Generally speaking, the winters where I live now aren’t any worse than the winters I spent in Michigan. It snows from December to March, which is an actually an improvement on the last two places I lived, where we always seemed to get our last snow in early May. The low is around 0 C. On paper, that looks normal, even acceptable to me, and I was really looking forward to winter after the (typically) hellishly hot August we had.*
This November, it’s been around about 12-16 C most days (18 if we’re very lucky), and 0-10 degrees most nights. When you have central heating, that’s nothing. Last November in Michigan, I had to wear a scarf, gloves, and jacket because I spent a lot of time waiting for buses and walking around outside. Until it starting snowing in December, I could usually rock a light cardigan, tank top, jeans and unlined boots or sneakers with the coat and be perfectly happy. But Japan doesn’t really do central heating. Western-style hotels and some large buildings tend to go that route, but homes—even new ones—and regular workplaces do not.
So what’s that like?
Having no central heating doesn’t mean my workplace is forcing me to do cold training. Quite the contrary. All of us except the higher-ups work in the same room, The Office-style, with our desks pushed up against each other, and a big space heater heats the room. This has its good points and its bad points. Unlike central heating in a whole building, we have more control over when the heat gets turned on and off. (Although there is technically an official city/prefectural start-date for turning the boilers on for public schools and government buildings.) In my old college apartment, the school controlled our heat and our thermostats didn’t really do anything to change the temperature. My roommate and I used to open the windows to cool off the apartment when the heat was still on in May. In that sense, having no central heating is more environmentally friendly.
On the other hand, it poses a number of problems. Japanese buildings are not really insulated, so when you turn off the heater, the room doesn’t stay warm as long as it could, which is not environmentally friendly because you have to keep it running to stay warm. Also, while you have space heaters in the office, the hallways and the bathrooms aren’t heated. Since I live in the inaka, there aren’t always Japan’s famous Western-style toilets with nice heated seats installed in our restroooms. There’s no hot water in the bathroom sinks, either, so using the bathroom at work can be cold and unpleasant. As for the kitchen sink, there’s a water heater attached to the way with a spray hose attached; the hot water comes from there, while the faucet only has cold water.
The same goes for my home. My apartment has what is quite possibly the stupidest layout for a Japanese apartment: a U-shape with the bedroom on one tip of the U and the living room on the other tip, and closets filling in the empty space of the U. This means that I can’t open the bedroom and living room to each other, and therefore, can’t control the temperature in both at the same time with the same device. In summer, I sleep with the AC on in the living room, because there is no AC unit in the bedroom.
Winter’s a little easier, if only because I have three space heaters and can wear hats and hoodies that I can’t at work. I don’t heat the whole apartment at once, because that’s expensive (and wasteful). If I’m not in the bedroom, the heat doesn’t need to be on there. When I am running around between all the rooms in the morning and before I go to bed, I can blow hot air down the hallway toward the bathroom (the room with a bath; the toilet is in another room) and bedroom with my kerosene heater. I can heat up my bedroom with a small electric heater before I go to bed if it’s really cold. I have a kotatsu to hang out under while I study and eat in the living room. I’ll probably get an electric blanket soon, too.
My two big points of contention are the bathrooms. The toilet room has no heat and the toilet is no-frills, which means that, while it’s Western-style, as nearly all toilets for domestic use are, it doesn’t have the heated-seat function. And while this means I’m saving electricity, it also means the seat is freezing.
The room with the bath and the adjoining room, similarly, do not have heat. It’s kind of hit or miss with that. Newer homes will often have a heater in the ceiling of the bathroom so you can bath or shower in warmth. My apartment, on the other hand, is pretty old. As in, I have to crank my gas water-heater by hand to get it to turn on so I can have hot water to shower. Granted, it does heat up fast, and I have a dial to adjust the level of the flame so I don’t freeze in winter or get too hot in summer. But there’s no heat in the bathroom, and there’s not even a hook to hang the detachable shower head on. (I suppose if it doesn’t attach to anything, it’s not really detachable, right?) The walls are painted concrete, so, without power tools, I can’t attach one. After you get the hot water running, it’s not so bad, and I set up an electric space heater outside the door so I can exit into a warm(er) room, but doing the “turn on the water; turn off water to wash hair; turn on water; hold shower head on shoulder while conditioning because it’s too cold to turn it off again” dance is also cold and unpleasant.
As for the laundry, about two years ago, I gave up using dryers except for towels and sheets. It saves energy, is better for your clothes, and is more environmentally friendly. With central heating, dryer-refusal works just fine. In the summer, I stick the laundry rack on the balcony in the sunshine and heat. In the winter, if I hang my laundry on a rack and stick it under an air vent, it gets dry in about a day.
With no central heating, it’s a little harder. The town where I live is one of the rainier places in Japan, and, if it’s not raining, it’s cloudy. I check the weather forecast and try to do my laundry on sunny and windy days so the sun and wind will come in through the laundry room window.** I also use my dehumidifier to dry things in the laundry room if the weather unexpectedly changes. I have now added placing a laundry rack in my kitchen and turning the kerosene heater toward it (a meter away, of course) to the routine. I only have the kerosene on for about two hours a day currently, and the kitchen tends to be warmer from cooking anyway. This method works fairly well for regular clothes, but things that are made of thick cotton take forever to dry.
Speaking of clothes, I invested in some HeatTech undershirts. The cheap clothing store near me has packs of two shirts for 730 yen. (You can get HeatTech goods anywhere from Uniqlo to your home-goods store, though the price and quality will vary.) They’re supposed to wick away sweat and use your body’s heat to create heat. It doesn’t solve the problem of being cold entirely, but it is nice for when the office workers turn down the heater around lunch or when I go to the good grocery store, which is about 15 minutes by bike. You can also get heat-tech undershorts, socks, and tights. I think I’ll bring my heat-tech clothes home when I eventually return to the US. They’ll be great for hiking, camping, cold-weather protests, and for wearing under formal clothes when I go to the theatre in winter. I can dress up for the opera and still stay warm! Brilliant.
* How hot and humid was it? There were days when I would feel nauseous just walking 10 minutes to my friends’ house or waiting for the train in the capital. I eventually broke down and starting drinking Pocari Sweat to combat the nausea and get some electrolytes back. Pocari Sweat has fewer calories than Gatorade, doesn’t taste bad, and was basically the only thing that allowed me to function when I was spending time outdoors.
**Most apartments and houses here have laundry rooms instead of or in addition to laundry bars that are completely outside. I think it’s a combination of being in the country and having space to have that extra room and of the generally un-sunny weather that led to this model.