Monday, January 24, 2011

Freezing in Japan

It's amazing (and very confusing at the same time) that in such an advanced and high-tech country as Japan, central heating is still virtually unknown. That building insulation is not widely used. And that the native people consider this situation to be perfectly normal.

Oh, but we don't need those things. We have aircons blowing hot air, we have space heaters and we have kotatsu. Central heating is too expensive. And wall insulation is not suitable for our hot and humid summers. 

Those would be the typical excuses as to why you are freezing in your own living room (or bedroom) during winter. As if all those heaters didn't use electricity and weren't expensive in the long run! As if other places with hot and humid summers (DC and NY, hello!) didn't use building insulation!
And if you ask why houses in Hokkaido are properly heated and insulated (as opposed to those on the mainland), all you'll get in response is a blank stare.

Granted, even in Tochigi now the new construction standards do include either fiberglass or cellulose fiber wall insulation, but building heating concepts are still few and far between. Why is that? I really don't know. But I do know that none of the five building companies we went to (when shopping around for the one that would build our house) even suggested something as basic and elementary as a heat pump. What they suggested instead was cellulose fiber packs in the walls and super small slit windows to trap the heat inside during winter.

But I digress...

Our current apartment has no insulation whatsoever. It has flimsy single-pane windows and paper thin walls. When the outside temperature drops to about -4 Celsius, the pipes freeze (which means no shower in the morning, but then again, do you really want to take a shower when it's about 5 degrees Celsius in your bathroom?) and a thin layer of ice forms in the toilet bowl.

Yet that is still quite pleasant and positively tropical when compared to the house where my husband's 92-year old grandmother lives. I swear, it's warmer outside, even in the dead of winter, than inside her house. And actually, my in-laws' house isn't any better.

So how do people here stay warm?

There are many ways. You layer your clothes and wear a hanten. Mine is particularly unattractive, so I'm not posting any photos of it. But I'm wearing it right now, and I know, it's really disgusting, but when it's very cold, I sleep in it, too. I'm also wearing a sweater, a fleece, tights, fleece pants and a pair of heat-tech socks. And my feet are under the kotatsu.

Personally, I'm not a kotatsu fan. I consider it a total waste of space and electricity. WTF, just get a bigger heater so ALL of you can be warm at the same time, not just your lower half. But Dr Trouble is a stubborn traditionalist and it's HIS kotatsu, he bought it 20 years ago and it still works and he loves it. Our cats love it, too.

What's a kotatsu? A low table with a heating element attached underneath, like this:

You slap a fluffy comforter on it, then a table top, plug it in, and voila, your kotatsu is ready:

I think every Japanese home has one of those. What every Japanese home also has is a space heater. There are many different kinds and sizes.

Myself, if I have to choose, I prefer electric heaters. Oil heaters smell funny and give me nightmares that I'm going to die of carbon monoxide poisoning. Even though CO is supposedly an odorless gas, then with the funny smell, I should technically be OK. Go figure.

And yes, you CAN boil water on your heater. It takes time, but hey, you're using the heater anyway, right?

The most standard heating (and cooling) option in 99% of homes is an aircon unit. In summer it blows cold air, in winter - hot. Luckily, we have one in our apartment (but sadly, not in the bedroom), because if a kotatsu only warms your lower body, a space heater makes you feel like you're sitting around a camp fire. So, even though aircon is expensive to run, I run it. A lot.

My in-laws also have a fireplace. It's a very high tech contraption that is almost never used. An occasional bird gets trapped in it every once in a while, and that's about it.

Yes, there's a bird in there, otherwise my cat wouldn't be so interested in it.

If you want to avoid the bird problem, you can always go the more traditional route of a fancy stove. Like this:

In addition to stoves, fireplaces, space heaters, kotatsus and aircons, you can also have warmlets (heated toilet seats), hot carpets, heating pads and a billion other things that I don't own.

Let's hope that spring is right around the corner...

(Not. I just checked the weather forecast.)

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