Living abroad in Japan influenced my daily habits in surprising ways that I never expected. I never thought that every night I would sleep differently, thanks to Japan.
When I first arrived to Japan, I marveled at all the unfamiliar sights. I was amazed by the bullet trains traveling over 200 miles per hour, the remarkable crush of humanity in Tokyo and Osaka, and the track sushi restaurants where a mechanized trolley delivers food to your table. It was an exhilarating time. I took hundreds of pictures a day, trying to capture it all.
One of my very first photos in Japan. The ubiquitous Japanese vending machine.
Now when I reflect on my time in Japan, those flashy sights have faded.
Instead the influence of living abroad in Japan endures in much more mundane aspects of my everyday life. Seeing how other people live altered the basic ways in which I live my own life. It was not so much elements of style that changed, but rather my core assumptions about “the way things are done.” Maybe I as not even aware of those assumptions to begin with…
I was like a young and foolish goldfish. One day, I meet an older, wiser fish. He asks me, “How’s the water?” I respond, “What on earth is water??”
Forgive the cliche illustration. The point is that sometimes the most obvious realities of our world are invisible because we are immersed in that world. Only once we are removed from our native environment can we appreciate it fully.
And that’s how an activity that I never considered deeply – sleeping – was fundamentally changed by living abroad in Japan.
Here are 7 things that Japan taught me about sleeping (and that I’m still doing almost every night), except for #6 since I do not have kids yet.
Sleep on the floor.
This might be the best known of Japanese sleep habits.
Forget big puffy mattresses and elaborate bed frames. Most Japanese sleep on thin cotton mattresses placed directly on the floor.
As a kid, I definitely dreamed of having a giant four-poster bed.
Something like this beauty from Pottery Barn.
After experiencing minimalistic Japanese sleeping, I was a complete convert. Simple futon mattresses are incredibly comfortable, good for your back (or so they say), super stable, never squeaky, way less expensive, and way more portable. On a recent trip to New York to visit my brother, I packed my own futon!
In my apartment, I love that I can simply fold up my futon and use the space for something else – reading, crafts, playing on my computer, exercising. My room feels so spacious without a large bed dominating the space.
First night unpacking my futon! So light, I can carry it with one hand.
Currently I am sleeping on a beautiful futon that I bought through Amazon and got shipped from Japan. I cannot recommend it highly enough!
Heat the bed, not the room.
Before I traveled to Japan for a trip in January, my Japanese professors warned me to pack lots of warm sweaters because Japan is cold in the winter. What they did not tell me is that central heating basically does not exist in Japan, especially not in houses.
No central heating but this is how it looked outside my bedroom window!
So it would be snowing outside and my bedroom was not much better. In the morning, I could actually see my breath make a white cloud over my bed.
But it was not miserably cold in bed because of my wonderful bed heater! Before going to bed, I would turn on my heated mattress pad, which would be nice and warm by the time I went to sleep. Then it would turn off automatically about 1 hour later, once my body had warmed up.
The control for my beloved electric bed heater.
When you think about it, this approach totally makes sense – put the warmth where you actually want it and heat just yourself, not the entire room.
I brought back my precious bed heater from Japan. You can buy something similar on Amazon by searching for heated mattress pad.
One warning though – if you turn it on in the morning, it will be impossibly cozy and very hard to get out of bed.
Drink a glass of water before getting into bed.
I used to put a glass of water beside my bed to drink during the night if I got thirsty. The problem is that usually I slept through the night and just woke up super thirsty the next morning. Actually I thought that drinking too much water before bed might be bad, because I would wake up having to go to the bathroom.
Then, during summer trips to Japan, I kept seeing advice to drink a glass of water before bed. The television doctors said a glass of water before sleeping would hydrate me and help me sleep (especially during the steamy hot summer months).
Before crawling into bed, I always down glass of water now.
Not sure if it is scientifically proven, but I feel great when I drink water before sleeping.
Uncover your feet (AKA: Cover your belly.)
So I have been doing this for years, but it turns out that I misinterpreted this important piece of Japanese sleeping advice.
During another one of my hot summers in Japan, I saw a television program with a host explaining how to best position your blankets for humid summer nights. He demonstrated folding the blanket up to uncover the person’s feet.
Image from Medical Daily on why it might actually be better to sleep with your feet out!
I thought the point was to keep the person cool by uncovering their feet. When I mentioned this to K, he told me I had it wrong. The point is to keep you cool while still covering your belly. I guess in Japan, keeping the belly warm is considered key to promoting good digestive health. You can even purchase a HARAMAKI (or belly band) for extra concentrated warmth.
Cute belly warmer from Hobonichi, the maker of my calendar. Yep! You heard that right. Hobonichi sells daily planners and also knitted elasticized belly warmers.
(Image credit to Hobonichi.)
Possible health benefits aside, I find that uncovering my feet but keeping my belly covered is a very comfortable way of sleeping during hot summer weather, or really anytime I feel warm.
Anywhere is good for napping.
If you search for “Japan sleeping,” you will find pages and pages of people sleeping in public spaces (sometimes in odd postures). Sleeping on train benches, sleeping on train floors, sleeping in bathrooms, sleeping at work on their desk.
Public sleeping is totally acceptable in Japan.
I have heard numerous reasons for this cultural habit. Some commentators blame the long work hours and also long commutes that many Japanese endure. Other people suggest that because crime is so low in Japan, people can comfortably sleep in public without concern for their safety.
Whatever the reason, you can nap pretty much anywhere in Japan. It is acceptable to the point that I have even fallen asleep on the shoulders of complete strangers, and been allowed to just nap there. (To be fair, people have fallen asleep on me too!)
My desk at school, where I napped when no one was looking…
It is a little harder to get away with this in the United States, although I have had some good naps in the back corners of libraries. So it can be done! I wish it were more acceptable in the U.S. though. I feel like even a short nap energizes me.
All work places should start having nap pods like Google!
(Image Credit to Geek.)
Sleep in a heap with others.
Co-sleeping historically has a bit of a bad reputation in the United States, but it is the norm in some countries, like Japan. My entire Japanese host family (2 parents and 3 kids) all slept together in three futon mattresses arranged side by side.
My bunnies (to be) practicing Japanese-style co-sleeping.
In Japan, kids might sleep with their parents well into elementary school. Some research suggests that co-sleeping actually encourages greater self-reliance and independence. It also seems to offer some practical advantages, keeping the child within arm’s reach for nightly waking.
I do not have a child yet, so I am not sure how this bit of advice might influence my future decisions, but it has made me think twice about the separate bedroom arrangements.
Use big fluffy pajamas.
I am one of those people who sleeps in an old t-shirt, but Japan shamed me thanks to its culture of proper and well-coordinated pajamas.
A particularly popular style is big fluffy pajamas (resembling popular cartoon characters). I have yet to try one of these outfits, but I am tempted especially for cold winter months.
I have yet to don these…
How about you? What are your sleeping habits like? If you have traveled or lived abroad, did the experience change your daily habits in some way? Leave a comment and let me know!