Unless you’re somewhere near the equator, everyone experiences winter. It’s cold and unpleasant for some people and a winter wonderland for others. However, when you up and move far far away, you often find winter to be a different sort of beast. This is what I discovered my first winter in Japan.
I’m from Houston, TX and at the time of writing this article it’s the fall of my third year living in Kakamigahara, Gifu Prefecture and getting ready for my third winter in Japan.
I hated winter in Houston. It’s a humid, damp, clinging kind of cold. Even when it’s a mild 60 degrees F, the dampness makes you feel miserable. But at least the really cold temperatures were short lived and the buildings have good insulation and heating.
While summer in Japan is just a short version of Houston summer with fewer thunderstorms, winter is another story. Who would’ve thought that while half the year is the same, the other half could be so different?
I don’t know where all the humidity goes, but it becomes very dry. Dry to the point that your hands peel and bleed if you aren’t diligent with hand cream. The wind cuts like a knife and homes are often poorly insulated. Electricity is more expensive in Japan than America. Also, this thing called snow falls every winter and, before coming to Japan, I’d never driven on snow in my life.
While some of you are probably reading this and laughing at me because this is all normal for you, remember that homes, products, and the culture in Japan are all very different. Your winter common sense will definitely give you an edge, but I’ll fill you in on some of the details of surviving winter in Japan.
Uniqlo a major clothing maker in Japan famous for clean and basic styles that are sold at a reasonable price but one of its most popular products is its winter line of undergarments.
Their Heattech clothes are designed to use the moisture and heat generated by your body to help keep you warm while also wicking away moisture. It comes in three levels: Heattech, Extra Warm, and Ultra Warm.
The basic Heattech and Extra Warm come in a wide variety of forms: long sleeve tops, short sleeve, tank tops, tights, underwear, and more. I survived on these two levels for my first two years in Japan alright.
This year I finally forked out the money for some Ultra Warm undershirts and leggins and wow, it changed my life. Ultra Warm boasts that it’ll keep you 2.25x warmer than their basic Heattech and I believe it. It has made my job as an ALT working in chilly schools much more comfortable. A single piece of Ultra Warm clothing will cost you 2000 yen, but if you want to get through January and February comfortably I recommend buying some. I wish I had sooner.
The first time I heard students and coworkers talking about “kairo” I had no idea what on earth they were talking about, so I’ll tell you now: they’re chemical hand warmers.
These were another minor life changer. Something I usually associated with hunters, chemical hand warmers are extremely cheap and common here in Japan. You can find them in any convenience store, drug store, grocery store, etc. Since I work in a building with unheated halways, I buy a big box of 30 of them for 400-500 yen. Some of the basic varieties available are non-stick pocket kairo, kairo with a light adhesive on one side to stick them to your undershirt, and kairo you can stick to the bottom of your socks. In February I often use all three.
There’s a reason why people in Japan traditionally use kotatsu: they work.
A kotatsu is a low table with a heater attached to ta bottom. The tabletop is not attached so that you can take it off, lay down a blanket called a kotatsu futon, and place the tabletop back on top, giving you a smooth, clean surface. Since the futon traps the heat, they don’t require much electricity to keep you warm. It’s pretty genius. I can usually turn off my heater during the day in winter and get by comfortably with just the kotatsu.
A basic kotatsu will cost around 5500 yen (about $55) and a cheap kotatsu futon another 5000 yen. There are also many sets with cute designs.
Hot Water Bottle
Kairo are great for keeping you warm when you’re out and about, but you shouldn’t really sleep with them. Hot water bottles (Yutanpo in Japanese) are a safer and reusable way to warm your bed.
Many of you are familiar with the soft rubber hot water bottles we use in America and Europe, but a traditional Japanese hot water bottle looks different. It’s usually made of metal or hard plastic with a thick case to keep from burning yourself on it. I use this one because it can stand up on its side for easy drainage.
I currently own both here in Japan. On cold nights, I’ll place the hard Japanese one down by my feet while cuddling the soft rubber one. The soft rubber style one is also good for you stomach when it’s cramping.
Much like Uniqlo’s Heattech, Nitori’s N Warm bedding is designed to keep you cozy – while sleeping.
It comes in two varieties: N Warm and N Warm Super. N Warm is nice, but personally I suggest getting Super since it only costs a little bit more.
It comes in a variety of forms such as mattress/futon pads, pillow pads, and various blankets. I personally just stick with a futon and pillow pad because I have a nice kakefuton (duvet), but the chill can seep up from the floor. All the N Warm products are very soft and fuzzy and snuggling into them on a cold night feels great.
I’ll never forget how the cold seemed to radiate from the glass of my balcony door that first winter I lived in Japan. It was COLD. So cold that I went online to search for a way to keep the cold out. This is how I discovered window insulation. It’s bubble wrap.
Any old bubble wrap will do the trick, but the stuff I use is nicer. It has a flat surface on both sides with the bubbles sandwiched in the middle to help keep the cold from entering the room. You can find it in any home store in Japan. It comes in plain clear or with cute patterns printed on the glass-facing side.
To hang it up, you just need a spray bottle full of water. Spritz down your windows and the plastic sheets will cling to the glass. If it dries out and falls, you can repeat or support it with a little washi tape. Washi tape adhesive isn’t very strong and shouldn’t leave any residue behind when you take it down.
Japan is a great country for hot drinks. There’s hot coffee, hot tea, and even hot sake. Duck into any cafe or bar on the street and you can find a nice, welcoming drink to warm your belly.
However, if you don’t have time to sit down and have a drink, you can even get a hot tea or coffee from vending machines. That’s right! Japan’s famed vending machines not only sell cold drinks, but hot drinks in winter. They also double as great hand warmers if you forgot your kairo.
Japan is a very seasonal country and winter is the season to enjoy nabe. It’s Japanese hot pot and it’s delicious. You can have it in restaurants, or easily make it at home. Grocery stores sell a variety of nabe broth bases so you just have to cut up your meat and vegetables to toss everything in the pot, or if you’re a little more handy in the kitchen and have some time to kill you can try making your own from scratch.
Vitamin C and Gargle
The dry air and crowded trains make catching a cold super easy. Vitamin C will help give your body the energy it needs to fight off colds. You can find a variety of drinks, pills, and powders to boost your vitamin C intake. Most Japanese people love drinking CC Lemon, but I can’t stand how sour it is. Feel free to give it a try, though.
Also, a very Japanese way of staying healthy is gargling, or ugai. A lot of people will go all out and use Ugai medicine (DON’T drink it, only gargle) to gargle and doctors also sometimes prescribe it if you have a sore throat. Even if you don’t buy it, gargling hot tea or water will help moisten your throat after going out into the cold, dry air.
An essential item I almost never used before coming to Japan: hand cream. As mentioned before, the air here is cuttingly dry in winter and, to my horror, my hands started cracking and bleeding. I really freaked out when this happened. It hurt a lot!
Even though I don’t like it when my hands feel slimy, hand cream is a must. I often just spot-apply it to my hands during the day and use a special night hydration cream with light gloves I got at Daiso when I go to bed.
That covers most of the things I can think of. There’re several other items I recommend, such as a warm coat, hat, scarf, gloves, etc, but these are all items even a southerner from coastal Texas knew she needed.
I hope these tips make your life in Japan a little easier this winter. Don’t let the chilly winter make you feel down. Arm yourself with warm clothes and kairo and go out and enjoy Japan!