Winter in Japan? Balls, it’s Cold

Wow, is it 2013 already?  When did that happen?  I’m still getting prepared for the world to end on New Year’s 2000 by backing up all my WordStar docs onto 5-1/4″ floppies and stockpiling canned yakitori.  You know, I kind of have this thing about time in Japan, where it always seems to pass faster than in the real world.  Like already it’s been a rough start to the new year, since I showed up at work thinking it was Tuesday, when actually it was Monday.  It doesn’t help that Japanese days all have screwy names.  Moon day, Fire day, Water day—jeez, how’s a brother supposed to keep all that straight?  I blame Google Calendar.

Japanese New Year

So I went to Hokkaido for New Year’s again, and spent it with this friend of mine and her mom, real homey style, doing customary things like eating the giant box of osechi mystery foods and falling asleep on the floor.  Actually, the falling asleep part is more my custom than a Japanese one, but after all that food and a couple big glasses of sake, hey, is it my fault I missed the countdown at midnight?  Apparently, it is.   Anyway, there are only two places in Japan that are warm in the winter—Okinawa and Hokkaido.

Okinawa is like Hawaii, all blue seas and palm trees and stuff, while Hokkaido has mountains of snow higher than your head.  Like it’s eerie walking the streets because sometimes you can’t see the cars from the sidewalk, the snowbanks are so high.  Near the station they’ve got long red and white poles sticking way out of the ground, so you know where the sidewalk is supposed to be.  Nobody wants you wandering off in a blizzard and getting eaten by a polar bear or something.  Anyway, you’d think it’d be really cold.  Ah, but you’d be wrong.  See, where homes in Tokyo are constructed with doghouse-like sturdiness, Hokkaido has actually chosen to make buildings out of something other than single-pane windows and saltines.  So as long as you’re inside, it’s warm, unlike my apartment, which was 9 degrees Celsius when I woke up this morning.  I don’t know what that is in actual degrees, but it’s freaking damned cold, I can tell you that.  You know how Japanese people go to hot springs all the time?  That’s because the only way to keep warm is by staying underwater.  Like maybe you could breathe through a bamboo reed or something.  I spend a solid hour in the bathtub like that every night, then jump out and throw on a hoodie and socks and crawl into my futon, since unless I blast the heater constantly, the room reverts to the outside air temperature.  Forget getting up to pee.  There was ice on my door again this morning, on the inside.  That’s crazy.  It’s like living in a snow cave.  I gotta say, don’t move to Japan if you don’t like winter, a lot.

The Zoo in Winter:  This is a Good Idea?

So Hokkaido, anyway.  We went to this world-famous zoo.  If you want to see a bunch of seriously cold animals, this is the place for you.  The highlight was the lesser panda, which looks a big panda, only much smaller.  Actually, he looks like a little teddy bear.  A really freaking cold little teddy bear freezing to death in the snow, but he’s still cute.  Oh, and the penguin parade, which is when all these penguins get together and walk through the snow.  I guess that’s kind of what it sounds like.  Japanese people lose their minds for this sort of thing.  Everyone was so busy snapping pictures with their smartphones, I’d be surprised if they saw penguin one.  Probably the best part of the day for me was lunch, where we actually got to sit inside and eat hot food.  I really like that.  Hokkaido has excellent curry, extra spicy and a bit sweet.  It came with these terrifying fried shrimp with big-ass eyes that stared at me while I ate them.  Maybe that part wasn’t so great, but anyway the curry was delicious.

And later we went to the conveyor-belt sushi place and ate a pile of crab and scallops, which are really good because the ocean’s so cold, or so I choose to believe.  And then we went to the top of this pretty tall building and looked at tiny Sapporo down below and drank Sapporo beer.  Then we came home and drank Asahi beer, which tastes exactly like Sapporo beer, only in a different can.  Japan is fascinating in its diversity.

Well, I’m at work today, which is almost bearably warm if I wear a scarf and type with fingerless gloves, but since the day’s almost done, I guess it’s back to the freezing space capsule once again.  Hope you’re all having a great winter this new year, wherever you are.  Hopefully somewhere warmer than Japan.

37 Replies to “Winter in Japan? Balls, it’s Cold”

  1. Wait, Japan has four seasons? I was told that only Korea has four seasons. Somebody somewhere in Asia is a liar… Either way though, I’m in California for the Korean winter. Homeboy doesn’t play well with cold weather.

    1. Say wha? Every Japanese person knows this is the only country with four true seasons. That’s just common knowledge. You’ve probably mistaken a very cold autumn for winter, or a rainy summer for spring, or something like that. We’re also the only country that uses chopsticks, eats raw fish, and has a complex language white people can’t speak. Something to do with the shape of my skull, I’ve been told. At least, I think that’s what they said, since I apparently can’t understand anything. Whatever. I’m just jealous you’re in Cali, where it’s summer all winter. That does it—next Christmas, San Diego.

        1. Ah, how I miss Southern California. It’s like summer every day of the year, at least once the fog burns off. I don’t think we’ll see 64 here for another 2 or 3 months!

      1. Best way to counter that rather silly but often-heard statement is to ask why there are names for the 4 seasons in every major language and not just in Japanese.

  2. Well, I suppose you don’t want to come to Sweden then; we had -26°C a couple of weeks ago! My eyelashes were ice coated. But at least we know how to keep the cold outside, something the Japanese apparently don’t know much about…

    1. So you actually use the negative numbers on the thermometer? I thought those were just for show. I heard that scientists had discovered a temperature below absolute zero, but I didn’t know it was in Sweden. How do you hang out your futons when it’s that cold?

  3. Winter? At this time of the year? It’s over 40°C here, all the way in Straya, mate. Or at least it was earlier. Either way, I’ve been melting all day long, and now I’m sitting here at 11.30PM in boxer shorts with every window in the house open trying to cool down just a tiny bit as the southerlies finally hit.

    God I wish I was in Japan.

    1. You know, they say be careful what you wish for. Well, actually, I say that, but the point still stands. I’d advise enjoying your shrimp on the barbie and oil can-sized beers for another three months, then heading over here when the sakura start to bloom. PS, don’t forget to put on pants.

  4. Happy New Year!

    Actually, no, Okinawa is not hot/warm in winter! And blue ocean and all? Nope.
    I spent my winter vacation on Okinawa and we had the worst weather EVER! Not only that, but as the waves were so high and the wind was so strong, our ferry got cancelled. After that we spent a whole day at the airport trying to figure out how to reschedule things. As it was “nenmatsu” there were no flights available anymore and it all was a lot of chaos ….

    It was cloudy, stormy and rainy almost all of the time. Instead of the expected 20°C+ we had around 15°C which felt like 10°C due to the stupid weather.

    Hokkaido would have been the better choice, I guess, but at least I can now proudly say that I’ve been to all 47 prefectures in Japan.

    1. All 47? Crikey, are you selling Avon? I haven’t even been to all 50 U.S. states, although, granted, it is a slightly larger country.

      Yeah, seriously, Hokkaido is a good place for a winter vacation. I was in short sleeves indoors half of the time. Too bad about the weather in Okinawa. Probably due to the ozone layer or ice sheets melting or something. Anyway, I’m pretty sure it’s Al Gore’s fault.

  5. It seems the Japanese custom to counter the cold room is to say “Samuuuuuui” a few time on entrance.

    When I complain about the cold in the “saltine” walled rooms, They always say to me,
    “You are from Chicago… Why are you cold?”
    Then I need to explain how it is extremely cold in Chicago but I don’t go camping in it. And we use cool English terms like and “Room Temperature” and “Blast the heat”!

    1. That’s hilarious. Trying to explain “room temperature” to Japanese people is like trying to explain infinity to cats. They look at you like they’re listening, but you know secretly they’re thinking of fish. Actually, Japanese people probably think about fish even more than cats do. Whatever. Where was I? I’m so cold I can’t even concentrate. Oh yeah, so I was in a classroom yesterday and the doors and windows were wide open. I was like, you do realize it’s below freezing and you’re risking the life of the class hamster. The kids just looked at me with wonder and said, “Sensei, samui?” Jeez, this country, sometimes.

  6. Well it’s three weeks until I land in Nagoya to do the whole teaching thing and here in Australia we are having a once everyone 20-30 year heatwave. 42c the other day (107.6f in gun toting invasion monkey measurement. The weather bureau had to come up with new colours on the heat map (that isn’t even a joke )

    So cold news is good news.
    Happy New Year, Ken.

    1. Congrats on getting a job here. I spent a night in Nagoya once, on the way from Tokyo to Kyoto. At least, I think it was Nagoya. We went out and had a pile of beers at some darts bar. It seemed like a nice city, anyway, wherever that was.

      I’m sure you’ll be glad to escape the Australian heat wave, at least for a week or two. Better buy some long underwear when you get here though. Happy new year to you as well!

  7. You could always do what I did when I forgot to pay a couple bills when I was working a gig in Alaska…pretend that you’re stuck on Hoth and hope you don’t die.

    1. That…sounds…horrible. If they turned off my electricity I’d be dead within minutes. I admire your mountain man-like survival skills. I’d have to make a run for the nearest internet cafe, although I guess they don’t have many of those in Alaska.

      1. Hey, just download the boyscout books and you’re pretty much good. The ALT thing is a hell of a lot more cruise than me being a contractor and getting shot at sometimes…

        1. So after I downloaded them, I was supposed to set them on fire and stay warm, right? I hope that was right.

          Yeah, on the Job-O-Meter, being an ALT registers somewhere between Chill and Comatose. And bonus! Your chances of being shot are extremely low, as opposed to working in an American school.

    1. Outside, sure, but inside? Like I’m wearing a parka just to watch TV. Okay though, there’s no denying I’ve rather pussed out lately, ever since I got my tongue frozen to that can of malt liquor. Gotta defrost those things first, is what I’ve learned.

      Yeah, canned yakitori, it’s a thing. A horrible thing, but a thing for sure. The key to stockpiling is not to keep stacks of delicious stuff on hand, because rather than being emergency rations, they become emergency snacks. And Ken Seeroi be lovin him some emergency snacks.

  8. Gosh, what a great post but I couldn’t imagine myself going to Hokkaiko at that time of the year. I went in the summer and it was nice and cool (a bit cold though).

    Hey there! I have my own blog which focuses on Asian culture and entertainment such as video games and I wonder if it is possible for you to view it and tell me what you think:

  9. Currently freezing my ass off at work, before returning home tonight to freeze my ass off there. When I tell people back home that Japanese homes are neither insulated or centrally heated, they’re dumbfounded. Actually half of them think Japan is somewhere in the tropics and that we don’t need any heating, but I try not to talk to them too much.

    I suffered horribly last winter (my first winter here), but after fashioning my computer desk into a ghetto kotatsu this year I now have at least three places in my apartment that are bearable. Being that my girlfriend literally lives under the actual kotatsu, that leaves me with two choices of location–my desk or the shower! My life has significantly improved. I’d use the apartment heater but it costs like two man per month and the heat is gone the second you turn the thing off because the walls are like two inches thick.

    It doesn’t even actually get very cold here (I’m in Gunma-ken, about 100km from Tokyo–it’s okay if you haven’t heard of it), but when your apartment never gets more than a few degrees above ambient the 50 degree window-down open-jacket weather from back home turns into I’m-not-taking-this-coat-off-ever-except-maybe-to-shower kind of weather (which I didn’t even know existed).

    I don’t even know how I found this blog or why I’m telling you it’s damned cold in Japan in the middle of your blog post about how it’s damned cold in Japan, but I think it probably has something to do with the fact that it actually acknowledges how fucking weird it is in this country.

    I thought maybe I’d make some white friends in my area but it seems every single one of them is absolutely infatuated with everything Japanese. I mean, it can be a cool place, but you can be damned sure I’m taking the trash to the curb in my house slippers when the girlfriend isn’t looking. And also, fuck you parking-lot-man, I can clearly see the family in the crosswalk. “And also” is dangerous, because sometimes I get carried away. So only one “And also”. But I really hate the parking-lot-dudes. Like … it’s irrational how much I hate them in their stupid little outfits and their glowing wands and overblown gestures. Part of Japan’s whole treating everyone like a child thing… Never mind, I said there’d be one “And also” and I sort of meant it.

    Anyway, everything you read or hear about Japan comes from kids who taught themselves (bad) Japanese so they could sub One Piece while wearing their mail-order kimono and eat their instant ramen with actual chopsticks. Like Japan is some sort of cultural-material Mecca and they’re either wallowing in their angst about wanting to start their hajj, or else they’ve successfully made it over and they can’t stop gushing about how wonderful everything is.

    I enjoy reading not-that, so thank you for not-that.

    1. Yeah, I’ve actually been to Gunma in the winter, and I must say, I’m impressed you’re even still alive. Freaking ridiculously cold there.

      About white people, I think that’s one of the challenges of living in this country. Friendships in general don’t come so easily here, with either Japanese or foreign people. It’s rare that I meet someone I can just feel normal around. Foreigners come here in boatloads, enamored with Japan, and five years later the few who remain are slumped over the counter of an Irish bar complaining about everything. For that reason, I’ve decided to only hang out with people who’ve been here two to four years. After that, sorry, I have to turn you in and get new friends. Gotta have some standards, after all.

      1. With the cold I guess it just depends on your point of reference. I grew up in the NE and spent the year before moving to Japan in a tent in Africa (not kidding), so I was fairly accustomed to living with whatever nature decided to throw at me. But something about being -inside your own damned apartment- makes single-digit temperatures unbearable. I go outside and I’m like “ah, nice day” while inside I’m freezing.

        As to friends, I actually have a fairly easy time of it because all the girlfriend’s friends are by extension my friends. The only problem with that is the girlfriend is still in (an all-girl) school and all her friends are in their very-early twenties. Which would be ridiculously awesome, if I were single. But I’m not. So we go to parties and every single fucking thing I do is かっこいい‘ and I just keep drinking until it’s all relatively pleasant. But I sure as hell can’t relate to the lot of them.

        But on the other hand, were I single, I’d almost certainly die of irresponsibility. I don’t even keep my own debit card anymore.

        1. Yeah, it’s funny. I used to do a lot of back country skiing and winter camping. The cold never bothered me. But it’s another thing entirely to spend several months in freezing weather, especially inside your own apartment. Who wants to live in an igloo?

          Ah yeah, having a girlfriend takes care of basically all problems in Japan, except for the problem that you’ve got a girlfriend. But on the real, being in a relationship with a Japanese person changes your relationship with the entire country. People treat you much differently than they do when you’re by yourself.

  10. Re-reading some of your awesome writings now, and I have to say that I’m not looking forward to winter coming. We don’t really get below 5 degrees (if that) where I’m from, and I’m definitely a summer person.

    Interesting that you wrote about Hokkaido being awesome in winter! I’m planning a trip to Sapporo to go to the ice festival in February next year – anything you recommend? 🙂

  11. I live in canada where it goes down to -40 Celsius hahahah. Summer here is a 10°C if ur lucky. The only months that it gets to 20°C is June/July then the cycle begins

  12. Speaking of cold, I just received word from the JET Program that I will be placed in Akita prefecture. I’m from California, so winter’s a foreign concept to me, and I imagine it gets quite nippy up there (no racist pun intended). Anyway, have you ever been up that way, Ken? If you have, are the “Akita bijin” all they’e cracked up to be? Can you offer any advice on living up in rural Tohoku, weather-related or otherwise?

    1. Advice? Always work with a partner when shoveling snow off the roofs of farmhouses. Anyway that’s what the media says, since every year some geezer pitches thirty feet into a snowbank and dies.

      Seriously though, wow. I’ve never been up there, but it sounds amazing. Like, it’ll probably be great for about a week. My guess is you’ll get good at skiing, snowboarding, making snow angels, constructing igloos, snowball fights, snowmen, and anything else you can do with snow.

      On the plus side, you’ll undoubtedly see a side of Japan few others have seen. And if Hokkaido (where I’ve spent time) is any indication, you’ll be inside buildings that are actually insulated, unlike the rest of Japan. So while people are freezing their asses off down in Kyushu, you’ll be cozy warm—so long as you stay indoors.

    2. I’ve only really spent time in the bigger cities and the ski resorts…but in general I’m a big fan of Tohoku, and as Ken pointed out, those areas actually know how to deal with snow and the cold, so could be a great time.

      As for the whole Akita Bijin thing…well I think it’s been pointed out in other articles, the media and a lot of Japanese love to do the whole categorizing thing and pointing out differences between different prefectures and different groups. I’ve seen shows that even do ridiculous explanations about how different groups immigrated from different parts of Korea and China. I dunno, it’s like asking would you think girls from Arizona are all that different from girls from SoCal? If you really want to, you could probably find a reason to say both yes and no.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *