Winter in Japan

When I was told that Akita had cold, hard winters, I laughed – I’m Canadian, I’m used to cold temperatures and mountains of snow! How bad could winter in Akita really be? “Bring it,” I thought.

And Akita brought it.

Winter in Japan and winter in Canada are two completely different beasts. St. John’s is colder than Yurihonjo and St. John’s also gets more snow. That being said, winter in Yurihonjo is much, much harder than any winter I’ve had in St. John’s.

Lately, every day in Yurihonjo has been between -2C and +2C (literally every day, I don’t understand how the temperature can be so consistent!). Compared to St. John’s, that’s not too cold at all. However, in Japan, you can’t escape the cold. Buildings don’t use central heating. In fact, most Japanese buildings (Hokkaido excluded) don’t have insulation and are built intentionally drafty – mine included – so central heat is a waste of money and energy (what?!!!!). Instead, the Japanese heat their homes and apartments with space heaters, including kerosene heaters, kotatsu, and electric carpets. I use a kerosene heater exclusively – while it does a great job at heating my kitchen/living/bedroom areas, my toilet and shower rooms are FREEZING. As well, I can’t leave it on overnight because of the carbon monoxide it produces, so I always wake up to a freezing cold apartment.

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My kerosene heater – aka, the only reason why I haven’t yet frozen to death! The number on the right tells you the current temperature of the room – for this picture, it was a toasty 2 degrees C.

If you survive the freezing cold dash to your shower room and manage to get ready for work without your fingers falling off, congratulations! You may think that you’re now in the clear because work will definitely be heated – right?

Wrong.

Well, the teacher’s room and classrooms are usually heated (although they only turn the radiators on during school hours – between 8:05am and 4:15pm – otherwise it’s just large kerosene heaters). The hallways, however, are like the North Pole. Japanese schools are built using a lot of single-pane glass windows and, again, are built intentionally drafty. The hallways regularly dip below 0 degrees C. The bathrooms aren’t heated, either – I’ve come to really appreciate heated toilet seats! Plus, there’s no hot water tap in the bathrooms with which to wash your hands, so after I run back to the teacher’s room, I usually have to sit on them for several minutes until they warm up again.

To battle the cold at school, I regularly wear several layers to school – tights, socks, work pants, a HeatTech undershirt, a blouse, a cardigan – and I keep a fleece lap blanket and a bulky sweater at my desk. Yes, it’s really that cold.

If you can make it through the school day without needing to have any of your limbs amputated, then congratulations! Unfortunately, it probably snowed during the eight hours you were at school, so now you get to drive home – on unplowed roads. (Seriously, I have four years of winter driving experience in Canada, but driving in Akita makes me feel like it’s my first!) Only the main roads in Yurihonjo are plowed and, unfortunately, there aren’t many main roads here. They also don’t use salt to de-ice the roads because I’ve heard that the salt would get into the rice fields and ruin them. Fair enough – rice is a huge industry in Akita, after all – but now not only are you driving on unplowed roads, you are driving on a month’s worth of unplowed snow that has been packed down into a literal six inches of solid, slippery ice. No need to worry about those pesky St. John’s potholes because there is no pavement. Nope, the only “potholes” you need to worry about are the manhole covers over which the snow has melted, leaving a lovely six inch deep hole perfect for destroying your car if you fail to avoid them.

And you can’t always avoid them. Remember how Japanese roads are narrow (honestly, some of the two-way roads here look like they’re only supposed to be one-way!)? Well, now the roads have been made even more narrow because of the snow, so there is often only room for one car. When you do encounter another car head-on, one of you has to give up and reverse out of the road because there is no where else to go. And let’s hope you don’t slip and slide into one of the manhole cover craters! Or into a gaijin trap!

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Your typical, snow-covered Japanese road.

You’ve made it home – success! You survived another winter’s day in Japan! But don’t get too comfortable just yet – leave your down winter coat and gloves on while you wait for your heater to warm up your 2C apartment, make yourself a nice supper, then put on your two pairs of socks, fleece PJ pants, thick sleeping shirt, and fleece sweatshirt, and crawl into bed under four blankets (flat sheet + electric blanket + fleece blanket + duvet), and enjoy the warmth before you have to get up and do it all over again.

All that being said, I am Canadian, so I won’t let the silly Japanese winter get me down! Also, Akita is flipping GORGEOUS in winter, so I guess I can’t be too mad.

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The beautiful view from my front door!

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