In a bitter cold, warmth of all kinds
I WAS sitting in my favorite sushi shop slurping miso soup in early December when the owner of the small restaurant knelt beside my table. He told me he and his wife had been looking at my car tires in the parking lot. They had decided that my tires were too worn to suffice for the wintertime and that I needed new snow tires.
Kanazawa-san was not the first person to remark on my old, tattered tires. In this small Japanese mountain town, people look out for a resident American. The vice principal of the school where I teach English had looked at my tires a few weeks earlier and said I was "in danger of terrible messes."
"Yes, I will get new tires, but I must wait until January, when I get my next paycheck," I told the shop owner, mentally noting that snow tires here cost the equivalent of about $500.
"No no, my wife and I would like to give you some secondhand snow tires ... a present, of course!" he hastily replied.
I refused and refused, and then found myself outside the restaurant, tummy full of soup and sushi, loading Kanazawa-san's tires into my trunk.
"Everyone needs to defend to the wintertime here in Japan, even gaijin [foreigners]!" he said with a bright smile as I laughed, closed the trunk, and bowed repeatedly, low and heartily.
This town's budget has no money to spare for snowplowing operations, and I am now kept safe on the road by my friend's tires. Winter in Japan serves as a reminder of the human tendency toward benevolence and codependency.
The absence of snowplows isn't the only thing that brings people together to "defend to the wintertime." Here in Miyagi-ken, a cold northeastern region of Japan, our heat comes from an array of sources. We have kerosene heaters, tables with removable tops that heat up when plugged in, hot patches we stick onto clothing.... We have an array of heat sources, just none that are "central."
In the country that gave us Toyota, Sony, and sushi, I wake up to frozen toothpaste and the thought that something went drastically awry with provision of cold-weather comforts. Wintertime here calls into doubt the stature of this nation as technological superstar. With technology lacking, human closeness becomes the substitute.
The kerosene heater is the predominant source of heat for the greater population of wintertime Japan. We need only fill this small rectangular heater with kerosene two or three times a week from the orange drum we purchase at our local gas station for the equivalent of $8. The sliding Fusuma doors (made of rice paper and wood) that enchant so many Westerners for their aesthetic effect, are the difference between warmth and misery in the Japanese winter.
We close these doors to seal off the room where the kerosene heater is blasting its fumey heat. The heat must be contained if it is to be effective.
The containment of heat inevitably leads to the containment of people. When I go to my friend Aya's house, she, her husband, her parents, and her three children are all in the kitchen and living-room area. The children play, scream, and complain, and the adults are in the same space to play and scream right along with them. There is a togetherness, and it all started around December when this large room became the only heated room in the house.
The most creative source of heat here is the kotatsu. The kotatsu, a wonder in itself, is a low table whose top lifts off to reveal a heating system within. A blanket is laid between the tabletop and the table legs, and draped around the sides so that the kotatsu looks like a tabletop levitating over a heavy blanket.
We position ourselves, legs and lower mid-section underneath this contraption, and within five minutes of pressing the "on" button, our bodies, from toes to belly button, are snug and warm. From our belly buttons up, layers of clothing, notably polyester fleece, are highly recommended.
Here, many things center around the kotatsu: eating dinner, talking on the phone, reading books, and watching television. When we go to a friend's house to eat or talk, we all gather under the small kotatsu, the cold again leaving us no choice but to stick closely together. Even in this formal and sometimes aloof place, we gather under the warm table and sometimes even touch toes in the quest for warmth.
Other heating alternatives are less restrictive of mobility. We have hot patches that skiers use in the Western world. We stick these onto clothing to heat up parts of the body. These hot patches are usually placed in the small of the back, on tummies, or inside shoes.
On one extremely cold day, my tiny, bright-eyed colleague Eriko-sensei warmed my heart when she gave me one of these hot patches and said, "Please take it. We are in this big cold together."
I ASK fellow teachers how it is possible that the same country responsible for technological advances that have changed man's relationship with machine - the same country that has made video cameras that can sit comfortably in the palm of one's hand - inherits the characteristics of a slightly undeveloped nation come the end of autumn.
In response, they gaze deep into my eyes with pity and say with fervor the single most popular phrase in this town post-November: "Hai, Samui desu ne?" ("Yes, cold, isn't it?")
Only one person has given me some indirect rationale for the local lack of central heating (except in hotels). It was the school principal who said, "Japanese technology is for foreign countries. We make technology, and we export it."
To any gaijin with a Sony camera, Japan is the technological wonder that has given us the digital camcorder. But from the perspective of our apartments and these snowy roads, wintertime Japan is a place kept safe by someone else's snow tires, and heated by kerosene and kotatsus.
Wintertime technology has some substitutes here in Japan that really help keep a local safe and warm: the generosity of a sushi chef, human closeness underneath a warm table, and a universal sentiment that "we are in this big cold together."