I know this post is a long time coming. I really meant to post more often! It's one of my New Year's Resolutions, after all. Maybe I can still average two a month for the rest of the year if I pick up the pace a bit.
I thought I'd do a post giving homage to winter. I would like to link to a really well-written article about surviving winter in Japan here that is completely true. Well, except for the communal sewer cleaning - I've never heard of that happening in Hokkaido.
In some ways, I'm lucky to experience winter in Hokkaido. Winter is much longer here, but places like Tokyo and Kyoto much further south get temperatures almost as cold as Hokkaido and yet their homes are much more poorly built for the cold. As the article above mentions, they only really do "spot" heating which is extremely inefficient and wasteful in all but the newest and most expensive homes in Hokkaido. It's truly an atrocity for a country that wants so desperately to be energy independent that they waste so much energy on inefficiencies. Imagine how much less they would rely on nuclear energy if they used the energy they have more efficiency?
Here are my top tips for surviving the winter in Hokkaido:
1. Stop caring about saving money. When it comes to heat, just suck it up and buy a little more kerosene. Use a space heater for 5-10 minutes in your bedroom before going to bed or before getting out of bed. Have an electric blanket on for a bit before hopping in bed. We're talking about surviving the winter not just physically unharmed, but also mentally well.
I will admit, I have a monstrous kerosene tank that can last me almost a month, even in the dead of winter, and some ALTs aren't as fortunate. I can get my kerosene delivered to my house, and I can section off a few portions of my apartment without sacrificing too much living space. I can tell, when compared to friends in the southern part of Japan, that my home is built to help me survive winter (even if it's still inferior to homes in the States or Canada in regards to insulation).
Let's imagine a few real scenarios that may happen if you are really good at saving money by saving on heat. Do you enjoy scraping ice off the shower floor in the morning? Or, better yet, imagine stepping on ice in the shower room barefoot when going to turn on the crank shower (see one of my earliest posts on appliances to view a photo of my shower). It's not fun, it's not worth it for your heath, and it's plain old silly when many ALTs on the JET program in Hokkaido have subsidized rent.
For example, I figured out that I could be slightly cold all the time and save about $20 a month on heating. Is it worth it? No! I enjoy being comfortable. I'm less irritable, and I'm a better teacher for my students (tell yourself it's for the children!). I'm happy to say that it's been above 2° C in my bedroom every morning so far this year, which means that I no longer wake up to seeing my breath! Cheers for figuring out the timer on my heater!
The price you pay when you try to "save" money by cutting back on heat is too high. Most toilet rooms, for example are out in the entry way where almost no heat flows. Thus, by scrimping on heat, one risks a frozen toilet. It is real, and it has happened to me and to several friends. Do you know what's worse than having a frozen toilet? Having one happen over a holiday weekend when you can't get someone out to help you unfreeze it and therefore you must walk to the nearest convenience store to use the bathroom. (To ward off the criticism I sense already: No, I will not just "use the shower" - aside from the fact that it, too, is most likely frozen, I also have standards.)
2. Speaking of standards, keep your dignity in the wintertime. Everyone faces this dilemma in some form at some point during the long winter months in a home or apartment that seems impossible to heat. For some, they will be tempted to sit huddled under their kotatsu or in front of their heater (which they're probably keeping on low) and watch six hours of Friends or an entire season of 30 Rock. Maybe it'll be the urge to make another batch of brownies today because they just finished off the cookies they made yesterday, and they're eagerly planning on making homemade bread tomorrow. Maybe the challenge to one's dignity will come in the form of seriously considering peeing in the shower or outside because one's toilet froze, again. Or, maybe they'll stop doing laundry as often, or showering as often, due to the likelihood that something will freeze rather unpleasantly before it dries.
Indeed, indulge yourself one or two days during the winter, but be careful! Days will pass you by, and before you know it, another week happened and all you've got to show for it is that you finally watched all the episodes of South Park ever created and gained three pounds from all the cookies you baked. Make yourself be social - you'll be happier for it! And, for the cheapies out there, the more time you spend socializing at bars, malls, or friends' homes, the less heat you'll use at your home. As a bonus, these places usually have heated toilet seats and bathrooms which will be much more pleasant than your frozen one at home.
3. Buy thermal clothes such as Under Armour, or "Heat tech" clothing from Uniqlo. Don't be afraid to wear such clothes under your normal work clothes or around the house. Wear them as pajamas! Heck, leggings are the style in Japan for women - why not wear Heat Tech leggings that will give you an extra layer of warmth when going out? Stylish and warm(er)!
4. Speaking of going out, ladies, watch the feet! There must be no laws about shoveling the sidewalks since most sidewalks are just trodded over enough that the snow is compacted into an uneven icy surface. This makes walking anywhere in Japan - even from your car to the grocery store - a workout for your core and stabilizing muscles. If you are lucky enough to live in a city big enough to have "nights out" where you walk around from place to place, be sensible about your shoes. You have a few options:
A. Wear cute, flat boots and preferably bring grippers for the bottoms
B. Wear sturdy stilettos that can act as ice picks when you walk
C. Wear warm, ugly snow boots from place to place and bring your cute shoes in a separate bag. Switch shoes at the bar, club, or restaurant. The uglier the snow boots, the better - then you're guaranteed that no one will want to steal your boots and you won't need to worry about them while you're having a great time in your fantastic shoes.
5. Place key items in convenient places to help keep you warm. Please be patient as I explain a bit further. For example, slippers by the bed are a must unless you're one of those kinds of people who can sleep with socks on. Do everything you must to make sure that getting up in the morning is a little easier.
Even if you do indulge a bit on heat and live comfortably in your main living area, chances are the entry way to your place (usually a completely separate and different room) will still be freezing. Chances are also good that this is where your toilet will be. If you have a heated toilet seat or defroster, leave it on all the time to help prevent frozen toilets. But regardless, the air will be very cold. I recommend having a little hook near the door that leads from your warm living room to the frigid entry way where you can leave a warm jacket and a hat. Also, it's a great idea to have a second pair of slippers here as well. Then, when you need to use the toilet, you can add the few essential layers in a matter of seconds - hat, jacket, slippers - and you'll hardly notice the cold.
6. If possible, consider joining a gym during the winter months. Not only will it help keep you active, but you can always just go and use the heated showers and warm locker rooms for an evening shower if, let's say, your hot water heater breaks and it'll take a week before it can be fixed. Just as an example.
7. Embrace the layers. Learn to love wearing t-shirts under long-sleeves, under a thick sweater, under your puffy down ski jacket with a nice soft scarf, mittens, a hat, and a layer of leggings under your pants. Though if possible, try to stick to just one pair of socks since wearing more than one pair will make it hard for you to fit into your shoes. Try to wear layers that are easily removed as some Japanese homes have their heat blasting on high, while other places are meticulous about saving money. It's never fun to sweat through your t-shirt at a Japanese persons' pace or a ramen shop when you'll have to go back outside to go home at some point.
As a bonus: when you wear tons of layers all winter, you'll instantly look 10 pounds thinner when summer comes around and people suddenly see you without all the winter gear!
8. If you have a car, see if you can get an automatic starter. It's terrible for the environment, but most ALTs that have cars own old cars that have a really hard time starting in the morning. It's good for your car if it can warm up a bit first before moving. If an automatic starter isn't possible, do as I do: with an extra key, go outside and start the car a few minutes before you leave. Then, go back inside and finish getting your stuff together and fill your travel mug with steaming hot coffee. That should take about 3-5 minutes, and by the time you get back to your car, it shouldn't sound like things are scraping against each other. The engine should be warm enough to move, and it should be close to being able to produce heat from the heater instead of frigid air.
As a precaution, have a shovel, emergency blanket, a box of hand-warmers, water, a few emergency tools, and a bottle of wine in your car. If you should somehow get stranded and have to survive the night in the bitter winter of Hokkaido, you'll need everything you can to stay warm and well. Emergency blankets are very important, the hand-warmers should help keep your extremities warm, and a shovel may be all you need to get your car moving again. Only use the wine if you know you'll be in your car overnight since driving with any blood-alcohol percentage is a huge no. Wine, unlike water, is more useful to you in the wintertime. If you're stranded for a long time in the winter, it will become nearly impossible to keep water from freezing. Wine, however, won't freeze (as long as you don't use a low alcohol percentage wine like Arbor Mist) and it'll help supply you with calories that you'll need since shivering burns a lot of calories. More potent alcohol, like rum and vodka are less desirable. For starters, it's usually a lot less pleasant to drink straight and you're already in an unpleasant situation if you're stranded. Additionally, liquors are much more likely to make you drunk and want to go out and build a snowman while you wait. As fun as that may sound, it is a decidedly bad decision if you're actually in such a predicament.
9. Hats! Hats! Hats! Gloves! Hats! Above all, if you're unwilling to do any of the above, make sure you have several really good hats and some good gloves. Get over your fear of not looking good already - you'll see people try to look cute in December, but by January all but the most resilient (or foolhardy, depending on your perspective) will quite trying to look good and just try to be warm. Everyone will have a serious case or two of hat hair during this time, but embrace it since this will be one of the few times in your life when that's socially expected.
10. Find a way to enjoy the plus side of winter. There's something for everyone: skiing, snowboarding, skating, snowmobiling, ice fishing (not a sport but included as recreation), snowball fighting tournaments, admiring the frozen ocean (also called Drift Ice), going to snow festivals, trying your hand at ice sculpting or curling (surprisingly fun), bonding with a Canadian, sledding, among tons of other things.
Good luck and gambatte!
My first time curling ALSO coincided with a good time bonding with a Canadian. Good, eh?