By Allie Ryan
I shifted my weight to my right side as I re-crossed my legs, attempting to find comfort at the preschool-sized table I was sitting at. The bright green indestructible table was part of a collection of furniture in my classroom, which was much too small for a long legged foreigner. My Japanese partner sat across from me during our lunch break, nibbling on a senbay, a traditional Japanese style rice cracker, as I sipped on my miso soup.
“Yuumi,” I whined, “what is wrong with the weather in Matsumoto? First my skin almost melts off in Summer, and now it’s so cold I’m almost positive my blood is going to freeze in my veins.”
She laughed at me, and I wondered if it was pity I heard or amusement.
“Allie, have you gotten a kotatsu yet?” She put down her senbay and poured herself a cup of tea.
“A what?” I had heard the word tonkatsu before, but that referred to fried cutlets of meat. Was that what was going to keep me warm this winter, a piece of fried pork? In Japan, it is common for people to first refer to things by their Japanese names, rather than describing the object they are referencing. While I understand it is logical to first call something by its name, it can be very aggravating, as most of the time you have no clue what they’re talking about, and often the word is out of place, as the rest of the conversation has been in English with the exception of this object.
My biggest pet peeve abroad is that the foreigners here love to refer mostly to money by the currency amount in Japanese, although they are speaking in English. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the term, “ichi mann,” rather than a hundred dollars, or ten thousand yen.
No, I had never heard of a kotatsu, so Yuumi proceeded to explain to me one of the most essential survival items for living in the cold countryside. A kotatsu is a table which has a heater underneath. Around the table is a blanket that you drape over yourself as you sit at it. Japanese families huddle around it all winter long, keeping warm, rather than using central heating in their house, or living in homes with fireplaces.
The entire time she was explaining this concept to me, I kept imagining how disastrous it would have been to be forced to sit around a table all day with my family, during my teenage years. I could hardly be in the same room as my parents, how could I have managed sitting across from them, staring one another down, too scared of the cold to leave the one source of heat in the home?
Later that evening I skyped with an American friend living in Malaysia and I shared my recent discovery with him, as well as another object Yuumi informed me of.
“Ok so, get this,” I tell him, watching my video glitch and our faces pixelate. “Once you have been forced to leave the table, you go to the sink and fill a giant hard plastic container called a Yutanpo with steaming hot water. The container is then slipped into what looks like a silky little pillow case and is placed at the foot of your bed hidden under the blankets, which supposedly warms your bed through the night.”
“You’re joking right? This is the country with the fastest trains in the world, and to heat their beds they cuddle up next to a big ol’ bottle of hot water?” He asks, and we laugh at this amazing futuristic invention, as well as how uncomfortable it would have been to be forced to sit around a table all weekend long with our. Japan has a reputation for being modern and obsessed with technology. The toilets here have so many options and buttons I normally can’t even figure out how to flush them. How is it possible that one of the most popular forms of heat is a bottle filled with water?
As November slipped into December, winter began to settle in and the winds picked up a chill that I felt in my bones, and my windows started to collect frost on the glass. At night I would lay on my floor mat, buried under two comforters, and as I exhaled I watched a puff of my breath escape my mouth, as if I had been smoking, the temperature in my room hardly warmer than the world outside. I’ve managed, to most of my friend’s amazement, to live in Japan without owning a fridge. With the arrival of winter my friends and I have joked that my room is cold enough to keep perishables in it without needing one.
One thing that I’m no longer laughing at is the hot bottle of water stuffed at the end of my bed, which my feet cuddle against every night. This year when I opened my Christmas presents, I couldn’t have been happier than the moment I pulled the big orange plastic bottle from the kawaii wrapping paper. Each night I boil a pot of hot water in a teakettle and fill the bottle until steaming water spills from the mouth. I slip it into its soft jacket and hide it under my blankets. The most incredible part is that when I empty it the following night, the water is still warm.
In a country that is leading the world in technological inventions and advances, it’s still nice to know that sometimes something simple is all you need.
Allie combined her love of foreign cultures, spontaneous adventures, working with children and art, and let it carry her to Thailand, where she worked as a kindergarden teacher. After finishing the year in Thailand, she moved to Japan, and currently works at an international preschool, where she started the school’s first blog. Her blog, Blue Eyed Sensei, documents a foreigner’s experience in a Japanese school. She documents her other adventures at Taking Up Your Precious Time.