Saturday, January 22, 2011

Winter in Japan: A Survival Guide

{Winter in Kyoto, and the beautiful Kinkaku-ji}

Japanese winters are BRUTAL. Even in the south where I live, the cold winds will chill your bones. Hailing from Canada, I am pretty much in the polar bear category and I should, in theory, be able to easily deal with the mild, 6 or 7 degrees Celcius Kansai winters.

Yet, even though these are tropical temperatures for a Canadian, Japan's utter lack of insulation makes it unbearable. You cannot ever escape the cold, because houses and buildings are not properly insulated, therefore drafty, and there is no central heating. Most apartments are equipped with an aircon unit, but you literally have to be sitting right underneath it to feel warmer. Japanese schools are not heated, and kids run around in shorts and t-shirts. I'm completely scandalized to see babies and toddlers not wearing mittens, scarves or hats. Oh, Japan.

After surviving my second Japanese winter, here are some helpful tips:

Once again, my beloved kotatsu table, which made this winter so nice and toasty. I can save on heating costs by cozying up underneath it, and I also save tons of money on going out, because it makes me want to never leave my apartment.

You can buy those plastic or aluminum sheets at any hardware shop or 100 yen store, with which you can cover up windows and tape around the edges, to reduce the drafts. It may or may not make your apartment look like a spaceship.

Hot water bottles
Most stores like MUJI sell those plastic bottles that you fill with hot water and cover with a pouch, and putinside your futon when you sleep- they can come handy at night if you don't leave the heater on (which I never do).

The best way to stay warm is from wearing layers... and believe me I know... when I used to go on ski trips in Canada, I'd wear tons of layers, and this keeps us warmer than having only one thick clothing item. Think tights under your pants, thermal undershirts (Uniqlo has a great line of Heat Tech clothing, which is especially made to keep warmth), and a few pairs of socks.

Thankfully Japan has an amazing selection of teas and hot beverages (even in vending machines), so sipping on those can really help your body stay warm, and you can get them anytime, anywhere. I love how convenient Japan is.

Stay hot
Turn your shower into a spa. Not the most environmentally-friendly option, but turning the hot water on for a minute before I hop in the shower makes my freezing, unheated bathroom a bit more welcoming. I also set my alarm twenty minutes before I actually have to wake up and turn the heater on. And... I put my clothes under the kotatsu each morning, so it's a lot more fun to get dressed. Having a boy in my bed would also be a good way to stay toasty.... but that's wishful thinking...

Now that I'm typing these tips, I realize that Japan goes through lengths to come up with new ideas to stay warm. It makes me wonder, why don't they catch up on the central heating trend? I know traditional houses are not build for that purpose, and for the humid and hot summers, but just an idea...

Any other tips for surviving a Japanese summer?


Al said...

We spent last winter in Tokyo in an apartment complex with neighbors on all four sides of us. I don't know if they were always running their heat or not but we barely needed to. I have never had such a warm winter. Compared to other winters in Japan, which were horrible as you mention, being in the middle of an apartment complex left us feeling very insulated.

Anonymous said...

In rural Korea my heating bill costs over $200 a month for less than 300 square feet! I have to keep the heat on 24-7, because the same button controls the hot water and my pipes froze twice and if they burst it would have been a lot more expensive than the ridiculous $200 a month in heating bills! I also have to drip my hot water 24-7 to prevent freezing.

I keep it on the lowest settings and wear layers, long underwear, hiking socks, fluffy sweaters, hoodies and drink warm tea all day.

French Lover said...

J'adore tes différentes éditions du guide de survie au Japon !!
Et le Kinkaku-ji... C'est le fond d'écran de mon mari, je ne me lasse pas de l'admirer. Je ne l'avais jamais vu en hiver, magnifique.

Anonymous said...

Come on Japan, insulate! I'm sure there's a reason why they don't (do you know?), but I can't imagine going through winter without heat.

Anonymous said...

It's my 4th winter in Japan and at first I felt just like you. I'm from Germany and I'm also used to long and cold winters. It's quite normal to have -20°C, but I feel much colder here in Japan.
It's getting better every year, though.
I think you mentioned a lot of things already. I also use 2 hot water bottles (no hard plastic, but soft ones from Germany) to keep me warm during night).
Some cities in the Chubu area (e.g. Takayama) and of course Hokkaido do have central heating :)
I wonder when the rest of Japan will follow.

Winter is okay, though.
I can't stand Japanese summer with all its monster insects (cockroaches), humidity, sweating like woah etc.

Samurai Shonan said...

You should get an electric carpet. They work well. I own my own mansion the insulation is pretty good. I always watch them build new houses, and they always use insulation. Old places are cold and drafty, and the roaches love them. gambatte ne.

Jen said...

I just read this Gadling article, and it reminded me of you and this post you did.

Samurai Shonan said...

Thanks Jen. That was a good article. People used to wear a ton of layers and use the kotatsu all the time. Not so much anymore, as places are getting better. But still, apt. buildings, not mansions can get damn cold. Electric carpets are a plus but electric is high here.

Going to the beach tomorrow. yeah...cooked a bunch of food...

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