Japan 101: Tips and Tricks to Get You Through the Winter

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Photo by Cara Lam

The Japanese winter can be tough with the thin-walled houses and no central heating at home. In rural and snowy places, roads sometimes don’t get plowed, making everyday mobility a challenge. The Japanese ways of dealing with winter may not be second nature to foreigners, but there are some good life hacks — Japanese wisdom or not — that we can all benefit from to stay warm (and save money) until spring rolls around.

The Basics

Kerosene heaters

You have two options to heat your house: expensive but scentless air conditioning or cheap but smelly (and somewhat toxic) kerosene heaters.

Photo by Cara Lam

Cheap option: Kerosene heater.

Using the heating function (暖房, or danbo in Japanese) on your air conditioner is self-explanatory, but using the kerosene heater requires a bit more knowledge. First off, make sure you store the kerosene in airtight containers (easily obtainable from supermarkets and home centers).

Next, when your oil is low, simply take out the tank and refill it with either an automatic or a manual pump. If possible, refill your kerosene outdoors so that if spillage does happen, your house won’t be left stinking for the next month. When your refills run out, bring your airtight containers to a gas station and look for the signs for 灯油 (toyu), or pumps. They function like typical gasoline pumps.

Kerosene heaters can keep you pretty warm, but make sure to allow ventilation at regular intervals. You don’t want to breathe in too much carbon monoxide and end up with a headache. Also, don’t put any combustible articles near the heater. The same goes for yourself — getting too close (or touching the heater) may give you painful burns.

Kotatsu

Another clever invention used almost exclusively in Japan is the kotatsu. It’s basically a small, low table with a heating element under it and a quilt hanging over the table to keep that retains the heat. Your toes will never freeze under a heated kotatsu, but it is a lot easier to fall asleep, too. Naps are OK, but it’s advisable not to fall asleep overnight, as you could suffer from burns by doing so.

Photo by Hustvedt

The under side of an electric kotatsu.

The same general rules go for all types of heating: Don’t let them run overnight. You can find kotatsu and kotatsu quilts in furniture shops such as Nitori. An inexpensive kotatsu table for one person costs about ¥5,000 and a quilt about ¥2,000.

DIY

Bubble wrap

Like many people, I love popping bubble wraps, but for the sake of winter, I’ll let the bubbles stay inflated. It may seem surprising, but bubble wrap is useful and cheap insulation material for your house.

Photo by Cara Lam

Try these as great insulators.

Buy a big bundle of it for less than ¥2,000 from a home center and stick it bubble side to your windows and doors — especially the gaps. By doing so, cold air from outside has no way to creep in and your room will be two- to three-degrees warmer than it usually is.

Stay active

Don’t underestimate exercise and having a social life as ways to stay warm in the winter, especially in rural Japan.

I’ve picked up bouldering as a new hobby! Here’s to an active and challenge-filled winter ahead.

Winter would be even tougher without my friends. Having a bunch of them come to my house for nabe (hot pot) parties — and sometimes sleepovers — definitely helps warm up both the spirit and the home.

It’s easy to just sit under the kotatsu all night long in the winter but try not to let your active muscles go loose in the cold. Running outside is difficult, but you can always do body weight work outs at home or head to a gym. Stay active and avoid long, cold hours at home.

Advice for Drivers

Photo by Cara Lam

We're not in Tokyo anymore! A wintery scene in rural Japan.

Be prepared to drive on icy and unplowed roads in the snowier areas of Japan.

Like any snowy place, accidents and battery failures happen frequently in the cold. If you drive a small kei car (one with engine displacement less that 660 cubic centimeters), it’s best to put some extra weight in your vehicle with a bag of sand, salt or cat litter so that it doesn’t get too affected by strong winds. Other must-have items in (or on) the car include: snow tires, a blanket or emergency sheet in case you get stranded, first aid kit, flares and plenty of gas, as most gas stations in the countryside are not open 24/7.

You may also see Japanese locals pouring hot water onto their frozen windshields. I’m not going to comment on that, but I won’t do the same to my car. While hot water can melt the thin layer of ice on the windshield quickly, the sudden temperature change can also make the glass crack. An alternative is simply to turn on the defrosting function in your car a few minutes before driving.

Winter Relief the Japanese Way

People may have different ways to deal with winter in Japan, but there are a few things here that you’ll be very thankful for.

  • Onsen. If you haven’t gotten naked with other people in public hot springs yet, winter’s the time. Warm up your body inside out. Even better when it’s snowing outside. Here are a few suggestions for onsen locales.
  • Heat-tech undershirts. Sold widely at Uniqlo. They make it hard for cold air to get in touch with your skin. A must-have item.
  • カイロ (kairo). Disposable pocket and hand heating pads. Sticky or non-sticky types are cheap and readily available in supermarkets, convenience stores, home centers and Don Quixote. Stick them in your gloves, pockets or under clothes.
  • Hot drinks from convenience stores or vending machines. For you Japan first-timers, yes, they actually sell warm canned drinks (mostly coffee but also tea, cocoa, hot lemon, corn chowder, potage, consomme and others) in the conbini and vending machines. Stick these hot cans in your pockets or just hold and sip for easy (and delicious) winter warming
  • Lap blanket. You may see your coworkers covering their lap with blankets. It is a common practice at most schools where there is no central heating. Feel free to copy and do the same.
  • Electronic blanket. Use it to warm up your bed or futon before you sleep.
  • Hot water bottle (湯たんぽ; yutanpo) if you want to save electricity. Available for purchase (less than ¥1,000) at home centers. Fill with hot water. Place where you want it warm (like under the futon in your bed). Enjoy the coziness.

What are your best winter tricks and tips to survive the cold and snow in Japan? Let us know in the comments below.

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