Cold

Cold

‘This morning,’ K-sensei told me the other day, ‘when I looked at the thermometer it was minus eight degrees.’
‘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.

In actual fact, winter temperatures in Ibaraki tend to be similar to those in the UK, but it’s the quality of the cold here that’s different. In the summer, warm, humid air arrives in Japan from the tropics – often in the form of typhoons – but in the winter, cold, dry air sweeps in from the continent. Until about a fortnight ago, more than a month had passed without a single drop of rain, and most people’s front lawns now look like old-style brown bristle doormats. The school playground turned into a dustbowl, and when the first year boys sat down for their English class after a lunchtime kickabout, they looked as if they’d just walked off the set of The Hurt Locker. (Parenthetically, one of my Japanese teachers holidayed to the US last year, and said that Salt Lake City is even drier – her rheumatism, she said, almost completely cleared 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.

0 thoughts on “Cold

  1. Muzuhashi, you’re making me feel really warm. Keep it up, we’ve got a blanket of snow outside!

  2. Ah yes, I heard about that – believe it or not, there’s even been a certain amount of ‘travel chaos’ here in Japan – the temperature dropped below zero in Tokyo for the first time in several years, which meant lots of amusing footage on the evening news of people falling over on slippery pavements and taxis sliding into lamp posts – made me feel like I was back home…

  3. Wow, that sounds very cold. Still, I prefer the dry, cold winters of Kanto to the wet, windy northern European winters. The kotatsu is a great device and very efficient. I remember travelling in the south of Spain in the 80s and a friend showed me a mesa camilla. The same principle as a kotatsu, but you use normal chairs drawn up to a small circular table and drape the cover over your knees down to the floor. In the original mesa camilla (and probably the kotatsu too), the source of heat was a pot of charcoal embers place in a fitting near the floor at the centre. I daresay they caused a few fires and injuries…

    1. So it would seem that you can, in fact, make a kotatsu out of an ordinary dining table – I stand corrected!
      Of course, apart from fires and first degree burns, the danger with charcoal is that everyone in the room will pass out from asphyxiation, which isn’t the best way to end a dinner party…

    1. Thanks, Fridge, and thanks for reading – as I write this, the Japanese summer has just kicked in, so all of that cold weather seems like a dim and distant memory!

  4. That sets my complaints about bad insulation in England in context… I still want double glazing though and cannot understand why it is not in every home already…

    1. It’s all about money, I suppose, and whether you’re in the UK or Japan, if construction companies or the people hiring them can save some money when they’re building a house, they will, even if it means ignoring a few regulations along the way.
      To be fair, there aren’t too many buildings left in the UK without double glazing, and a fair few of those are listed, so fitting something that is in keeping with the original architecture costs even more.
      Also, more and more buildings in Japan are being insulated and double glazed, it’s just that it tends not to be the ones that end up on the rental market.

      1. I understand property developers want to build as cheaply as possible, but not only are there (should there be) building regulations, more importantly you would think prospective landlords would not buy a building that costs a fortune to heat. For some reason though it seems to me that Japanese are more willing to endure the cold in winter, or perhaps more unwilling to pay for good insulation than Germans or even Brits.
        With regards to the UK I am still amazed that when advertising a flat “double glazed throughout” is something that needs featuring as if it was cool or extraordinary, whereas triple glazing and passive houses (i.e. houses so well insulated they don’t need nor have heating) are what should be the exciting thing, with double glazing just the barely acceptable minimum.

      2. I understand property developers want to build as cheaply as possible, but not only are there (should there be) building regulations, more importantly you would think prospective landlords would not buy a building that costs a fortune to heat. For some reason though it seems to me that Japanese are more willing to endure the cold in winter, or perhaps more unwilling to pay for good insulation than Germans or even Brits.
        With regards to the UK I am still amazed that when advertising a flat “double glazed throughout” is something that needs featuring as if it was cool or extraordinary, whereas triple glazing and passive houses (i.e. houses so well insulated they don’t need nor have heating) are what should be the exciting thing, with double glazing just the barely acceptable minimum.

    2. The essential point there is that landlords don’t care if the house they’re renting out costs a fortune to heat becuase they’re not the ones paying for the heating!

      1. True in that sense, but for a well insulated flat you can charge higher rent. You can also sell it at a higher price. Landlords in Germany tend to invest (or have done so decades ago) in double glazing, so I don’t think money as such is the issue. It seems to me (from what you say) that the Japanese culture and (from what I see) the English just values quality built, eco-friendliness and insulation less than, for instance, the Germans do.

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