Subtitle: This is no way to live.
The average temperature over the past week has been around 4 degrees Celsius. That’s 39 degrees F. It was negative degrees C the other day. I feel like I’m living inside an ice cube. Finally it snowed today, Saturday, January 27. If it’s going to be ice cold outside I prefer that it snows so at least it’s a beautiful sight and there’s the possibility of a snowball fight or snowman to be made. Old timers at my kids’ school are telling me that this is the coldest winter in Osaka they’ve ever experienced. Japan can be beautiful in winter but let’s be honest, my California self can’t take this cold.Japanese houses are not built with insulation. They are not built with ducts and vents that carry critical central air or central heat. Not even modern, newly constructed houses built in the 21st Century. Back in the old days they used to be built with rice paper screens and wooden slats that aged and got cracks. The wind whistled through and people just put on more layers, or built a bigger fire. Maybe they think heat inside the house is only for wimps. Japanese people wear thick, furry, “room socks” and slippers so that their feet will not be cold on their wood floors. They wear toilet slippers so that their feet and socks will not have to touch the bathroom floor, which feels like an ice skating rink at all times of the day and night.
When I wake up in the morning I can see my breath. Little plumes of hot steam coming out of my mouth when I say good morning. It’s hard to get out of the warm covers because you know the house is going to feel like a freezer. We do have electric air con/heater combo units and a portable gas heater downstairs. Some of my ex-pat friends here will turn on every space heater and every gas heater in their house first thing in the morning. They blast the heat just so they can get dressed. And some of them keep blasting the heat in every room all day long. Their electricity and gas bills regularly top $500-700 per month in the winter. It would be nice to run my heat all day in every corner of the house like they do, but $600 per month on just gas and electricity seems excessive.
Our water bill is currently higher than everyone else I talk to, and I think it’s partly because my kids can’t turn off the hot shower once they get in. Either that or it’s because John is taking hot baths in our deep soaking tub, sometimes twice a day. John heats the tub to around 110 degrees F and sits in there till he’s lobster red and cooked well done. A few times I’ve even gotten in the tub in the morning just to get myself started. Japan’s winters are super cold and I can’t emphasize enough that inside your house is not even a respite from the cold. The houses look exquisitely beautiful from the outside though. How deceiving!My Japanese friend Mari thinks houses here don’t have modern conveniences of central heat or air because of high energy costs in Japan. She thinks there is a resistance against heating the whole house because it would cost too much. I don’t know. I think they could be using energy so much more efficiently in all seasons. What have they got against insulation? Well, Mari doesn’t dispute the benefits of insulation.John is amazed by the amount of people that continue to bike in the snow, ice, freezing cold, driving rain, hail etc. It’s the only way around for some people so they have to do it. But there are plenty, and I mean lots, of people slip sliding around in the slick road conditions on their bikes. You have to watch out for them when they wipe out in front of you, whether you are walking on the sidewalk or driving in the street. No helmets!One of my Aussie friends here was telling me a story tonight about a foreign student that she hosted last night. He’s a Thai boy so I’m sure he’s not used to cold winters. December is high (warm!) season for tourists in Thailand. When he arrived at their house he wasn’t even wearing socks. He said he only had one pair with him and they were dirty. My friend let him sleep in the spare room with tatami mats and futon mattresses on the floor. She has a portable gas heater that she set up for him in the room, but before she went to bed she shut it off because she was worried about running the gas all night long. So when her husband went to greet this poor boy in the morning he was curled up in his blanket, in a ball, literally shaking and shivering. Her husband immediately directed him to take a hot shower and this freezing kid jumped in the hot water for 45 minutes. It took him that long to thaw out. She thinks he was upset because he didn’t even say good bye when he left the house. And, that’s one of my friends with a $500/month winter heating bill.
John is from Chicago. He knows bitterly cold winters. But he says while everyone bundles up from head to toe outside, everyone heats their houses to 75 degrees F so that you can hang out inside with just shorts and a t-shirt. We met an American family recently who were visiting Japan from Colorado. I thought it was funny that they were puzzled when they went into a restaurant (or several) hoping to warm up, only to find that often the restaurants and cafes feel similar inside as they do outside. Welcome to Japan! It’s not like other places where you go inside somewhere and they’ve overcompensated for the extreme weather outside by making it the extreme opposite temperature inside. However I’ve found Starbucks to be reliably warm here. Those Western establishments know how to draw their customers in.
When we moved here Halyard never, ever wore pants. If you knew him then you’d only see him wearing shorts no matter the weather conditions or location. Now that he’s a teenager in Japan he’s sworn off shorts and only wears pants, even in the sweltering summer. Oh and he drinks hot tea now.
For those who only know Chicago through Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a movie very limited in snow, the weather here is almost unimaginable. The subtle snow sifts slowly sketching silver skies. I need a jacket. One to sleep in at this point. It’s gotten cold in the morning and cold in the afternoon but worst of all cold at night. I’ve come home on several occasions with my hands potentially frost bitten and without any motor capabilities. This began with the negative, but there are plenty of positive aspects to winter in Japan. The most obvious may be snow, which is fun to take walks through and something that you wouldn’t find in California. Also the cold is a fantastic excuse to stay inside and watch movies, despite the fact that I disappointingly left my Strangelove poster in America. This really only applies to the weekends though, as getting to school is an absolute pain by bike, and biking home is worse at night. Walking is much nicer, less wind and it’s more relaxing, but I can’t bring myself out of bed early enough, mostly due to how absolutely freezing it is here. The gist of winter in Japan can really be explained through one word, and if you haven’t guessed, that word is cold.
Kaiyo told me he doesn’t want to write about the cold because he isn’t cold here in Japan. But that doesn’t explain why he can’t get out of bed, he runs to the heater in the morning, he refuses to do his homework anywhere else besides under his covers in bed (fully dressed with pants and a sweatshirt on), and he has become a convert to enjoying steaming hot baths.
Kaiyo’s Winter Viewpoint
Winter is quite nice in Japan. Though it can get very cold, there is a plethora of things you can do to fight back. The houses have no insulation, but almost every Japanese house alternatively has multiple heaters. The heaters are very effective, but unfortunately they take a while to start heating up a room. This leads to a 15 minute period in which you’re just in bed, waiting for the room to heat up. Another part of Osaka that is different from California is that it sometimes snows here. Last year we had relatively little snow, but there has been quite a bit more this year. About a week ago it was snowing a lot, but the strange thing was that it wasn’t very cold outside, so you could walk around with a mere 3 layers on. The falling snow was really pretty and it was nice to walk outside. There was enough snow to create snowballs and some of my friends and I had a snowball fight.
Avalon has been a trooper this winter. She is still going to swim practice at a gym despite the cold (it is an indoor pool) and she’s still riding her bike around. Outside, she wears two pairs of pants, 3 shirts, 2 jackets and 2 pairs of gloves. Inside, she likes to sit right in front of the gas heater and block the heat from everyone else.Avalon’s Winter Viewpoint
Living in Japan in winter is, in one simple word COLD. (As I am writing this I am sitting in front of a heater.) Every morning there’s one struggle in my room. Getting out of bed. But once I’m awake, I have to get out of bed. Going downstairs is also a struggle, because the halls are so cold. The hallways are so cold that you can even see your breath, whereas going into the living room is like heaven, this is because it’s the warmest room in the house. It’s the warmest room in the house because we have a big heater that you can just sit in front of. When I go to school the only motivation is that the school is warm and I can keep my fingers from freezing. When I go to swim 4 days a week, there is no such thing as riding my bike there (because it’s winter), I only take the bus. I would want to take the bus to school if there was one near my house, but there isn’t one. One great experience that I had once was recess when it was snowing, and one time we were going to lunch from recess and it started to hail. The snow was really pretty! (But not the day when it was hailing though.)
I’ve mentioned in previous posts about the heated toilet seats. The new, fancy houses here do have heated wood floors which are very nice. I’m told that’s quite expensive. The mufflers that people wear, especially students, are gigantic, they practically cover their whole faces with just their eyes peeking out (see Kaiyo’s photo!). I will not, cannot, ride a bike in winter without my awesome, furry Emu earmuffs. They keep me from getting brain freeze when I’m out. But it’s been a drag to do laundry in the winter. Our dryer barely dries at all and I can’t hang the clothes outside when it’s freezing, gray, cloudy, rainy or snowing outside. Here’s me juggling a huge laundry bag that I’m balancing on the bike. I’m picking up my laundry from the coin laundromat in the cold. I see that I’m wearing two scarves in this photo and possibly 5 layers on top.You can’t really tell here but it has just started to snow lightly. John has an equally large bag of laundry that he is also hauling on the bike in the background. My kids might get annoyed that I’m letting the dirty laundry pile up, but I can take it all at once to get it laundered that way. It’s $10 USD per load to wash and dry!
I kind of wish that we had a kotatsu but we have no room for it in our small house. A kotatsu is a low table that is heated underneath. There’s a blanket that goes around the kotatsu and keeps the heat trapped under the table. You sit on cushions on the floor and put your legs and feet under the kotatsu table and it warms you up. Here is Avalon and her friend sitting at a kotatsu table when we went hiking in the mountains.
The main problem with a kotatsu is that it is near impossible to break away from it once your legs and feet are comfy. This in itself is a reason not to have one. Our friends offered to sell theirs to us when they left Japan. But I just didn’t know where we would put it and I wasn’t sure if the kids would be able to get to school in the mornings if they couldn’t get out from under it.
Our biggest weapon against the cold has probably been our cats. They are like portable heaters themselves and when they curl up on the bed with us they can actually make you sweat at night. We try to force them to sleep with us.
Here’s John walking home from a neighborhood bar in the snow. When we arrived, the bar owner came to the door and told us (4 of us) that the bar was closed due to the snow. But he took pity on us when we looked at him with our sad eyes, with the snow falling on our heads. He let us come in and made us drinks and his wife even cooked up little dishes of sautéed Japanese mushrooms. He gave us a big handful of Pocky, too. Japanese hospitality at its finest!
It turned out the bar owner is a big fan of American football and a former linebacker himself for an American football team in Japan. I wonder if he can get American football on TV at his house. We need a place to watch the Superbowl. Actually they don’t broadcast the commercials in Japan. Never mind. Skip the Superbowl.
John says the weather forecast shows it will start to warm up again sometime around mid-February. Oh boy.