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.)
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.