Living in Japan for two years was a culture shock for me, especially when it came to the cold winters! Coming from San Diego, I was only used to a two season weather pattern. Japan was the first time I experienced living with snow. Sounds funny and silly, but the day that it snowed, the only transportation that I had to get to work was a bike and the roads were too slippery for me. I called the taxi company and it was an hour wait to get to school. I called in to tell them my predicament and they understood. By the time I got to school, they had cancelled it. I was RAGING MAD! My cab cost me 2,100 yen which was roughly 25 dollars or so. Luckily, a teacher felt really bad and gave me a ride home.
So, what is the winter like in Japan? Can’t talk about Japan without talking about a KOTATSU! The Kotatsu is not a Japanese tractor, sounds like one though. The Kotatsu is a table that has a heater attached to the underside of the table. The Kotatsu is purposely lower to the ground for a reason. On top of the table part of the kotatsu, you place a huge and puffy blanket. There is another table piece to put on top of the blanket to keep it secure. What happens next? You put your feet under the blanket and VOILA, your feet become TOASTY WARM! Families, and friends all come together to keep warm. Typically in a lot of older apartments and houses in Japan, there is no central heating or air conditioning. Most of the houses have sliding doors. So the living space may have a wall unit heater/air con. You slide all the doors shut to the living space and turn on the heater and snuggle your feet into the kotatsu. The kotatsu is a very communal part of the household during the winter. It dictates people’s behaviors. For example, the family or friends gravitate towards the kotatsus, pop their feet in and start talking about their day, upcoming events etc. It forces the family to be together and to talk. Most times the kotatsu will be in front of the television. The family pet will also go and sneak under the covers for warmth. Yes, it could be potentially dangerous for the pet, but they are willing to take the risk.
Also, many families will eat their breakfast, lunch or dinner while using the kotatsu. The kotatsu is a table, so mom usually will bring all the fixings to the table and out come the chopsticks! I have used the kotatsu in the United States. My mom, who is a native Japanese brought this lovely tradition to our household. The table was too small for my tall father, but my weiner dog managed to wedge his way in there.
The other thing that Japanese do to keep warm is to use kerosene heaters. This can be very dangerous for the Japanese household. If I was to research statistics on how many houses and apartments have burned down, the numbers would be pretty high. You buy the kerosene at a local store like Joyful Yamashin. The Kerosene stoves are pretty easy to use, but you must be cautious when using them. It is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED that you open up a window when using a kerosene stove.
The other thing that I want to mention about the kotatsu and the winter time in Japan is the nabe. Because the kotatsu is a table, many people will bring out the nabe from storage and cook on top of the kotatsu. The nabe is a cooking pot that cooks meat and fish stews in Japan. Almost every Japanese household has a nabe. The nabe makes its debut during the winter time and is very festive. If you go to the local grocery store, the seasonal vegetables and meats will be on display. In some cases, there are songs that are playing to honor mushrooms and fish (the kino ko ko ko song for mushrooms and the sakana song for fish). Here is a youtube clip that I found: SAKANA SONG KINOKO SONG
Let me tell you, those songs that play right by the displays have the tendency to stick in your head! SCARY! If you have lived in Japan, you know what I am talking about. The nabe also is a great entertaining cooking pot. A lot of times Japanese people will bust out the nabe if foreigners come to visit. It shows a very intimate side of the Japanese people. You sit around together and talk while throwing in fresh ingredients to a pot that everyone is sharing. The aesthetics involved with the nabe are truly beautiful and should be appreciated. Nabe is a special and festive meal, so pride and care goes into the selection of what goes into the nabe. For example, I have always had nabe with fine meats that have beautiful marbling and color and are extremely fresh. The vegetables that go in are almost 99% locally grown which means that they are fresh and are in season. As you cook, the smell of mirin, shoyu, and a fish or meat broth starts to aerate the room with a comforting smell. You know you are going to eat well!
Picture of a Nabe
Other times that I have experienced nabe is at a ryokan or a fancy hotel. A ryokan is a Japanese style inn. If you truly want the real Japanese experience, you must stay in a ryokan. This means that you sleep on the floor on a futon with a Japanese style pillow (makura). It also means that you will sport the Japanese robe with a sash. When in Japan, do as the Japanese do! At a traditional and nicer ryokan, a meal is usually included. If you chose a really good ryokan, then you may even get the fancy kaiseki. Kaiseki is a multi-course dinner that is either served all at once or in intervals and deliveries. The beauty, skill and time that goes into the preparation of kaiseki is awe-inspiring. There are generations of familes and Japanese people who have been perfecting and studying the art of traditional Japanese food. The people that make kaiseki have an eye for detail. Everything is considered when making the meal from using plants to create decorations, choosing dishes to match the season or the occasion, and even hanging a scroll in your room that delivers a haiku for the season. It doesn’t stop there. They use the best quality ingredients of the area or even fly out the product from famous parts in Japan. Everything that you eat, talk about and consume is festive and decorative and DELICIOUS! Even if you were in a fight or had nothing to talk about, the food and the decor creates an impressionable moment. The food is a medium for conversation. It’s overwhelming, but beautiful.
Here is a photo of my grandmother, mom and me enjoying kaiseki in Hokkaido!
My last trip to Japan allowed for me to really see the details and meticulous culture of food in Japan. Here are some photos of kaiseki that we experienced in Hokkaido.
Pay attention to all the dishes, the colors, the decorations and how they place everything on the table. You can see the mini nabes in one of the photos.
If you are interested in buying a kotatsu, or a nabe, you can go to your local Japanese markets such as Marukai, Nijiya and Mitsuwa. If you do not have any local Japanese markets, you can probably go online and find the closest place to purchase one. I’m sure that you can also purchase these items online. If you want to indulge in kaiseki, you can find some great Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles on Sawtelle street, or Little Tokyo. If worse comes to worse, befriend a Japanese person! Here are some links to some great Japanese places!