I was born and raised in sunny southern California – where the weather is about 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, year round. In January, the temperature can drop to the mid 50’s, but mid 50’s is about as low as it’ll go. So, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never experienced a real winter before. And when I say real winter, I mean a below 30 degrees F kind of winter, a winter that turns stepping outside into a brave and daring feat – a winter I am grossly under-prepared for… But since I’m living in Japan now, that’s just the kind of winter I’m about to face.
December has only just arrived, and the temperature in Minoh has already begun to plummet. My 8 minute stroll to the bus stop is a challenge already, even with a heavy coat. And a scarf. And gloves.
But, luckily for me – and for the millions of other Osaka residents about to brave an unforgivable winter, Japan has found ways to make these next few bone-chilling months bearable, and I have made it my goal to take advantage of as many of these warmth-inducing solutions as possible.
The first task on my survival checklist was to redo my wardrobe, since all of the clothes I’d brought from home were intended to be worn in an Osaka-n summer, not winter. But, I’m on a teacher’s budget – restocking my closet with a brand new wardrobe wasn’t a possibility. And that’s how I discovered Heat Tech.
Heat Tech is a collection by UNIQLO – a chain of affordable clothing stores in Japan. Heat Tech’s under armor is made from a durable fabric that supposedly retains heat really well. I’d heard positive reviews from several coworkers, so I decided to buy a few articles for myself. And I’m glad I did! The material is surprisingly thin, it’s light, and most importantly, it keeps me warm. And it’s cheap! A long sleeved crew neck T-shirt cost me less than $10.
Though my pair of “ultra warm” leggings have been a big help so far, fabric too has its limits. Clothes can only help retain so much heat, and there are some body parts that need a little more warmth than others. And that’s where these lovely little packs come in:
I got this particular pack of body warming stickers for 100 Yen from a local Daiso, but I’ve seen them stocked at nearly every supermarket and discount store around, often conveniently displayed at the front entrance. All you do is unwrap a package, peel off the back, and stick it anywhere on your body for instant heat. To my surprise, I could still feel a bit of heat from a sticker nearly an hour after I’d peeled it. No idea how that works, but I’m not complaining.
Next – food: I can’t talk about winter without at least mentioning food.
I could go on and on about seasonal winter foods in Japan – nabe alone deserves its own blog post – but I’ll stick with the two winter-friendly snacks that have helped me survive on a budget.
The cheapest, and most abundant, warming winter snack I’ve found is oden at conbinis (convenience stores). Oden, also known as Japan’s traditional winter fast food, is a stew of various ingredients simmered in dashi broth. Ingredients range from potatoes, to skewered meat, to acorn jelly. At conbinis, a large food warmer sits at the front counter, where customers can help themselves to individual oden ingredients – each about 100 Yen. Sometimes, conbinis will have weekly specials that lower prices to 50 Yen!
Though a little pricier than oden, my most favorite cold weather treat is definitely the 焼き芋, or roasted sweet potatoes. Japanese sweet potatoes are a little different from the sweet potatoes you buy in the states. Japanese sweet potatoes have a purple skin and creamy yellow insides. I think they’re also smoother in texture and a little sweeter than U.S. sweet potatoes.
Like oden, they’re everywhere – and they’re always warm. Each sweet potato is fresh and sweet, just the right amount of soft, and quite filling for less than $2 a piece. I’d say that one could work well as a meal by itself. They’re usually near the front entrances of supermarkets, kept hot in a warmer or on a bed of charcoal, often wrapped in individual brown bags. Kind of like this:
Yet another cheap, and quick, option for those in search of relief from the chilly outdoors are vending machines – now well-stocked with tons of hot drinks. In the summer, all of the drinks were cold, but as the temperature began to change, vending machine selections changed too.
I’d say that 100 Yen is not a bad deal for a cozy beverage (or a can of corn consomme soup!). Sometimes, I buy a drink just to act as a hand warmer, when I don’t have my nifty body stickers with me.
And finally, the main reason I’ve been able to survive the cold – my air conditioner, which as I was overjoyed to learn, is also a heater.
I was planning on buying a separate heater for my apartment, which are pretty expensive, but a friend who has been living in Japan for two years now informed me that my air conditioner should have heating functions too. So after work that day, I attempted to decipher my remote control. And sure enough, hidden in the left hand corner, I recognized one of the kanji characters for heat – 暖. (In Japanese, 暖かい means warm.) So, if you ever find yourself needing to operate the dual air conditioning-heater unit in a Japanese apartment, look for 暖房 (pronounced danbou) on your remote control.
Another cool thing I discovered as I was deciphering the cryptic maze that is my remote control is the timing function. All I have to do is set a certain number of hours, and my heater will start up automatically when that number of hours has passed. I set it to start about 30 minutes before I arrive back from work so that I’m greeted by a cozy, heated apartment right when I step inside.
I can’t say that I’m looking forward to the next 3 freezing months, but I will admit that Japan does a pretty good job at trying to make the wintery season – almost – bearable. I might as well enjoy my ready-to-eat perfectly cooked sweet potatoes while I can.