software.)
Something Surprising about Tatami
My grandfather was a true tatami master. He made futon for over 50 years and even lived in Taiwan for a decade teaching tatami making. In fact parts of the house we live in now—though since remodeled into living space—used to be a tatami factory.
From my grandfather I learned something about tatami you might find interesting. The grass that authentic tatami are made from actually has herbal properties that are calming and help you sleep. So having your futon on tatami and breathing it's scent is an "aroma-therapy" that will help you relax and rest better.
The problem with cheap "knock off" tatami is that you really have no idea what grass the may be using to make them (along with other quality issues, of course). Often these tatami don't have a natural product inside at all but instead are filled with a firm polyethylene plank which is much lighter for shipping.
My American Husband's First Experience with the Scent of Tatami Mats
When he first visited Japan in 2007, my husband arrived at the same time as a huge typhoon in September. He was staying in Ryokan (traditional guesthouses & hotels) that were filled with tatami. The high humidity put the tatami scent in "over-drive" and every Ryokan he stayed at had a very strong earthy tatami smell throughout. He loved it!
As you can imagine, as our house is also filled with tatami, whenever it gets humid the tatami scent fills the house … and it also fills my husband with a sense of nostalgia for that first magical visit to Japan (when he first met me!). :-)