Winter is coming, and it is starting to get cold at times now. Mostly the days are actually really comfortable – strange for late November, early December – but welcome, after the 4-month steam bath that is affectionately known as “summer” here in my part of Japan. But, this week for the first time, I had to bring out my long wool winter coat. My coat is mid-calf length and fire-engine red, so though it is pretty, it feels a bit ostentatious when wading through the sea of black and beige that is Tokyo-ites in their clothing. It’s not enough that I am really tall, non-asian, and have curly hair (somewhat of a rarity here), but now I am draping myself in head-to-toe crimson like some kind of visual foreigner siren. I stood out before, but now you absolutely cannot miss me.
Though I dislike cold weather, Tokyo is kind of a nice place to spend the colder months. People in Tokyo generally dress very well, so they look great in all of their trim pea coats or sporty puffy jackets, all wrapped up to their ears in stylish scarves and topped off with cute hats. Girls here love to wear tiny shorts and mini skirts with black tights or thigh-highs. It looked absurd to me when they did it all summer long in the muggy heat, but now that it is cold, it looks adorable and somewhat sensible as well.
One aspect of Tokyo that really lends itself to cold weather is the food. Soups are a fairly large segment of the Japanese food offerings that I see on a daily basis. Udon, Soba, and Ramen shops are all over the place, and all specialize in noodles and soups and combinations of the two. Curry rice is also quite popular, and is very similar to a stew, which makes it a perfect food for winter. Additionally, coffee is huge here – possibly more popular here than in America. So, there are coffee shops everywhere, and a wide variety of coffee drinks (and of course, tea!) can be purchased in the omnipresent vending machines and convenience stores. The convenience stores here do not keep brewed coffee around, unfortunately, but they do offer a nice alternative. Once the weather becomes chilly, they begin to offer a heated section of bottled drinks in addition to the refrigerated one. So, you can get all manner of toasty warm drinks: coffee, of course, and tea in a variety of flavors, but also hot chocolate, and hot lemonade – something I hadn’t thought of having before coming here, but which is quite logical when you think about it, what with all the emphasis on lemons and vitamin C during cold and flu season. As an ingenious bonus, the ubiquitous vending machines ALSO have a hot section in the winter! This is something I have never heard of in the US, but in a walking city like Tokyo where you are out in the elements, I think it is positively brilliant. For roughly a buck fifty you can enjoy a nice warm drink on the train platform after a chilly walk to the station. It’s very soothing and makes the cold a bit more tolerable.
In homes, the cold is handled much differently here than in the U.S. For reasons I don’t yet understand, Japanese homes generally do not seem to be equipped with any sort of central heating system. At work we have central heat and air, but at most homes and apartments, people seem to rely on wall-mounted heating-air-conditioning units which are not terribly effective at heating a room and can only push cooled or heated air in one direction. It would seem that people don’t even rely on those very much, because there are a variety of popular heating contraptions that I am always hearing about these days. A very common item here is a low table with a heater attached to the underside, called a kotatsu. The idea is that you drape a blanket over it (there is a split table-top to allow you to do this) and it creates sort of a little heated tent for your legs while you eat or work or study. (I have one, but I have yet to try it, as I much prefer to crank my wall heater unit in pursuit of the elusive concept of total room comfort.) I’ve also heard Japanese people talk rather lovingly about a special hot water bottle that you are supposed to put inside your futon which makes for a very warm night’s sleep. Additionally, there are all manner of fuzzy booties, belly warmers (like leg warmers, except for your midsection), and various shawls and wraps being stocked in all the stores.
One last thing I am really looking forward to for winter is the onsens, or hot springs. The Japanese people are very fond of baths, and they are a rather nice part of Japanese culture, in my opinion. There are public bath houses, called sento, which are a traditional place of relaxation here, similar to the spa at your local gym, (sans workout equipment), and then there are the outdoor hot springs provided courtesy of Japan’s geothermal activity. I had the opportunity to visit one of these outdoor springs after a nice hike in rather brisk weather, and it was a relaxing treat. I am looking forward to more.
And for your viewing pleasure, here’s a picture of the Japanese snow monkeys enjoying an onsen in the snow. Something I hope to see myself this winter!