Staying Warm in Japan

Learn the Oriental tradition of heat retention and its Western applications, including floor heaters, haoris and kotatsu.

| January/February 1976

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    A simple diagram of a Japanese ofuro and guemonburo.
  • Japanese home
    A typical Japanese house does not have central heating as most homes in the United States. However, the Japanese stay warm through various other methods.
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    A simple diagram of a Japanese kotatsu and haori.

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  • Japanese home
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The Japanese, except for those living on one far northern island, have always — to my knowledge — lived in unheated houses. To do this, they've developed many beautiful techniques for keeping warm techniques which make a Japanese home quite different from what most Americans might imagine.

Japanese houses, it is said, are designed to be comfortable in hot weather while Western homes are constructed for comfort during cold weather. This may be true, but the average temperatures in Japan cover roughly the same range as those of the United States. Match degree against degree, for example, and you'll find living in Tokyo very similar — temperature-wise — to residing in Washington, D.C.

The traditional Nipponese home and its inhabitants, in other words, have happily survived many centuries in a climate not very different from our own. And that house and the people who live in it have done so without central heat.

How can this be? Can unheated houses really be comfortable?

Yes they can. I grew up in Japan and was fortunate enough to always live in traditional homes. I love them dearly, in fact, and much prefer them to the centrally heated "ovens" so typical of our culture. Perhaps, if I describe a typical winter's day as we lived it in our Japanese house, you'll understand my feelings.

Since we were a motherless family, we always had a Japanese maid to run our residence and raise us children. So my day began when Yukiko-san (her name meant "snowchild") poked her head in my bedroom door (her bedroom too) and gently said, "Shichiui desu yo." ("It's seven o'clock.")

12/28/2008 8:40:06 PM

I haven't tried the kotatsu--though I will if heating costs get any higher--but I have tried the yutampo, sort of. One winter day after I got very chilled, I went to bed and couldn't sleep. My feet had gotten wet in the snow. They were almost painfully cold and wouldn't warm up. Our family are rock collectors, and I had a few prize rocks that I kept sitting on top of the wood stove where they were, right at that moment, quite hot. In desperation, I decided to put a few hot rocks at the foot of the bed next to my feet--no wrappings necessary for the rocks, because I was wearing socks. The effect is heavenly! Luxurious! My feet were warm, and shortly my whole bed was warm. I've been hooked on this version of the yutampo ever since. One of my daughters thought up her own version of this when she went off to college and got her first high-ceilinged, perennially cold apartment: She filled a screw-top bottle with very hot water and put it at the foot of her bed. Neither of us had ever heard of a yutampo, by the way. We just had cold feet and grabbed something hot to put next to them in bed. I don't know about the hot-water bottle, but hot rocks stay warm for hours. If you ever try either version of the yutampo, you will love it--and look forward to it as a winter luxury. It warms your whole body. I think that's because the warmth on your feet warms the blood in your extremities, which then circulates throughout your body. Warmth to your feet also seems to be a natural sedative.

jhonny jonez
10/29/2008 1:32:44 AM

As someone who is familiar with living in Japan, I would like to share a somewhat different point of view. I currently live in Japan on the island of Shikoku. Shikoku`s weather is quite mild in the winter, warmer than the mid-western US. I have lived here for 4 years and I will tell you that winter in Japan sucks! from the end of October the house starts to get uncomfortably cold and you need to start adding the layers and wearing slippers. It steadily gets colder and colder and then starts to warm up a bit towards mid-to late April. As I said, its not particularly cold, but when you are living in an unheated home you truly become aware of the temperature. The inside and outside temps are exactly the same. In the dead of winter you are wearing long johns and a ski cap while you pile under 8 inches of blankets( and your still cold). It is absolutely rediculous!! On many occasion and particularly the first time I saw my breathe inside the house I was speechless. I am all for effciency and the environment, but that is no way to live. Japanese homes are drafty to put it mildly. I have not lived in a home newer than 15-20 years so I cant speak of them. My house and my previous home have free flowing drafts, especially the windows. As the writer of the story and others will tell you, Japanese homes are designed for the heat and humidity of summer. These homes are very uncomfortable in the summer!!! There is basically nothing that is effective against heat and humidity, aside from air conditioning. So for the most part you are not spared the discomfort that the weather brings at any time of the year. But I will say that they are often attractive. I could also let you know that moldy tatami mats can repeatedly ruin your day. So I`m not trying to knock the authors opinion or even suggest rose colored glasses as the basis for her story. I just want to let you know another POV before you hop on over and expect that the futon, kotatsu and ofu

12/3/2007 12:13:55 PM

i'm not gonnz lie. this is really interesting. I especialy took intrest in the part pertaining to the yutampo. It sound really nice. I think i wanna move to japan!

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