Surviving winter in Japan, especially the northern Tohoku region, can be a struggle; but it’s not impossible. With a little thought and careful planning anyone can pass through these treacherous times of chilliness relatively unscathed.
Keep it toasty
When the temperature starts to drop I know it’s time to set up possibly the greatest Japanese invention of all time. The Kotatsu. This low table has an electric bar heater attached to the underside and a removable top that lets you lay a thick blanket across the table, allowing the top to still be used normally. The blanket keeps the heat in, forming a tiny sweat lodge for one’s weary cankles. Combine this with a comfy floor chair or bean bag and it makes for a real cosy time. Surely this is the only way bears can manage to hibernate comfortably for such a long time. The only problem comes if you’ve set the heater too high and then when your sweat-drenched legs hit the chill air they turn to hairy ice-lollies.
That little switch on the cord is currently set to “OFF”
Moisture is a pain. In the height of summer Japanese residences are most comfortable when a de-humidifier fights off all that painful humidity, but in winter the complete opposite is required. At least if one doesn’t want to wake up with chapped lips and a salty rasp. I only use a small humidifier in the bedroom that holds enough water for about four or five hours. I turn it on just as I go to bed and it seems to do the trick. I’d like to have one in my living room too but, well, you know … money.
As well as putting water back into the air one also has to be on guard for too much moisture. It gathers quite heavily on the window panes; so much so that it sometimes sounds like its gently raining inside the apartment. Last year I wiped away the condensation every morning with some re-usable absorbent cloths. This year I have some special absorbent pads attached to the windows and I’m going to scrape the excess away with this handy doo-dad:
Another place that condensation gathers is on the floor under a warm, people-topped futon. Most people I know in Japan sleep on futons, as is customary in many Japanese homes. I’ve heard tell that using them is good for the spine but I don’t have any substantial evidence of my own – my back is still crooked and shrivelled like an aging grave keeper in a black and white horror show. In my first winter in Japan I became very well acquainted with Mr. Mold; we were bed-fellows in fact. Since then I’ve tried to remain diligent throughout the chill season. I roll up my futon every morning to let the floor dry during the day. I also have a special absorbent matt which I bought locally and goes between my foam mattress (which sits under the main futon – extra padding for my delicate figure!) and the floor; it soaks up a lot of the moisture and only needs to be aired out every couple of weeks or so. I’ve also heard tell of a mythical device that can dry out your bedding for you, without the need for rolling things up. Sorcery!
Ice Ice Baby
Anyone who drives in Japan will definitely need a thingy to brush and scrape snow and ice from their car. There are some pretty nice aluminium ones with extendable parts and padded grips but I, cheapskate that I am, just bought the cheapest thing I could find; it’s basically just a stick with a brush on one end and a triangular bit of plastic the other.
Drivers will also need a hefty shovel or two to dig their car out of the snow. It’s worth keeping one in the car if you drive to work as it’s possible your vehicle will be submerged once again whilst at work. In my first winter I always “borrowed” a neighbour’s shovel until one day it broke and I coincidentally decided I should go and buy my own. I had my own shovel for all of two days before it was stolen; karma can be cheeky sometimes.
Speaking of snow and ice: buy some boots. Nice, warm, sturdy, cosy boots; not the three hundred yen pieces of crap I use!
It’s getting hot in here, so keep on all your clothes, because it’s only temporary, as Japanese homes have poor insulation …
As stated, so lyrically, above, Japanese homes are almost never insulated. This style of construction is largely down to the way structures are designed to withstand earthquakes. This means that having a heater in your home is pretty much essential. There are basically three types of heater. In many modern apartments residents are likely to find one of these beasts sticking to their wall:
It’s an AC, giving cooler air in the summer and warm, cinnamon scented air in the winter. OK, I’m lying about the scent. It also comes with a remote:
Constant usage of this can really inflate the electric bill and installing a brand new one is super pricey so be cautious and thankful in equal measure.
The AC takes a while to heat a room and if there’s only one in a large-ish apartment it can mean the far corners can remain cold for a while. Unfortunately this is often the bathroom or toilet. For these smaller areas it’s useful to have a small electric heater that can quickly heat the area around them. These are pretty cheap to buy, just make sure to turn them off when not in use or there could be trouble.
The third type of heater is the only one that I don’t personally own; The kerosene heater. I’ve seen many guest houses use these and have heard that it’s the most cost effective of the three choices. They’re filled with kerosene that can be bought from any petrol station. Be aware that they emit carbon monoxide gas and usually come with a hose to help vent the gas outside. They also often have a timer or automatic shutdown function to help prevent the build up of gas. Due to the obvious safety concerns many landlords do not allow these heaters in their properties.
Winter in Japan
The days are shorter, the cold is penetrating, the snow is smothering. Winter in Japan can be a pretty depressing time, but only if you let it. The key to staying up-beat in rotten environments is to find things to do. Japan is a mountainous country, particularly in the north, and what do you get if you add snow to mountains? Kick-ass ski and snowboard runs! If that kind of thrill ride doesn’t hold interest then there’s also snow walking – the act of taping tennis rackets to one’s boots before skipping away across the snow fields. With pure white dusting knotted branches and mammoth billowing clouds speckled with golden sunlight winter is considered by many to be Japan’s most picturesque season. For me that crown goes to the multi-coloured autumn but only just.
Even if winter sports are not your bag there are still plenty of cheery bars and cafes ready to welcome a weary winter walker and their company. Don’t let the snow get you down; with a little thought and careful planning winter in Japan can be one of the best times of the year.
How do you survive winter Japan? What steps do you take to prep your abode? Let us know below.