Monday, February 7, 2011

冬 - Winter in Japan

I decided I needed to write a long post about the wonder season known as winter, and how it's a different experience here in Japan. Before I dive into the differences with dealing with winter, though, I should explain the conditions. Where I live now, in the southern part of Japan, the winter is nothing compared to Michigan. Down by the coast, it may snow a few times, but it never collects and stays. It's warmer too, usually hovering above or around freezing temperatures. Up in the mountains, though, it's colder and snows more often and may stick around for a day or two if the sun doesn't melt it.
It might be a bit milder, but keeping warm is a bit of a challenge in Japan, but there's many options. In America, our solution is to crank up the central heating or grab an extra blanket/sweater (Snuggie anyone?). In Japan, stores will have central heating, but many homes will not. Many rely on wall heating/cooling units or heaters/stoves. My schools use big gas stoves, one for each classroom.
Leaving the classroom means leaving the warmth. You know the feeling when you leave a store and it feels like you're walking face first into a cold wall of air? It's that feeling all the time, unless the classroom never warms up. The teacher's room is the only room using a wall unit heating system. The older students often carry around little heat packets, the ones that remind me of the kind hunters and other outdoors people put in their gloves.
In homes, people will use everything from heated carpets and blankets, kotatsu tables (low tables with a heater covered in a blanket, my favorite), even things like hot water bottles to put in your bed (archaic?). Often, people will just bundle up. America has long johns, and Japan has their own versions of warm undergarments. Most seem thin yet warm, like a space age technology, and some… have that odd, cute Japanese flare. Have you ever seen a knitted stomach warmer? It's a band to put around your stomach to keep you warm, like a waist scarf. You'll see knitted shorts too, which look like something your grandma would knit and give to you to keep that certain unmentionable area warm.
Layer dressing is the way to go: students often wear shirts under sweaters under jackets as part of their school uniforms. Teachers wear warm undergarments, turtlenecks, sweaters, and jackets. One day an elementary school teacher who teaches in one of the colder locations asked me how many layers I was wearing. When I replied with 3, she was shocked. I was wearing only 3?! She had on 6. Another teacher joined in the conversation and replied she had 7 on. How these ladies didn't look like overly bundled still astounds me.
The one thing that really shocked me and would shock many in America is the prominence of shorts and skirts in the winter, especially in the school uniforms of the kids. Pants are not a part of the school uniforms of my elementary schools.
The boys wear shorts and the girls, skirts. It will be freezing, maybe even snowing, and I will see kids running around with skin exposed. American mothers would be having a heart attack at the sight. Some of the colder mountain locations allow the kids to wear some track pants from home over their exposed legs, thankfully. I asked a vice principal why they forced the kids to run around with so little clothing. The answer? It makes them stronger, healthier, more hearty. I'll leave that debate for another day. A big fashion trend here is fuzzy-lined shorts in the middle of winter, usually paired with tights and a cute pair of boots by girls and women.
Getting around in the winter can be a big pain. In Michigan, you put your life in your own hands if you decide to go out and drive in the snow. Luckily, many people use public transportation in Japan. Trains do sometimes stop/get delayed, but public transportation is still the best bet. If you have a car and plan to drive anywhere there's a bit of an incline, you better buy winter tires. Here's Leonardo DiCaprio hawking the "eco" Bridgestone tires in Japan:
Highways will actually close off because of snow, or require your car have winter tires to enter. What I thought was a wussy snow storm (compared to anything Michigan has) will close the highways here. People tend to hand salt trouble spot on roads in neighborhoods themselves. You might see a dozen spinouts on the roads in Michigan, but the snow never seems to get that severe here.
Winter isn't all treachery and a fight to keep warm. The Japanese like to make snowmen, too. The big difference, though.... Japanese snowmen are only 2 balls of snow, compared to the 3 Americans usually use.
Hot foods are enjoyed by many in the winter. Warm ramen or udon noodles are a delicious choice, but a choice for a household or a group is nabe. Nabe is a pot, either electric or on a gas burner put in the middle of your table that you fill with your choice of flavor broth (such flavors are kimichi, tomato, miso, or fish-based) and throw in your favorite meat and vegetables. It's popular for the reason that you don't need a recipe (you can choose your favorite veggies) and in a group setting, everyone adds and eats at their leisure.
This has become my favorite food as of late. It keeps you warm, you eat your vegetables, and it can be a social event. Here's my awesome nabe pot wit the fixings:
I've even got chopstick rests that suit the season.
I hope you enjoyed some interesting points about winter here in Japan. Stay warm!

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