6 ways to keep warm during Japanese winter

Winter is in full swing in Japan and it is cold! While the average daily maximum temperature for the Nagoya region in January is 9°C (according to the Japan Meteorological Agency), this year has been particularly cold with many days where the temperature doesn’t go above 3 or 4° C.

Japanese homes, unlike Belgian ones, are not equipped with proper heating systems. While every Japanese home has a state of the art air conditioning system to get through the hot and humid summers, nobody in Japan seems to have ever heard of a ‘central heating system’.

Central heating radiator

This is a central heating radiator. In Belgium, every room in the house has one or more of these radiators attached to the wall. Warm water is circulated through all of them. They emit a constant and comfortable kind of heat, a lot more agreeable than for example warm air heaters.

How odd for such a highly developed country to not have a proper heating system for homes. Does anyone know why that is? In addition to that, Japanese homes are often quite drafty due to lack of proper insulation. Most windows, for example, only have single glass.

So how do we make it through this cold Japanese winter? There are several ways one can hope to keep warm:

  1. Japanese people often use kerosene burners to heat their homes. These however give off a slight to rather strong kerosene smell, depending on how modern the heater is. An alternative to that is a small electric or ceramic heating unit. These usually only suffice to heat one room, not a whole house. Fortunately, Japanese homes are quite small.

    Traditional Japanese room with kerosene burner on the left

    kerosene burner

    kerosene burner

  2. By far my favourite way to keep warm is the ‘kotatsu’. It’s a coffee table with a blanket coming out from under the table top. On the bottom of the table is a heating element. People who love their kotatsu so much that they hardly ever get out from under it are called ‘kotatsu mushi’ which means ‘kotatsu bug’. Guilty as charged.
    kotatsu mushi

    Kotatsu mushi

    kotatsu bottom

    Bottom of the kotatsu with heating element

  3. If after all of this you are still cold, you can adorn yourself with what I like to call ‘heat stickers’. You apply these rectangular stickers to your undergarments. Upon coming into contact with the air, the stickers emit a comfortable heat for several hours, until the material inside the sticker crystallizes. I later found out that they are called ‘hokkairo’ in Japanese. You can buy them in the supermarket and drugstore.

    heat stickers

    Heat stickers

  4. A good way to warm yourself through and through is going to the onsen. Onsen are typical Japanese bathing facilities where you can soak in hot baths for hours. The entrance is usually fairly cheap (about 600 yen) so a weekly visit is feasible if you have the time.


    Onsen (picture from http://blog.asiahotels.com)

  5. Nothing is as uncomfortable as a cold bed. Since our bedroom is the coldest room in the house, a mere hot-water bottle to warm the feet does not suffice. Luckily a friend of mine recommended using an electric blanket. The blanket is placed under the mattress cover and can either be used to just preheat the bed or provide a steady heat supply all night long, depending on how cold it is.
  6. The best winter food to warm you from the inside out is ‘nabe’. Nabe is a one pot dish with meat, tofu and vegetables cooked in a shallow soup. It is usually prepared at the table with a portable gas burner, while the whole family gathers around.

These are my tips and tricks. Feel free to add more suggestions in the comments section!

Check out one more way to keep warm during Japanese winter: haramaki, the Japanese belly warmer.


I’m on the Tsubasaya blog – again!

Tsubasaya is an izakaya (bar or tavern) in Toyota City. It has great food and a great atmosphere. Being the tall and blond gaijin that we are, we always call a lot of attention to ourselves whenever we go there. This has led to an appearance on the Tsubasaya blog once before, as you could read in the July 27th post ‘Making friends at the izakaya’.

Last night we showed up at Tsubasaya’s with an entire group of gaijin to have our own little nomikai in order to welcome some colleagues of Dennis who had come on business trip. I was delighted when one of the waitresses asked to take our picture. Yes! Another appearance on the Tsubasaya blog.

On the Tsubasaya blog again! Hurray!

(can anyone translate the text underneath the photo please?)

Maybe I should make it a personal challenge to appear on their blog as much as possible. I wonder if an average of once a month is feasible. I already see how this kind of situation could easily get out of hand, with me showing up there in increasingly ridiculous costumes in order to make it to their blog. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes!

Making friends at the izakaya

An izakaya – best compared with a tavern or a bar that also serves food – seems to be a great place to meet people. In a previous post you could read about our encounter with Asahi-san on our first evening in Japan (click here to read the post). A few nights ago, we had another encounter in an izakaya.

We were quietly sitting at a table in Tsubasaya, Dennis’s favourite izakaya, eating and minding our own business (trying to be well-behaved gaijin).

the entrance of Tsubasaya in Toyota city (I did not add these chickens myself)

A group of Japanese people stumbles in. Clearly it’s not their first izakaya visit of the evening, judging by the staggering walk that some of them have. They take up a box close to our table. As the box is not big enough to fit them all, some of them sit at the other end of our table. Of course I try to take a sneak photograph of the group without them noticing and of course they notice. Immediately their interest is sparked and the guys at our table start a conversation.

the sneak photograph - you can see the box in the background

As soon as the other members of the group notice that gaijin contact has been made, several of them flock to our table. A lively conversation starts. In Europe we always think that Japanese are silent, shy and reserved. But put them together in an izakaya, throw in some alcohol and you get quite the animated group of people (to use an understatement).

The result of the evening is that I am now on the Tsubasaya blog! The manager – a stately lady in kimono – saw me talking to a Japanese girl and exchanging telephone numbers. Inspired by this intercultural contact, she asked to take a picture to post on the Tsubasaya blog. Check out the Tsubasaya blog (click here)! If anyone could translate what they write about the picture, I would be most appreciative.

Tsubasaya blog screenshot

a sneak shot of the Tsubasaya manager

First impressions

My first impression of Japan: what a green country! On tv we always see skyscrapers and concrete as far as the eye can see. But believe it or not, there is a countryside in Japan and it is beautiful.

Green countryside between Nagoya and Toyota City

We were picked up at the airport by a very friendly driver. Mind the white gloves.

Our driver, who gave us a Japanese vocabulary lesson

Upon arrival in the hotel ‘Hotel Toyota Castle‘ (everything is called toyota-something here), we had our first Japanese bath. One sits on the stool and scubs oneself down from head to toe. Once completely clean, you immerse yourself in steaming hot water. There’s nothing like it to recover from a 12h flight.

Scrubbing area

the bath is deeper than european baths, so it is possible to be completely immersed instead of having to choose between your shoulders or your knees

And of course there is the obligatory picture of the Japanese toilet – with pre-heated toilet seat. Again, I could get used to this. I haven’t worked up the nerve yet to press any of those buttons though.

High tech toilet

control panel for high tech toilet

Another impression: the humidity. It feels like a tropical country because of the heat and the humidity outside. Not ideal for people with frizzy hair! From now on, every day is a bad hair day.

Portuguese often appears on signs and official communication. It seems there is a large Japanese community in Brazil and many people from Brazil and Peru come to find jobs in Japan.

Portugese signalisation in city hall

On our first day, we had dinner in an izakaya (bar/tavern). No easing into Japanese cuisine for us, we went straight for the raw squid. Yum! We got talking with the man sitting next to us. He immediately insisted on paying our dinner and taking us out again some other time. It seems that fortunately the stereotype about the reserved and shy Japanese does not always apply.

Raw squid

Sashimi a.k.a. more raw squid (and other assorted marine creatures)

Asahi-san, our new Japanese friend