As I type this, I am wearing two shirts, a jacket, a winter coat, a scarf, tights and socks, and would be wearing gloves except for that they would make it difficult to type. Needless to say — but I’ll say it anyway — it is cold.
Of course, some areas in Japan are colder than others. Take Hokkaido for instance, the prefecture furthest north; it is about on the same latitude as Nebraska. Then, there are places that stay fairly warm, such as Okinawa, furthest south, which can be around 60 degrees Fahrenheit even in winter. But, right now, at about 7pm on a day in early January about two hours from Tokyo, it’s around 35 degrees Celsius, so I’m pretty cold.
However, I’ve slowly, slowly found how to be warm in Japan. Of course, while many of these methods aren’t specific to Japan, some are uniquely Japanese.
I hope you find this article on staying warm in Japan useful! Also, please be sure to check out 5 MORE ways to stay warm in Japan.
Stay Warm in Japan
1. Slide under a kotatsu
The Japanese word “kotatsu” is formed using the kanji characters “fire” (or “torch”) and “foot warmer,” so it is easy to imagine just what a kotatsu might do.
A kotatsu is basically a table with a heater built in, often on the underside of the table. The heater is turned on and then a heavy blanket is placed over the table to trap the heated air. You can then put your feet and legs under the table to stay warm. Additionally, a carpet or blanket is usually put underneath the table as well to further keep the warm air from escaping through the floor.
As a small warning, since the table does contain a heater underneath, it isn’t recommended to sleep with your feet or body under the kotatsu since you may burn yourself.
In many Japanese homes I’ve visited, the kotatsu is placed in front of the TV, and the family will eat, watch TV, use the computer, and hang out in that area to stay warm.
I myself do not own a kotatsu, but lots of my friends do, and I may go into the market for a kotatsu eventually. The kotatsu table usually starts at around 3,000 yen (about 30 USD), although 10,000 yen (about 100 USD) seems to be an average price, and the blanket may start from about 2,000 yen (about 20 USD). Not a bad price, since it would also mean that you’d probably save on heating bills.
2. Sit yourself down on an electric carpet
Japanese homes generally do not have heated flooring, as many places in South Korea do, but using an electric heated carpet is not uncommon.
Electric carpets are especially useful if you usually sit on the floor, like many Japanese do, or have your futon placed on the floor. If you use an electric carpet, there is also an insulator, most of which are silver-colored mats, you can place under the carpet to further keep the heat from escaping through the floor.
3. Use an electric or gas heater
Called “stoves” in Japan, these heaters are commonly used in homes and offices to keep buildings warm, particularly since many buildings do not have central air.
Many heaters use kerosene as fuel, so it is advised to be a little more careful with these compared to the electric heaters, as fire hazard is probably a bit higher. In any case, I’ve often been told NOT to leave heaters, electric or oil, on while asleep or out of my apartment.
Related to heaters, air-conditioning/heating units are sometimes included in apartments and usually have a heating function. However, I’ve found a floor-based “stove” to be effective. This is because A/C units are usually placed high on the wall, meaning the heat stays up near the ceiling. Many a night found me sitting at my computer desk with the A/C unit on, arms up-stretched trying to at least get some part of me warm.
On a last note, as I’ve learned, many buildings in Japan (including my apartment!) are not insulated, so the heating bill, whether you use a stove or the A/C unit, will probably leave you reeling, particularly if you use the heater often. To keep these costs down, invest in heavy curtains, keep activities confined to the room with the heater (closing the door to any other rooms or closets), and use other methods, such as warm blankets and clothing, to help cut back on the time you need to use the heater.
4. Wear your leg-warmers, leggings/tights, and stomach-warmers
Anyone who has lived in a remotely cold area knows the drill in winter: down coats, scarves, earmuffs, hats.
But Japan has more to offer than only just those clothing options.
If your face is cold, it’s perfectly acceptable to wear a surgical mask to keep it warm.
Currently, leggings and tights are in style here, so, ladies, don’t put away that skirt just because it is winter! One thing I learned here was that the higher the “denier” number on the package, the thicker and warmer the tights are. Some tights are also specifically designed for cold weather. On top of tights, some women also wear leg-warmers, which are looser sock-like leg-coverings that really do warm up an outfit.
In addition, and most interestingly (at least to me), we have stomach-warmers, called “hara maki” in Japanese. These are basically tubes made of warm material that go around your stomach under your clothing. Many are in plain colors, but, for those who like to be fashionable even where no one can see, there are also hara maki in fun patterns. Some hara maki even have pouches for “hokkairo,” which brings us to the next item:
5. Don’t forget the hand-warmers!
“Kairo” (with a famous brand being “Hokairo”), sometimes called hand-warmers or Hot Hands (a brand name) in English, are disposable packets that produce heat when they are shaken. In the US, hand-warmers are typically expensive and not in wide use, but tons of people in Japan use them. The product goes for about 200 yen (around 2.00USD presently) for a pack of ten hand-warmers. There are even little pouches that are sold to keep the hand-warmers in! Mine is a cute Korilakkuma bear pocket.