Winter in the Japanese Inaka: “Bites With its Teeth or Lashes With its Tail!”
By Kylie Skelton
Summer has been and gone for another year, and autumn has swiftly come and gone transforming our surroundings from uniform green to a vast array of fiery brilliance. But the changing of colours have passed and Japan’s long, cold winter has arrived!
Gone are the days of continual sweating and silently urging fellow teachers to “turn the damn air conditioner on!” Gone are the days of minimal clothing, camping on the beach and iced coffee. Instead, kotatsus have been resurrected, kerosene is being stocked up and shops have come alive with a bright assortment of fleecy clothing for every part of the body that you could possibly imagine. Many of you will be glad to see the end of the sweat-gland wrenching, sticky, messy, disgusting summer, but as I shed a small tear over its departure, dreaded memories from last year’s winter are slowly creeping to the forefront of my mind.
Hailing from Northern Ireland and having spent six years living in North Scotland I thought that this time last year, I was ready to handle whatever the Japanese winter was about to throw at me. After all, I was used to battling my way from home to workplace through bitter winds and tramping through snow in high heels, jacket-free for the sake of a night out. How wrong I was! No matter how windy and cold it got in the UK, there was always the opportunity at the end of the day to escape inside to a home kept cosy by central heating or a roaring fire. Unfortunately, in Japan, such basic luxuries do not exist.
Here in Japan, I live on the side of a mountain, deep in the depths of the inaka (only a slight over-exaggeration), in a big, spacious apartment. The nearest JET lives a thirty minute drive away, I have single pane windows, no central heating, no insulation, and the whole building is made of wood. Great for the Japanese summer, but ridiculously ill equipped to deal with the Japanese winter! Whatever temperature it was outside, my apartment was sure to be mimicking it on the inside.
I awoke each morning to fresh layers of snow and frozen condensation on the inside of my windows. My toilet bowl water began freezing over, and I had to sleep under a mountain of duvets each night. I placed a blow heater in my bathroom so that it wouldn’t ice over when I stepped out of the shower (because that’s safe), and I lived in my leopard print onesie, consuming a lot of red wine as I hibernated under my kotatsu.
School didn’t bring me much relief either. Stove heaters were rarely turned on in classrooms, and I stood shivering at the front wrapped in scarves and several layers of woollen clothing, and developed an unhealthy addiction to the tasteless staffroom coffee.
But as tough as I found the Japanese winter, it did nothing to deter my love for this country, or dampen the JET experience that I was having. Instead, I grabbed a board and learnt to snowboard. The fun I had at elementary school sky-rocketed, as lunchtimes were transformed into a mass war of snowball fighting. I munched on nabe, oden, sukiyaki and anything else deliciously hot that I could fit in my stomach. My waistline may have expanded several inches, but the foodie in me was enjoying all of the culinary delights! I also spent a lot of time enjoying outdoor onsens. There is something magnificently relaxing about having snowflakes fall upon your shoulders whilst the rest of you is consumed in 40 degrees Celsius water!
So, having battled my way through one inaka winter, I naturally consider myself to be something of an expert on the matter. Continue reading to find my Top Ten Tips that will surely get you through chilly temperatures this year!
- Pop onto the nearest heated toilet at every opportunity. It’s a perfectly acceptable method of warming yourself up for a few minutes.
- Take those heated pads that you can buy by the box-load at the drugs store to school and nurse them under your top all day long.
- Spend it underwater – live in the bath!
- Set your alarm clock for 30 minutes before you need to get out of bed. This gives you enough time to switch the heater on, get fully dressed into your clothes for the day (complete with hat, scarf and coat) before even attempting the journey to the bathroom to brush your teeth or go to the toilet!
- Don’t even entertain the thought of having a shower in the morning. Once you’re in it, it’s far too difficult to get out!
- And forget jumping out of bed in the middle of the night to pee. You’re living in a snow cave. It’s too cold to leave your carefully formed cocoon of blankets!
- Sometimes it’s necessary to wear a face mask – purely to keep the wind off your face.
- Don’t die – keep an eye on that kerosene!
- Find your own personal human radiator. Two bodies are better than one!
- With the arrival of February comes the arrival of Okayama’s Naked Man Festival. What better way to make yourself feel warm than to watch thousands of men run around the streets chasing a bamboo stick dressed in nothing but a loin cloth?
Finding ways to keep warm is only one aspect to the chilly months. There are many reasons to embrace winter and enjoy what it has to offer. Be sure to check out the Yuki Matsuri in February which sees the streets of Sapporo transformed into a winter wonderland of meticulously carved snow statues and ice sculptures.
Or, the Kobe Luminarie takes place in early December. Glorious masterpieces of light illuminate the city in commemoration of the 6000 people who lost their lives in the 1995 Hanshin Awaji earthquake.
If Kobe is a little out of your Christmas budget, jump in a car (or on to a bus), and take to the mountains in your snow boots. Hiroshima’s mountainous terrain makes it the perfect prefecture t o enjoy winter sports. The end of January brings the AJET boarding trip. So if you’re a seasoned professional or a complete newbie, this is one trip you won’t want to miss!
Winter also brings the opportunity to witness some wonderfully unique nature. Head to the mountains of Nagano and visit Jigokudani Onsen – home of the snow monkeys. Though the area is comprised of rugged cliffs and harsh conditions, the Japanese macaque monkeys have transformed the area into their own winter paradise. Watch the monkeys soak all day long, then end the day getting steamy in your own traditional onsen.
So as long and bitterly cold as the winter months may be, Japan still has a plethora of ways to keep you entertained. Wrap up, drink up and let’s celebrate the changing faces of the Japanese seasons.
Edited by Liz Millership and Carlye Hodel