Japan's winter wonderland will soon be upon us. Are you excited? Please don't answer that. It's a good idea for us foreigners, especially those who have yet to experience the biting cold brought about by the season, to start preparing for it. This is not to say that winter in Japan is the most brutal or coldest that one can experience. In fact there are many other countries where the cold months can go down to as low as 10 degrees below zero. However, like most things Japanese, Japan's winter chill drifts in with its own distinctive aura.
Personally, the oddest thing about the winter season is seeing Tokyo school girls donning super-skimpy miniskirts during the frigid coldness that is January in Japan! Many first timers surely ask themselves how Japanese girls can do that, as tourists and ordinary foreigners shiver in their layers upon layers of clothing. Fashion before function indeed.
Assuming my readership is not Japanese high school girls with thermodynamic thighs, keeping warm during the cold months can still be quite a challenge in Japan--especially if you are used to living with reliable Western-style central heating systems. Single-pane windows and lack of insulation leave you frozen in your sleep if you don’t do something about your dire, potentially popsicle-inspired situation. Let's see what we can come up with...
Keeping Warm Outside
Go Ahead and Layer All You Want
Don’t be shy. Go ahead and pile up the clothing. Aside from several tshirts underneath a sweater, you can also benefit from using undergarments or thermals. Wool is an obvious, but possibly itchy choice, and don’t forget your "mufflers," scarves, socks, gloves, and hats.
For the more minimalist and/or technology-minded like me, Japan also offers plentiful high-tech solutions like Uniqlo's "HeatTech" line. Personally, I find such winter-fighting clothes surprisingly heat-retaining despite lacking in bulk and thickness. Unfortunately, however, it's not a panacea. Although my body stays balmy without the bulk, the artificial fibers used in these high-tech garments tend to irritate my sensitive skin from time to time. Try one out before investing in a hundred of them, especially if you're cursed with ultra-sensitive skin.
An opposite approach is the haramaki, an old-school piece of clothing that can make you feel like an authentic Japanese. In the 16th century this was used mainly as samurai armor placed around the waist. These days, this knitted garment is making a comeback as a great way to keep the chill away from the abdomen. It seems that the Japanese believe that keeping the stomach warm is an important step to staying healthy and well. Whether or not you agree with this concept, the long-time best-seller haramaki is no doubt effective in driving the chill away. You can't argue with tradition.
Keep Your Pockets Warm
Another way to beat the cold is to carry something warm in your pocket all the time. If you are a stingy type and/or a fan of Japanese obaachans, carrying a boiled sweet potato with you in the morning can keep the chill at bay plus stave off mid-morning hunger.
But perhaps a more modern and ubiquitous solution is disposable hand warmers known as kairo. Widely sold throughout Japan, kairo are small packets of what look like dirt and rock that release heat when exposed to air by being shaken or moved. Not only do they come in different shapes and sizes, but they are also available in different strengths. You will be surprised that the heat provided by these handy winter companions can last from a minimum of ten to as long as 24 hours.
Kairo come in three different kinds, namely:
1. Handheld packets that fit snugly in your pocket
2. Packets with adhesive that can attach to inner layers of clothing
3. Packets small enough to put inside socks or shoes to keep your feet warm and toasty. These bad boys are especially useful in places lacking powerful heating provisions, like schools.
Drink and Take a Break
Even if you are wearing tons of clothing, the cold can and will seep in somehow. Fill up your insides with hot beverages and soup whenever you're losing the seemingly endless battle against the cold. There are so many shops, cafés, and stores all over Japan that sell coffee, tea, or hot chocolate to help you get back in the fight. And even in remote places, you can rely on Japan's countless vending machines or konbini to provide drinks and soup in heated cans.
Try Public Baths
If there's one thing you should try when you find yourself stuck in Japan during the cold months, it's the hot springs (onsen) and traditional public baths. Regrettably, it took me several years of living here to grow accustomed to bathing with a bunch of naked Japanese dudes. Foreigners stand out enough as is, and I certainly didn't wish to compound the situation with stark nakedness. Eventually I got over myself and now walk proudly about the nude areas.
However, if you're a bit hesitant to soak in hot water naked with naked strangers (did I mention the nakedness?), try this...
1. Private onsen. Many Japanese inns (ryokan) offer private bathing rooms. These also do wonders for fast-tracking a fresh romantic relationship. Maybe not the first date, but perhaps the third??
2. Go in the middle of the night or very early morning. Most baths are open almost 24 hours a day, with a span of several hours reserved for maintenance and cleaning. I used to do what I called "ninja bath," and go around midnight or 5am. I'd usually have the whole place to myself, a welcome recess from little kids that couldn't get enough of staring at pale, bare, blue-eyed me.
Keeping Warm Inside
Insulate the Windows
If you live in an older Japanese apartment or house, you will surely freeze during winter nights if you fail to do something about your windows and heating:
1. Insulate your windows with rolls of bubble wrap. This is inexpensive and can be easily removed when the season is over. It's also the blue-ribbon choice of Japanese grandmas.
2. Get high-tech insulated curtains. This approach may cost a bit more, but Japan's high-tech curtains prove useful during the summer months too by reflecting scorching sunlight.
3. Tape foam or silver boards on the edges of doors and windows. These will not only prevent a draft from entering your room, but will also keep dust and insects out. I've seen these widely available at the 100-yen store and "home centers."
Get a Kotatsu
Another unique Japanese invention that lets you stay warm in lieu of a central heating system is the kotatsu, a petite table with a heating device hanging inside. It looks like a table with a blanket draped over it. Staying under this warm contraption while watching TV or enjoying your bowl of ramen or mikans keeps you relaxed and toasty after a long day at work. Aside from keeping your legs warm, you can also use kotatsu to warm your blankets before you sleep or your clothes while you are taking a shower or bath.
Heat Up with Heaters
Air conditioners in Japan also come with heating functions; if your apartment has an air conditioner, you can use it to heat up your place. However, this option is sometimes inadequate and inefficient when the temperature really drops.
Therefore, consider enlisting the assistance of a dedicated heater. Japan's vibrant shopping culture offers tons of these--electric coil, halogen, ceramic, etc. I even foolishly used to rely on a kerosene heater when I lived out in the countryside. Albeit a cheap solution, I highly recommend avoiding kerosene heaters unless you like to tango with DEATH.
What do I recommend? I'm an avid fan of radiant heaters that heat some kind of medium like oil, instead of heating and blowing dry surrounding air. They're more energy efficient because they heat a medium, they don't dry-out the air like fan heaters do, and they're dead quiet. Unfortunately, most are a bit on the big side. Here's what I use to heat the main room of my apartment:
...and don't forget the humidifier
Although a humidifier is not something that can directly help you feel warm, it's actually very helpful during dry winter months as it will keep your lips and skin moisturized and healthy. More importantly, a humidifier makes breathing easier while you sleep. I am absolutely in love with this all-in-one solution from Sharp, as it features a ceramic heater, air filter, ionizer, and humidifier in one, fairly compact unit. I use this bad boy to heat and humidify the work-space room in my apartment:
Find Bed-Warming Companions
Heated or electric blankets hit the spot for keeping you warm in bed at night. But if you're a cautious type that fears burns, electrocution, or death, you can alternatively put hot water bottles under the sheets or covers to make your bed warm and fleecy. Again, you'll find Japanese stores offering a plethora of cozy sleeping solutions.
Final Note - Always Be Safe
Heaters, electric blankets, hot water bottles, and even the kotatsu are not 100% safe, so practice common sense while using these things. Be warned that sleeping under a kotatsu can cause skin burns. Leaving your blankets or clothes near space heaters might also cause a fire. Every winter season some (usually old) person dies due to sheer negligence. Be careful, kids!