Photo:tomo tang on Flickr

Keeping Warm in Winter

To use the classical parlance of my birth city, Glasgow, in Scotland: “Ah, the nights are fair drawin’ in.”

For those who aren’t fluent in Scots, what it is basically saying is days are getting shorter and nights are getting darker.

Perhaps it would be better if I invoked one of my favourite actors, the prolific, and yet often very unfortunate, Sean Bean. As his soon to be deceased character, Ned Stark once remarked on the hit show “Game of Thrones”: “Brace yourselves, winter is coming!”

Alas poor Ned never did keep his head long enough to see that winter, but hopefully none of you, dear readers will find yourselves so unfortunate. And just for your own reassurance, I am touching my wooden desk as I type this!

Winter in Japan however, is no laughing matter. Even in somewhere as hot and humid in the summer as Osaka, temperatures can drop well below freezing in those winter months. Though not quite at the level of the Scottish winters I grew up with, the winter here in Japan, is cold and often long. If you’ve been here a few years or more, as I have, you’ll soon develop an instinctive notion for when the weather is changing.

Usually we start to feel the initial chill sometime in October, Halloween last year was particularly cold. It was fortunate I was able to augment my Batsuit with some thermal underlayers!

By the time we reach the end of November and the last of the red, yellow and gold leaves fall from the trees in Kyoto, it’s clear to all: winter is here.


Photo: jamelah e. on Flickr

From then on, you can expect a daily battle with the cold that will last until sometime in March next year.

Unlike in Northern Europe, where December was almost always the coldest time of the year, Japan’s winter freeze seems to peak around mid-January.

In those first couple of weeks after the Christmas and New Year holidays, finding the motivation to go to work, when its freezing cold outside, and that warm, snug thermal blanket you got from IKEA is keeping you all warm and toasty, really does test ones powers of tolerance, endurance and self-motivation to the limit.

That little voice inside your head that seems to repeatedly cry: “forget it! I’m staying in bed!” seems to grow louder with each passing day that winter draws on.

Also, it has to be said that, with the notable exception of Hokkaido, the complete lack of central heating in Japan often makes for very cold apartments and frequently frozen fingers and toes.

In saying that, as you all know, one of the things I admire most about the Japanese is their ingenuity, especially when it comes to tackling problems in everyday life. Of course, winter is one such problem, luckily there’s plenty of ways for you to avoid getting the cold shoulder in Japan this year.

Here are some helpful hints to stay warm and beat the freeze in Japan this winter.

1. Buy a Kotatsu

Those who aren’t fortunate enough to live in Japan at the moment, or who haven’t been here for very long are probably asking yourselves right now: “Ok, what on Earth is a kotatsu.”

In short, during the winter time, a kotatsu is your new best friend.


Photo: Marieve 瑞香 Inoue on Flickr

On the surface, a kotatsu may just look like a regular, square coffee table, the kind of table you see in homes around the world.

One instantly noticeable difference however is the thermal blanket that billows out from the edges of the tabletop.


Photo: Justin Doub on Flickr

If you have a look “under the bonnet” as it were, you’ll that the kotatsu has a heating mechanism under its tabletop. So tuck your feet under, switch it on, wrap your legs in the accompanying blanket and prepare to relax. Just don’t get too relaxed however. Many Japanese friends of mine have been known to doze off under the kotatsu and sleep right through until morning, and believe me when I say that keeping a kotatsu running for 15 hours straight can have quite an impact on your electric bill the following month!

2. Buy heavier curtains

One of the biggest issues with the way in which Japanese houses are designed is the seeming disregard for insulation. Indeed on a typical energy efficiency scale, if your house or apartment is more than 10 or 15 years old, it probably doesn’t score very highly at all.


Photo: Emily Coghlan on Flickr

With this in mind, you need to do all you can to minimize the loss of heat when you don’t have the heating running. Furniture stores like IKEA and Nittori have thicker, heavier curtains, specifically designed to keep out excess light and keep excess heat in. They do cost a bit more, sometimes as much as double the price of regular curtains, but when you see the energy savings you can make, you’ll soon recover the cost and they will pay for themselves in no time at all.

3. Heat up a room before you plan to enter it

The small electric heaters most of us use here in Japan in winter can heat a room up in a matter of minutes, however they are also prohibitively expensive to run for more than a few hours a day. With this in mind, a neat little trick I’ve discovered is to power on the heating about 30 minutes or so before you plan to go into that room, for example 30 minutes before bedtime, switch on your bedroom heater. Make sure all the doors are closed.

You can then enter a nice and cosy room half an hour later. Then, once you’re settled in for the night, again make sure all the doors and windows are closed, and you can then switch off the heating assured of a nice warm sleep.

4. The best warmth, is the warmth of a loved one

Ok, this may sound like a cheap pick-up line, but there is some truth to it.

I have noticed that particularly in winter, couples who I know seem to have much lower energy bills than single people. In short, snuggling up together under a blanket as you watch a movie or as you drop off to sleep saves a huge deal on heating.


Photo: Wyatt Fisher on Flickr

Survival experts often talk about how to stay alive if you are stranded outside, by huddling together to make use of each other’s natural body heat. In a far less dramatic, though certainly more romantic sense, the same could be said of you and your significant other, especially in winter time!

Hopefully these helpful hints will give you a warm and cosy winter, and if not, well at least Okinawa’s perpetual sunshine is only a 90 minute flight away!

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