Winter is a wonderful time of the year that has the power to add incredible beauty to any landscape and also offers a plethora of seasonal activities to look forward to. I’m sure that my winter rich Midwestern upbringing has conditioned me to enjoy it, and in light of my current home’s paltry trace amounts, yearn for it. However, putting up with winter in Japan is completely different and can really sap the enjoyment and appreciation from the season.
The way that I would describe a Michigan winter to people is here is ‘much colder, but much easier’. When I tell my friends and coworkers that I wake up in the morning to temperatures as low as 25°C they shudder, for here they would probably die. What many people in the western world grow up taking for granted is the luxury of central heating and the miraculous ability to command the ambient temperature of a room. Not only a room, but every room!
Houses in Japan do not have such features and in the the northernmost regions (where just the other day blizzards froze 9 communting people to death) they rely on only radiators. To those of us in the south with more manageable winters the temperatures tends to hover at about 0°C, but we have little to combat the chill. I’m almost always wearing a proper jacket around the house and getting out of the hot shower is horrid.
The Japanese populace tends to rely on kerosene heaters and a kotatsu to fend off the cold, in only a single room or two of the house. I really like using the kerosene heater and even my small one is plenty for the one room that I tend to spend most of my time in. Plus, the cost of keeping me comfortable is only about five dollars a week. A kotatsu is a table skirted with a blanket and equipped with a heater that keeps people’s legs toasty. I don’t really enjoy sitting on the floor for any extended period of time, and since the warmth makes you lazy and unable to accomplish anything, it never makes it out of my closet (hence the use of Google Image search).
Nice, but incapacitating.
The part of a Japanese winter that can make it so much harder is the inescapable cold. Not only is the house cold, but so too are the classrooms at school. My school having heating at all is a luxury – most schools are at the full mercy of the seasons. Seeing my own breath while navigating the rows of desks is commonplace, and especially so while walking the halls. Not only this, but the windows are often thrown wide open to improve air circulation and remove sickness, supposedly. Now while I will happily confess to how ridiculous this practice seems to me, they appear to be learning just fine despite it. I really have no sympathy for anyone who complains about the temperature of a room.
Like pups nuzzling into the bosom of their mother, students huddle around between classes. The water on top simmers to humidify the air. (stock photo)
One other wintertime thing that always accompanies the season is the spread of ‘influenza’ that seems to cripple the Japanese; students are always going to or staying home because of it. There are two primary problems present here. Firstly, we most certainly looking at a terminology problem. People can die from the flu and it is generally accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea, not just stuffy noses and half-degree fevers as are experienced here. The other problem lies in the caution that the Japanese people apply liberally to everything, generally throwing out reason and logic along the way. Every student that goes to the school nurse gets exactly what they want, whether it be a bed to sleep in or a phone call to get home. It seems as if in their mind they see no difference between a flu and cold, nor do they distinguish actually sickness from inconvenience of a cough. Honestly, if 10 or 15 students from a single class were out sick with influenza, it would be a much larger problem. I assume that the students just lie because they can stay home without anyone questioning it. At the very least, it may be worth reassessing the merits of leaving the classroom windows gaping.
This is a common sight in Japan, but especially during the winter. Masks are worn both out of consideration of peers and prevention. I’m skeptical of their effectiveness. (stock photo)
I would certainly say that the western practice of climate control is the most comfortable. It is however undeniably energy inefficient to have such a system running throughout the whole house 24 hours a day, whether people are there to enjoy it or not. Having spent four winters here in Japan, I can now truly appreciate the merits of stripping down to my skivvies as soon as I walk in the door, but also the wasteful nature of it. I am basically comfortable in my cold Japanese house and take no bother to spending my evenings occupying just one room of my house. I expect that I will take some of that resilience with me to my next abode, but will likely have to part with the luxury or 30 dollar a month winter heating bills. Fortunately the winter seems to be winding down and warmer days of spring are starting to be intermittent.