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Weathering a Cold Japanese Winter for New ALTs

Five tips to keep safe and warm during the coldest time of the year.

By 9 min read

Winter is coming!

Having recently relocated to the mountainous regions of Nagano, I am gearing up to face my first full-on winter in many years. Japan is quite different from what you may be used to in your home country when it comes to winter. Luxuries that many of us would take for granted elsewhere such as central heating and strong insulation aren’t so commonplace here.

With that in mind, here are five areas where you can get ahead of the weather and keep your home — and yourself — warm and cozy this winter.

1. Heating your home

As I’ve already mentioned, apart from some areas of Hokkaido and the north of Honshu, where you are contending with near arctic conditions, central heating isn’t really a thing in Japan, so you need to identify what alternative works best for you.

Typically, there are three options readily available to you:

  1. Electric heater
  2. Kerosene heater
  3. Air conditioner

Electric heaters

A Japanese electric heater

An electric heater is the easiest to find and the most convenient to use of the three options listed here. It’s portable, all you need to do is plug it in and you’re good to go.

However, electric heaters are quite expensive and being quite small in stature, they have a limited range. I find they are good at keeping a small room warm at night — such as a four or five tatami mat bedroom (a “five-mat room” is just over 7½ square meters). However, if you deploy one in a larger living room, then you’ll need to sit quite close to it to feel any real benefit.

… these heaters are expensive, both in terms of fuel bills and the amount of power they use.

As I said before though: these heaters are expensive, both in terms of fuel bills and the amount of power they use.

This isn’t really an issue if you live in the city, but a lot of older homes in the countryside have somewhat weak power systems. For example, my house in Nagano has a load limit of 2,000 Watts, meaning that I can’t use my electric heater or air conditioner at the same time as my microwave or else the power will cut out. So while the food gets heated, I don’t!

Kerosene heaters

Oil or kerosene heater

Once you cover the initial outlay for the heater itself (a room-sized heater about one-meter high with a 30 or 40 square centimeter base starts from about ¥20,000), this is probably the cheapest way to heat your main room as the kerosene itself is very cheap. You’re looking at between ¥1,000 to ¥1,500 yen to fill a standard 18-liter tank. These are available from local gas stations and home centers.

Remember, you will need to buy your own kerosene container and pump (for moving the fuel from the container into your heater). These are also available from home centers. It really depends how long you use the heater each day, but typically, a full 18-liter should last around one month. Given the size, ordering online and getting the heater delivered is probably the best idea unless you have access to a larger car or van.

Keep the area well ventilated, as some of the older models in particular can give off some nasty fumes.

As a general rule, it’s best not to run these heaters all night. Instead, put the heater on in your bedroom for an hour or two before going to bed, then switch it off before you actually go to sleep. Of course, the higher end models will have timers that you can set to do this automatically.

Keep the area well ventilated, as some of the older models in particular can give off some nasty fumes.

I’ll be honest: I don’t like kerosene-burning heaters. I don’t have any at home. I find the smell nauseating and being as accident prone as I am, I’m not comfortable with keeping large quantities of flammable liquids in my house! Still, if you have the common sense to use them safely, they do represent a significant cost saving over other options.

Air conditioner

Aircon

Using your air conditioner as a heater is the go-to option for most people I know who live in smaller apartments here in Japan. It heats an area quickly and far more safely than either of the other two options.

In terms of cost, it sits firmly in the middle. It’s more expensive than a fuel burning heater, but cheaper than the portable electric ones.

The important thing is to make sure you know how to use the heater setting on your air conditioner.

It’s more expensive than a fuel burning heater, but cheaper than the portable electric ones.

Pressing the 暖房 (danbou, or heating) key on the unit or its remote control will activate that mode on your air conditioner. It often has a red box around it, which should make it easier to see. From there, simply use the up and down keys to adjust the temperature as you would with the 冷房 (reibou, or cooling) function in summer.

Everyone’s home is different, but I tend to use my air conditioner to heat my living room and then use a small portable electric heater in my bedroom when I go to sleep.

Just remember not to leave the heating on when you go out. It’s not just dangerous — it could cost you a fortune on your next month’s electricity bill. As an example, my usual electricity bill of around ¥6,000 or ¥7,000 per month more than doubled to around ¥15,000 during January last year when I had the heating on every day. So every moment you are not at home with the heating on, is money saved.

2. Wrap up warm in winter

A Japanese kotatsu in a tatami room.

For foreigners — especially taller and heavier folks like me — sourcing winter clothing locally can be difficult. For a good local option, I recommend Uniqlo. The prices are reasonable, they have a wide selection in bigger sizes and you can find branches of this store almost anywhere in Japan. Unlike many Japanese fashion chains, Uniqlo’s sizing chart actually seems to match up pretty closely with the U.S. and U.K.

I typically buy XL size sweaters and T-shirts in the U.K. and the same size from Uniqlo here will fit me.

Another way to wrap yourself up warmly in the winter if your place has one, is with a kotatsu. These are tables in the middle of a tatami room over the top of an electric heater with a hanging quilt that retains heat when you sit under it — perfect for warming up in the Japan winter, especially in more rural areas. Originally, these were charcoal braziers in a floor well — but we hope your abode isn’t using one of these!

3. Keep your home running smoothly

Of course, just as we can sometimes get sick in the winter chill, so too can our home. Burst pipes and power outages are very real possibilities —  and again, more likely to happen if you live in the countryside.

Typically, when you sign up for your gas, electric and water contracts upon moving into your place, you’ll be given an orientation booklet that will contain some general pointers for what to do when there’s an emergency.

Keep this somewhere handy and if you can’t understand the Japanese then ask a friend or work colleague to help you translate the necessary info.

I have the various emergency numbers saved into my phone.

These emergency phone lines usually are available 24 hours and a repairman will probably be able to reach you within a couple of hours, regardless of the time of day. However, they are unlikely to have English speaking call center staff, so it helps to memorize (or jot down in your booklet) some key phrases like below.

  • Watashi wa teiden shi te imasu.” (“I have a power outage.”)
  • Watashi no paipu wa haretsu shi te imasu.” (“My pipes have burst.”)

Also, the staff will ask for your juusho (address) and denwa bango (phone number), so have these handy and be prepared to say them in Japanese.

4. Know your rights

Now, here is where things can get a bit contentious. Sometimes, we may not feel that it’s safe to go to work on a particular day, whether it be because of snow or extreme cold or the potential for either to hit later in the day.

However, if your place of work is open and the public transport that would take you there is running, you need to either go in or take a day’s annual leave.

Remember that regardless of where you work, if you have been working for a company for more than six months, full time, you are legally entitled to 10 days of paid annual leave at a minimum (to be taken whenever you decide it’s appropriate).

If you are delayed because of the weather and you’re traveling on a JR train, you need to make sure that you grab a shoumeisho (certificate) to prove your train was late.

If this does occur on your line, there will be staff handing these little white tickets out at the gates when you exit. They will do this (at least on JR lines) if there is a delay of more than 10 minutes. If staff aren’t doing this, then you need to go to the main ticket counter, tell them the time and place you got on the train and ask for a shoumeisho. Basically, it’s a small piece of paper with the official station stamp and time on it. Show this to your boss and it will stop them docking you any annual leave or pay for being late.

5. Warm thoughts

A warm oden shop in the winter.

For those of us from countries like Canada, Scotland or the northern parts of the U.S., heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures may not seem that daunting. However, you need to remember that homes in Japan aren’t always built for those conditions. They are often drafty, cold, thin-walled and lacking any real insulation.

Wearing warm clothes around the home will help. “Moko moko” pajamas made of a fluffy, wool-like material are very popular with the locals.

You may also want to invest in a “room wear set.” This is a set of jogging pants and a sweater to be worn around the house that is typically warmer than a normal sweat suits. You can get these in places like Don Quijote, the above mentioned Uniqlo and some of the larger local supermarkets for around ¥1,500. Pick up some winter socks while you’re there too.

Finally, I’ll just say this: Don’t cut costs when it comes to heating. If it’s cold, get those heaters on! However much it costs, a trip to the hospital with hypothermia will cost you a lot more and keep you away from work.

Stay warm and stay safe everyone!

Do you have any handy hints for beating the winter freeze? Leave a comment and tell us your thoughts.

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