A Japanese futon is a type of mattress designed specifically for the floor. It’s also called a shikibuton. A shikibuton can provide sleep benefits for some people, but it’s not meant for everyone.
When I first moved into my own apartment sans roommates, it felt like a welcome rite of passage.
Still, in the pricey California rental market, I couldn’t afford more than a studio on my own. Even that was pushing it. In a place hardly bigger than a postage stamp, I had to get creative with every square inch of floor space around my bed.
One day, trying to choose between a desk and a place to do yoga, it dawned on me: Do I even need a bed?
What before seemed like a staple suddenly struck me as a waste of space. And so began the search for my perfect solution.
Enter the shikibuton, also known as the “minimalist bed.” After sleeping this way for more than 2 years now, I may never go back to a Western mattress. I’m hooked.
A shikibuton is a Japanese futon mattress designed to rest on the floor. It can be rolled up and put away when you’re not sleeping, freeing up extra space.
When rolled out, it’s usually between 3 and 4.5 inches thick, giving the sleeper the experience of laying on the earth with a little extra support. (Think camping, but better).
It’s similar to a Korean yo, another floor-style futon.
According to Atsuko Morita, a phytotherapist and the founder of Japanese botanical wellness brand, Waphyto, the shikibuton is a staple of Japanese culture.
“Shikibuton is traditionally used as an ancient Japanese alternative for beds,” says Morita. “We still use them in some old traditional houses or Japanese ryokan hotels where people go to enjoy hot springs.”
Yuko Kaifu, president of JAPAN HOUSE Los Angeles, agrees.
“It’s a Japanese way of efficiency and pragmatism,” she says.
How to pronounce it
Shikibuton (敷き布団) is pronounced she-key-boo-tawn.
If the idea of floor sleeping sounds intimidating, consider these benefits.
A shikibuton is great for minimalists, studio renters, loft dwellers, digital nomads, tiny home residents, and people who want to use their bedroom space for dual purposes.
“As a typical Japanese house is smaller and has fewer rooms, it’s important to use the space for multiple functions,” Kaifu says. “A futon is folded and placed into a closet during the daytime so the room can be used as a living room, dining room, study room, etc.”
Traditionally, a shikibuton is hand-sewn and stuffed with cotton, free from any synthetic materials, flame retardants, plastics, or other chemicals.
This can be a great fit for eco-conscious shoppers or those with allergies.
“In the early 20th century, some people in rural areas or those who were not wealthy slept on shikibuton stuffed with straws, which must have been rather uncomfortable,” Kaifu says.
“This helps ease muscle aches and stiffness caused by too much time sitting during the day or an active lifestyle, like going to the gym, hiking, or running,” he says.
A firm, yet supportive futon mattress allows for natural alignment in the spine without the development of uncomfortable points of pressure, says Ali Mesiwala, a neurosurgeon in Newport Beach, California.
“It’s the equivalent to an ancient form of a space-age, anti-pressure foam mattress,” he says. “A shikibuton allows the intrinsic muscles of the spine to perform necessary functions during sleep, further stabilize, and, in many cases, reduce pain.”
Kaifu notes that the ability to change the thickness and firmness is key.
“Some people prefer fluffy shikibuton, while others who have a back problem may prefer flat and solid shikibuton,” she says.
In the summer months, a cotton-made shikibuton won’t retain as much heat as a Western mattress.
“You can also change the material of a futon depending on the season and preference,” Kaifu says.
When winter rolls around, you can add warmer materials, like fleece and wool.
In minimalist forums, shikibuton users report that there’s no squeaking. I’ll leave it at that.
See it in action
To see a shikibuton being used and hear comments from those who’ve made the switch, have a look at these helpful videos:
A shikibuton isn’t right for everyone. Before you make the switch to floor-sleeping, there are a few factors to consider.
Too firm for some
We all have different body types, which means we require sleeping surfaces with varying levels of firmness, says Jordan Duncan, a chiropractor in Silverdale, Washington.
“People with straighter spines and angular body types tend to do better with firmer mattresses, compared to those with larger spinal curves,” he says.
“Those with larger spinal curves may find it less comfortable because the hard surface doesn’t provide adequate support, and may allow your lower back to flatten during sleep,” he adds.
Those who are pregnant, injured, or have mobility issues should check with their doctor before sleeping on a shikibuton.
Pressure for side sleepers
“If you sleep on your side, your mattress will usually need some ‘give’ to accommodate your shoulders and hips,” he says. “Firm mattresses may put too much pressure on those areas, causing pain and restless sleep.”
Low to the ground
Part of the convenience of a shikibuton is that it doesn’t require a bedframe. This also means it’s low to the ground.
“People who have back pain may find it more difficult to stand up from shikibuton, as it’s spread on the floor,” says Kaifu. “It’s easier to do so from a bed, as you can just slide down from it.”
If you have trouble sitting on or rising from the floor, a shikibuton may not be for you.
My first night on a shikibuton, I drifted off to the deepest sleep of my life. But some people report that it takes up to 3 nights to get used to sleeping so close to the floor.
You may want to play it safe by hanging on to your old mattress and setting up your shikibuton when you have a couple of days off work — just in case. There’s no harm in easing into it.
A queen size shikibuton can weigh between 40 and 50 pounds.
The long rectangular shape combined with the weight may make it difficult for some to move it twice a day: once at night to set up and once in the morning to put away.
A high quality, queen-size shikibuton can run between $300 and $500.
When the “mood” strikes, there’s no bed to hop into. You’ll have to roll it out first.
In Japanese culture, a shikibuton is placed on top of tatami, or mats made of baked straw grass. If you don’t have those, you can place the shikibuton directly on the floor.
- Sweep the area where you want to sleep.
- Lay down tatami mats, if desired.
- Roll out the shikibuton.
- Add sheets, quilts, and pillows.
- Crawl into bed, and catch some Zzz’s.
When you’re not using it, it’s important to get the shikibuton off the floor, so it doesn’t develop mold from the trapped moisture (from when we sweat in our sleep).
To put it away:
- Remove the bedding.
- Fold the futon in thirds, or roll it up and secure the strap.
- Store it in a breathable closet or near a sun-lit window.
In Japan, a shikibuton is taken outside to the balcony and clipped onto the railing during daylight hours.
“The climate in Japan tends to be humid, and it works well to dry it in the sun from time to time,” Kaifu says. “It feels so good at night to lie down on a shikibuton that was dried in the sunlight or heat during the day.
This way, the sun can dry the fabric and disinfect it from bacteria or dust mites. If you air your futon out by moving it every day, you should be fine.
You may also want to sprinkle your shikibuton with baking soda and vacuum it off monthly, particularly if you live in a humid climate.
Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and do not attempt to put it in a washer unless it specifically says you can.
This instructional video provides great information.
There are many online sellers to choose from.
Be sure to look for a shikibuton made from natural materials, preferably organic cotton and wool, and a height under 5 inches tall.
I bought my full-size shikibuton from Relaxation Products on Etsy.
Some other shops with positive reviews include:
A shikibuton may be a good option for those looking for a space efficient bed or a way to naturally support the integrity of the spine.
Be sure to work with a doctor, orthopedist, or chiropractor to figure out if a shikibuton is a suitable option for you.