When I first moved to Japan over two years ago on an English teaching contract, I was placed in the bucolic Tenryu city in Shizuoka prefecture. 15 miles from the pacific, snuggled at the base of the Southern Japanese alps, one of the largest rivers in Japan... and hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk. I arrived in August, when everyone was carrying around little towels to wipe off the sweat, and people smiled with a dumb pride when they told me Tenryu "is the hottest town in all of Japan!". Even though Tenryu is located in central Japan, the south is swept by cool breezes. All those picturesque Tenryu mountains create a bonchi , which is like a valley, but where air doesn't circulate in or out, it just sits and percolates. Ugh.
So imagine my surprise when winter came along and I was freezing my ass off. I've experienced four Ohio winters, and I don't remember a single one one being as rough as my winter in the hottest town in Japan. I would come home from school to a frigid apartment with a nice brisk breeze coming in through some crack in the window. Where the hell was that breeze in August?
Central heating is extremely rare in Japan. While fairly common in office buildings and department stores, it is rarely seen anywhere else. I have never been to a house or apartment with central heating, and even schools just heat classrooms and offices with space heaters, humidifying kettles of water bubbling on top. This makes for a great site in staff rooms with all the teachers huddled around a gas heater, backs hunched and hands outstretched like a camp of hobos.
The lack of central heating makes for a myriad of alternatives. Large metal gas stoves with flat tops for kettles that humidify the room, electric coil heaters, the occasional steam coil heated floor, 6 inch high R2D2 heaters for the bathroom, and those famously elaborate toilet seats. Americans laugh at the need for an electric toilet seat, but there's nothing funny about a freezing cold toilet in February. I'm a convert.
One of the greatest winter pleasures in Japan is the kotatsu. Although most modern kotatsu are just an electric heater placed under a table, I was lucky enough to experience my first real kotatsu last year during my two months in Japan's "snow country", Yamagata. Ingenious in it's design, a proper kotatsu is a square well in the tatami matting with warmed coals made from apple branches placed at the bottom. A wooden grating is placed above the coals, then a table with a blanket between the frame and the tabletop covers up the entire structure. The whole family will tuck themselves under the blanket during dinner the coals warming bodies from the toes up as they eat dinner and watch TV. With everyone sitting on the tatami, feet tucked into the deppression on the floor with no backrest, it's no big surprise to turn around and see grandma laid out flat, a faint snore shaking her drool onto the tatami.
I actually prefer no central heating, that stuff does an Operation Infinite Justice on my sinuses. Tokyo is a temperature schizophrenic city: you can be heaving in an sweltering lobby one moment then burst out into the blistering January wind the next. It is a bit alarming however when you're huddled under the kotatsu in your living room and your breath is curling into flowery white patterns. As the parents of an English teacher friend of mine put it to her: "We were worried about you at first, but hey, it's just like you took a year off to go camping!"