‘At 4.30, you mean?’ (K-sensei’s sleep patterns make Margaret Thatcher look like a lazy teenager, and 4.30am is when he usually gets up.)
‘No, at 4,’ he said.
‘You woke up at 4am?’
‘No, no. I woke up at 3.30. I got up at 4, and by 4.30, the temperature was minus ten. It is the first time in my life this has happened.’
Statistically speaking, this winter has in fact been marginally warmer than average, but around here at least, the reality doesn’t quite tally with the statistics. For example, the other week we went on a day trip to the Fukuroda Waterfall (Fukuroda-no-taki / 袋田の滝), which had frozen up several weeks earlier than usual – it won’t be long before the more adventurous sightseers are strapping on the crampons and climbing their way up.
While the brief interlude of grey skies and drizzle may have given me a pang of nostalgia, for the most part, the almost constant sunshine makes a pleasant change from those damp, grey days of a British winter. Apart from giving your skin the approximate texture and appearance of a fine-grade sandpaper, the main problem with the lack of moisture is that you are more likely to fall ill. Almost half the school came down with a cold last October, one of the first years caught whooping cough, and according to the latest circular to land on my desk, a student at the elementary school now has type-B influenza (when the humidity level is at 50% the flu virus perishes almost immediately, but at 35% it can survive for up to 24 hours – or so one of the experts on Honma Dekka?! said last week). While some people gargle with salt water, the primary method for flu prevention is still the surgical mask (which I still can’t quite bring myself to wear, no matter how much I would like to fit in with the locals), although my immune system would function a lot more efficiently if only I could keep warm at home.
There are three very important features that almost every building in Japan lacks, and those are double glazing (ni-juu-mado / 二重窓), insulation (dan-netsu-zai / 断熱材) and central heating (er, sentoraru hiitingu). During a trip to Tokyo before Christmas, friends of mine were kind enough to let me spend the night in their spare room, and even though the building itself was less than ten years old, with underfloor heating in the living rooms and earthquake-proof foundations, the windows were only single-glazed, and misted with condensation by morning. There are several hundred apartments in the block, so despite the lack of heating in the spare bedroom, being surrounded on all sides kept it tolerably warm. There are, however, just four apartments in the block where Mrs M and I live, which makes them oven-like when the temperature outside is in the thirties, and freezer-like even before it dips below zero.
In the bathroom you can defrost beneath a hot shower, and after a summer of saving electricity, I did eventually relent and let Mrs M switch on our heated toilet seat. With the help of an electric blanket and some extremely fluffy duvets, keeping cosy while we’re in bed (or in futon, so to speak) isn’t much of a problem, although one’s pocket of warmth only extends so far, and many is the time I have rolled over in bed, only to roll straight back when my head hits the exposed, ice-rink-like edge of the pillow. For the past couple of months the condensation has been freezing to the inside of our bedroom and living room windows, and unless you light one of the gas rings and leave it running, there’s no way of thawing out the kitchen at all. A fluffy cloud of breath hovers in front of my face as I potter about making breakfast – at which point our fridge magnet thermometer is normally at about the five degree mark – there is a pause of several seconds before half-frozen water splutters out of the tap, and it isn’t until long after I have left for work that the kitchen becomes fit for human habitation.
While the air conditioner in the living room doubles up as a heater, our secret weapon against the cold is a kotatsu. In the old days, most homes had an irori, an open hearth in the middle of the living room that acted as both cooker and heater. The kotatsu was presumably invented as a replacement for the irori, and consists of a floating tabletop, a frame with four short legs and a downward-pointing heating element at its centre, and two fireproof quilts (well, I assume they’re fireproof…), one of which is laid on the floor beneath the kotatsu, and one of which is sandwiched between the frame and the tabletop. Kotatsu would be a big hit abroad if it wasn’t for the fact they force you to sit on the floor the whole time. For example, it’s very difficult to wedge your feet beneath a coffee table when you’re on a sofa or in an armchair, and customising the average dining table wouldn’t work either, as most of the heat would escape between the legs of the average dining chair.
Mrs M suffers from poor circulation, and the kotatsu was probably the home comfort that she missed the most when we were in the UK. While our living room in London was warmed by a radiator, the floor remained resolutely cold, and just draping a blanket over her legs didn’t seem to help matters, so that we developed a rather eccentric routine whereby I would roll up my shirt and she would warm her feet on my stomach as we settled down to watch TV on winter evenings.
Still, however tough things get in Ibaraki, I should be thankful that I’m not living in Hokkaido, on the Japan Sea coast, or in the mountains, where most houses have rows of planks nailed to the windows to keep them from caving in beneath the weight of huge snow drifts. To give you an example, back in 2008 I went for a weekend of snowboarding in Nagano – where that particular year they had more than ten metres of snowfall – and spent two nights in what I can say without hesitation is the coldest place I have ever stayed. The owners were living elsewhere at the time and renting it to a friend of mine for next to nothing. It was a decent sized, two-storey detached house, and in order to save money my friend restricted himself to using just one room. Once we had turned off the heater and turned out the lights, the temperature plummeted, and by the early hours I was fully clothed beneath my sleeping bag, duvet and blankets: as well as a woolly hat and gloves, if my memory serves me correctly I think I even put my shoes on. An already fitful night’s sleep was interrupted at about 4am when an elderly neighbour began screaming for help after falling on the icy pavement outside (I can only assume that, like K-sensei, he had popped out to check the thermometer), and when I ventured into the bathroom in the morning, a large icicle was protruding from the bath tap. It took several minutes of massaging the shower hose before any hot water emerged, and to be honest, snowboarding through a blizzard for the rest of the day came as a blessed relief. The following night I insisted that we leave the heater on, but by then I was already in the early stages of a cold, and my resistance to winter weather has never been quite the same since.
Anyway, I’ll leave you with another photo – taken on Mount Takao near Tokyo – of what are known as shimo-bashira (霜柱 / literally ‘frost columns’). Shimo-bashira are formed when the temperature below ground level is above freezing and the temperature at ground level is below freezing, which draws moisture from the ground and sculpts it into these attractively regular geometrical shapes.