Fighting the Cold
Written by: Akilah Bel
Well, now that summer is making its way into the recesses of our minds, it’s time to get ready for a Japanese autumn. Autumn is my favourite season in Japan, but for many it is the opposite. Regardless of how you feel about summer, it is important to be prepared.
The one downside to colder seasons in Japan is the lack of insulation in the houses (or anywhere else for that matter). It seems worse at home though because you are the one who pays the bills and if you are as money-conscious as I am, you don’t want to pay a ridiculous amount in heating bills. I found many steps last year to keep my heating bills (namely my electric bill) under 一万円 (10,000 yen) and thought it might be helpful to share.
Disclaimer: Please also remember that good old acronym ESID (Every Situation Is Different). What works for one person might not necessarily work for the other, but hopefully, what steps I share here might at least give you some ideas.
First, a bit of background on my apartment—I’m in a one LDK ground floor apartment in a teacher’s housing complex. The great thing about my apartment is, for some reason, it seems to adjust to the seasons. In summer, it is cool enough that I don’t have to turn on the AC and in winter warm enough that I don’t have to rely completely on heaters. However, knowing that Japan is not the best place for insulation, I did lots of research as to what the best heating for my apartment would be.
Air Conditioning Units with Heating Option
When I lived in Japan a few years ago, I used to use the heating function of the AC unit that came with the apartment, but that would send my bills skyrocketing. I know that this is the go-to system for most Japanese homes, but it is also the most costly and energy insufficient. For those of us who are green-minded, the AC option is not a good one. AC units can be programmed to turn on and off as desired, so they do provide the advantage of being able to wake up to a warm apartment and automatically shut off while you sleep. But, other than that, I cannot find anything good to say about AC heaters, especially in terms of energy saving, so I just don’t recommend using them.
On the bright side, I lucked out and my predecessor had left me a portable “oil heater”. It spends most of the year conveniently tucked away in a shed, but in winter it comes out and successfully heats my 6 floor tatami room without any difficulties, and a lot more economically as well. I can also throw laundry on it to dry more quickly and the room still stays rather warm. For that reason, it gets my vote as a good option for use in the home. However, it is important to note that there are different voltages and some consume more energy than others, so be sure to check the voltage while making a purchase. If your Japanese isn’t up to par, as I always say, “Ask a friend” for help. Some oil heaters also provide timer options, so be sure to get one if you can.
I have also been told that kerosene heaters do a good job, but as I’ve mentioned before, I have issues with smells and let’s just say the smell of kerosene and I do not gel together well. I also see an inherent danger in the kerosene heaters because the fumes can indeed kill you. Most of our schools use them, and they require that windows be opened so that the fresh air can flow throw the room and remove the toxins. Letting in freezing cold air kind of defeats the purpose of trying to stay warm, in my opinion, but to each his own. On the bright side, most of the newer kerosene heaters come with beepers that let you know when the air quality is reaching toxic levels and the heater automatically turns off and won’t restart until you’ve aired out the room. Furthermore, you can purchase the kerosene oil quite easily and it is reasonable priced most times. The kerosene gas used can be purchased easily at petrol stations or in some D.I.Y. stores. The storage containers are also easy to find, and according to my local D.I.Y., you can get 26 litres for under 2,000 yen. Not a bad price for a month’s worth of kerosene.
Another popular option is the portable heater. These come in electric versions and gas versions. The electric versions have the same issue of different voltages, while the gas ones need to be connected to the gas main of your house, so depending on whether you have bottled gas or a connection to a main is important to note. Depending on usage, costs can still remain relatively low.
This is perhaps the best way to stay warm in the cold months and also the most typically Japanese. I personally love them, but ironically will never install one in my apartment because I think I’d never get anything done. If you’ve ever watched the Japanese drama “Nodame Cantabile” you know exactly why I say this; if you haven’t watched that drama, go watch it and see why. Kotatsus are also quite economical and come in a range of sizes and can just be used as a little table outside of winter months, so it might be a good choice for you. However, they only heat the area under the table. This means that you must be seated and unmoving to enjoy the warmth. I personally like being able to move around a warm room even if it’s just one room that is warm.
NB: It is also recommended that people do not sleep under a kotatsu due to the risk of electric shock, but the warmth of a kotatsu encourages sleepiness, so just be aware of this.
More and more people are turning to these options. In Japan, they have several varieties. They have the regular blanket that you can snuggle under and wrap yourself up like a burrito, some that you can sit in like a sleeping bag and others that go under the mattress covers so that it is beneath you rather than above you. (I suppose it is more like a heating mat). These blankets have the same problem as a kotatsu in that you are only warm while under it, so again the inability to move might not work for everyone.
Alright, so I’ve covered all the possible devices that you can purchase for heating, but what are some other steps you can take within the apartment? As I mentioned, my heating bills were under 一万円 (10,000 yen). In fact, I think my highest bill last year was my electric, which went up to 6,000 yen (and that included two weeks of staying in during the New Year’s break). The average was around 4,000 yen. So how did I manage it? Let’s take a look.
This may seem like an obvious one, but I piled on layers, upon layers of clothing. Japan has always been a centre of innovation and the creation of “heat tech” clothing has been a blessing for many. For those of you who want to try a little less layering, investing in a few “heat tech” items might be a good idea. Wearing these under the layers helps to retain some of the warmth.
Hot Water Bottles
This is an option I have been using for a few years. Even when I lived in the beautifully-insulated England in the winter, the hot water bottle was my friend. Essentially, after the bottle is filled with hot water, I stick it between my futons 20 minutes before bed, and it’s nice and toasty when I go to bed. Some people might say it’s a waste of water, but the water in the bottle is always recycled and used to wash dishes. Also, there are some water bottles that can be microwaved, meaning that you do not need to change the water inside that often. They are economical and do a good job of keeping the bed warm.
These can be a God-send. I joined the Japanese tradition of taking baths in winter rather than showers. A hot twenty minute bath warms you up completely and puts you in a sleeping mood. Then climb into your pre-water bottled heated covers, and you are ready to go to dreamland all toasty and warm. If you are worried about water wastage, the bath water can be recycled and used to do laundry, etc.
For many, the shorter days of the colder months increase tiredness and the desire to sleep. That is perfectly alright, but I find that a good cardio workout in the morning helps to wake me up and chase the cold away. It gets the heartbeat up with a good sweat, which is another way to warm up quickly. I am a morning person, which is why this option works for me, but it can also work for those of you who are night owls. So do what’s best for you.
Heat Packets (カイロ)
These are another great Japanese invention. These little heated packets come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and styles. Some you put in your pockets, others have adhesive properties and can be stuck onto your body hidden under your clothes, and some you can stick in the bottom of your shoes. You can usually find them easily at a local drug store in boxes of varying sizes.
Of course, there are several other ways of staying warm in these chilly months, but I hope that these tips are helpful to you for beating the cold weather. If you have any other tips, please feel free to share them, especially since we all want to stay warm in the autumn and winter months. On that note, enjoy the autumn leaves, autumn food and autumn weather, but stay warm and fight the cold.