5 Things Necessary for Staying Warm and Cozy During Japanese Winters
Winter is coming once again and in addition to loving to remind people that “there are 4 seasons in Japan”, people here in the Land of the Rising Sun seem to be obsessed with staying as warm as possible during that time. One of the main reasons for this is that residences are not insulated, leading to heat to bleed out of every crack and crevice. Despite the obvious solution to be adding insulation, central air conditioning, or heated floors to newer buildings as they are being constructed, Japan continues to resort to the same few solutions.
The kotatsu, a table with a blanket and a heater attached to it, has been an essential part of Japanese life since the 14th century. Originally made out of wood and providing heat with burning coals, modern kotatsu use electric heaters and lighter weight materials. It is the center of home life during the winter months as friends and family will huddle their legs underneath it while cooking and eating meals together or watching the many year-end television specials. The kotatsu is also linked to the mikan, which families will peel and eat while sitting together.
Because central heating and heated floors are not common in Japan and wall mounted air conditioning/heater units are relatively inefficient at keeping a room warm, small electric or kerosene space heaters referred to as “stōbu” (stove) are necessary. Larger ones are often used at outdoor restaurant terraces or other such similar events too. Because kerosene heaters are still being used all over Japan, volunteers will walk through the streets of residential neighborhoods warning people to be careful. Regardless of what type is being used, it’s recommended that you don’t fall asleep with the heater on overnight.
With all the dry heat accumulating indoors, one must remember to stay hydrated and so humidifiers that produce warm steam are another important item to have during the winter. Because space heaters and wall-mounted units tend to dry out a room, it’s important to balance out the humidity to prevent flaky skin, irritated eyes, and scratchy throats. Some old-fashioned places will have a kettle filled with water on a stove top to keep the moisture circulating.
Kairo (Hand Warmers)
While the colder weather makes staying inside the most comfortable option for many, activities like going out for the first shrine visit of the New Year (hatsumode), viewing winter illumination, or events like Winter Comiket, make it necessary to be outside for long hours. Kairo, the Japanese term for hand warmers, make it possible to brave the crowds in spite of the dropping temperatures. These can be purchased as just about every convenience store or drug store and also come in versions that can be placed in shoes or stuck to clothing with adhesive to provide hours of warmth.
While this is definitely not special to Japan, it can seem at times like there is an endless amount of clothing items here specially made to add a few degrees of warmth during the winter. Uniqlo’s HEATTECH line is probably the most famous with thermal underwear, knit hats, socks, scarves, neck warmers, and gloves in their collection. Conbini will also sell similar items for those caught outside during a sudden drop in temperature. While it can be tempting to bundle yourself up for maximum warmth, be aware that many stores, restaurants, and trains will have their heaters turned up for the comfort of their staff members, which could result in a sweaty experience as you rush to shed layers.
If you’re from a place known for cold winters, how many of these items are you familiar with?
Stay Cozy and Kawaii! Wear a Kotatsu This Winter!
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