Life's no bed of roses for futon lovers

THE futon may be the back's best friend. But in Hongkong, life with Japan's venerable mattress can often be a pain in the neck.

The daily airing, a ritual in Japan, is nearly impossible here due to the weight. ''They're too heavy,'' complained one futon devotee. ''It takes two of us just to lift the damn thing.'' No surprise. Futons sold in Hongkong are different than the traditional Japanese ones. The Western version is a cotton-filled mattress, imported from the United States, or locally-made. Importing them from Japan is too expensive, according to retailers.

The futon in Japan is a two-piece bedding system. It features an under-futon (a thin mattress) and an over-futon (a cover of varying weights that you sleep under).

''The futon here is bought as a single mattress. It is three to five inches thick. People keep them on the floor or on a platform,'' says Michelle Tang, owner of Ito Futon. ''No one rolls them up like they do in Japan.'' Eighty per cent of Ms Tang's business is from expats. ''Occasionally, I'll get a Chinese yuppie who has lived abroad. Or a Japanese married to an expat.'' Just because you grew up on one, says one Japanese businessman, doesn't mean you want to sleep on one for the rest of your life.

''Modern people in Japan would rather sleep in a Western bed,'' explains Yoshiya Kasahara. The operations manager for Seibu believes futons are more practical in Japan. ''You air them out daily, roll them up and store them. But here, that's difficult.'' Dale Keller remembers that daily ritual. ''After you air them out, they smell like the outdoors,'' recalls the designer and head of Dale Keller & Associates Ltd.

When Keller and his wife Pat began their careers, courtship and family life in Japan, they literally lived on futons, and the floor, for years. Their backs liked the firmness.


But when the couple moved to Hongkong and experienced their first typhoon, the love affair with the futon changed. ''I opened the window and the futon got soaked. That's when we decided to raise ourselves off the floor. We bought a platform.'' The traditional pure cotton filling is being challenged by synthetics.

''The combination filling (foam, poly-cotton and cotton) is flame-resistant,'' explains Grace Green, owner of Amazing Grace. Her price range, including frame, is between $2,200 and $4,400.

Mixing fibres is a trend in Japan. ''Though the poly-cotton weighs less, they're not as cool,'' adds Ms Tang. ''The synthetic filling retains the heat. And that's hot for Hongkong.'' The futons she sells are made locally. For customers who want custom platforms or slat frames, she offers the service of a designer. One of her latest designs is a convertible sofa bed of varnished plywood. It seats three adults and folds into a twin bed.

Sales of futons are booming. They're the main business for Jacky Andrews, owner of Eastern Fabric on Wyndham Street.


''My business (in futons) has doubled,'' says Ms Andrews. When the yen shot up in the late-80s, she started to import them from the United States. Then she produced them locally.

The combination filling - poly-cotton and cotton - has some disadvantages.


''The foam does not breathe. And one of the joys of the futon is that it breathes.'' Airing them daily fluffs up the cotton, she says, and if there is sunshine, it is a way of cleaning them.

''We urge customers to air them, move them or shake them up. But not everyone has a balcony or the time.'' In keeping them in good condition, the use of air-conditioning helps fend off the threat of Hongkong's humidity. So does the dehumidifier.

Ms Tang urges clients to protect the futon with sheets and covers. But accidents do happen. Spilling a bottle of beer or wine can be a costly mess.


''We have to open the futon and remove the damaged cotton. Fortunately, we get only two house calls a year.'' What happens when the expat goes home? ''Sell it here. It is cheaper to buy a new futon at home, than to ship it,'' adds Ms Tang.

- Margaret Sheridan