There have been flurries all day in Osaka, to the horror of most of the people I’ve spoken to today. Osaka, a port, nearly surrounded by low mountain ranges on three sides and chock-full of nice, warming smog, rarely gets enough snow to stay down for any length of time. Kobe, Nara and Kyoto, none more than 40 minutes away, usually get a few centimetres at least. Still, every year around now, Osakans have to be reminded that they don’t live in Okinawa (their climate denial rivals that of –“I’m not goin’ out in that!” – Torontonians). Living in a country alleged to be in harmony with nature, Osakans don’t do winter very well.
The flurries are – for me, anyway – a welcome change from the cold, damp rain or drizzle that we’ve been putting up with lately. Unless it’s really windy, I love it when the temperature goes below zero. The air is drier and feels cleaner in the lungs, the snow (when there is any) insulates and muffles. A walk in the winter air gives rosy cheeks and the appearance, at least, of rude good health. You really feel as though you’ve gone somewhere and done something every time you venture out. Of course, you also have to dress for winter, something the local fashion mavens fail to understand, leading to four months of the almost cult-like, call-response chanting of “Samuidesuneee!” (Is it ever coooold!) / “Sooodesunee! Samuidesunee!” (Boy, that’s for sure! Is it ever cooooold!), or people just muttering to themselves behind scarves, “Samusamusamusamusamu…” (col’col’col’col’cold…) as they rush outside from one point to another (a distance rarely more than twenty feet). Did I mention it rarely goes below 5ºC in the daytime, and almost never gets below zero or minus one at night?
I’m a Canadian, so on principle I dress solely for warmth.
Yet for all the moaning about the weather, Osakans live in the dampest, draughtiest, least insulated apartments you can imagine. There comes a point in the winter, usually late February, when I wake up in the morning and rush to get outside so I can warm up a bit. There is no central heating in most residential buildings, which would be fine if all the heat from your space heaters didn’t go out the windows. Yet this hardly rates a mention. Why? The popular wisdom is that houses here are designed to breathe in the humid Osaka summer, and this might be true of old, traditional homes. Most people, though, live in apartments which are cold in the winter and roasting in the summer. So when anyone asks me if I mind the cold, I usually tell them yes – inside.
There are ways to manage. Inside, we wear sweaters, heavy socks, chanchanko, “room wear” (sweatsuits, more or less, but they come in different designs). This is not entirely a bad thing – the last time I went to Canada for Christmas, I thought everyone’s house felt dry and overheated (and everyone stripped down to t-shirts when they came indoors). There are heated carpets (hotto caapetto), electric blankets, and of course, kotatsu. A kotatsu is a square, heated table, which sounds ridiculous but can be quite cozy. Between the two layers of the table top is a square cotton quilt which anyone at the table sits under. A small heater is under the table top and it warms the sitters. Of course, you sit on the floor, with a cushion under you. You watch TV, you read a book, you play cards. The draughtiness of the place promotes such cocooning. If the buildings were only insulated, it would all make perfect sense. But here in Japan, people are masters of living with and working around a problem instead of actually solving it – then you’d have to admit it exists. Maybe that’s why I fit in here, in my odd way – I can relate.