Surviving my first winter in Japan meant donning my warmest granny shirt— no matter how hideous.

After sweltering through a sticky, humid summer during my first year in Japan, I was looking forward to cooler weather. But I found myself regretting that wish one blustery November evening. That day was particularly cold and bone-chilling, with a viciously biting wind. The click-clacking of my boots on the asphalt got progressively faster as I neared my tiny apartment, longing for warmer surroundings.

When I got inside, it took me a split second to register a cold, hard fact: My apartment was even colder than outside. No, this can’t be possible! I swiftly turned on my heater and dived under my kotatsu (electric heated table). Still fully bundled in my coat and gloves, shivering, I sat there trying to get the feeling back in my fingers and ears. Unfortunately, I quickly had to pee.

I dreaded leaving my cosy cave, but I had to go. So I sprinted to the bathroom, sat down — and immediately bolted upright, my buttocks in shock. Oh, so that’s why there was a cord hanging from my toilet seat. I plugged that in, too. You will never know the comfort of a warm commode until you have experienced one that is 3 degrees Celsius.

My hot water bottle became my best friend that winter. My boyfriend also brought me a futon heater, which is like a giant hair dryer that blows lovely warm air between your comforter and sheets — no more feeling like you’re slipping between two sheets of ice! It is heaven. (Boyfriends are also helpful heaters, though not as reliable.)

Memoir_Bento Box Magazine

Anpan: Sweet Japanese buns. Usually filled with red bean paste.

Getting up in the morning was torture. My room would be like Elsa’s frozen castle. Get dressed, you say? Do I have to? I would either do it in front of my small electric heater, or I would dive back into bed and fumble around in the residual heat.

Oh, and forget about that flimsy polyester and acrylic clothing that we get away with wearing in Canada. A kind friend introduced me to the baba-shatsu, or “granny shirt”— a wool under- shirt, absolutely necessary for a Japanese winter. While teaching in freezing classrooms, heated by just one small kerosene stove, I had to dress warmly or I would be frozen like a bean-paste ice bar by the end of the lesson.

I quickly lost any “fashion before comfort” mentality. Since I walked or bikedeverywhere, I unashamedly wore my warmest baba-shatsu and was not afraid to slap sticky-backed hot pads all over my body to save me from frostbite. On the very coldest days, I wore a haramaki—like a sweater for your stomach, with a pocket for a heating pad. I felt like a seven-layer salad.

Without central heating, I learned to love the divine pleasure of other warming techniques, like hot baths, onsens (hot springs), delicious, steaming tea and bubbling one-pot cuisine. In Canada, we forget how lucky we are to have central heating — but just one winter in Japan was enough to make me truly appreciate that luxury.


Illustration by Chieko Watanabe