Thursday, March 5, 2009

Keeping warm during winter in Japan

It is now March and is still snowing here in Akita prefecture. Winter is rather long and too severe in Akita with the temperature staying at sub-zero levels throughout the months of January and February. It seems that Akita prefecture (for that matter almost entire mainland Japan) has a very poor concept of thermal insulation of homes and no concept of central heating, at least not here in the countryside where we live. In fact, when I was working as a researcher in an institute in Tsukuba, one of my Russian colleagues had told me that during the winter season, an average home in Tsukuba is colder than most homes in Russia. After moving to Akita prefecture, I actually realized how true his words were. A few days back I had forgotten to keep the dinner leftovers (soups and gravy) inside the refrigerator in the kitchen. The next day in the morning, the leftovers were frozen solid.
Space heating, rather than central heating, is normal in Japanese homes. Only individual rooms are heated, and not even all the time. They are normally heated only when the room is occupied. The usual and probably the best strategy during winter is to designate one room of the apartment as the 'warm' room and keeping it at a nice warm temperature. However, when I have to go to the kitchen to cook or need to go to the toilet, I have to leave the comfort of the warm toasty room. At that time, it really feels that the body undergoes quenching. A couple of times I got frostnip on my toes while cooking dinner in the kitchen. Being born and brought up in a tropical country like India, I am a total wimp about the cold. This is my second winter in Akita. I Hope I will get used to the cold winters in a couple of years. In fact, recently I started seeing a great benefit of having freezing cold rooms in our home. I have started appreciating the Japanese word gaman, which means endure or tolerate something difficult and unbearable with dignity and grace. Gaman is considered a virtue. Needless to say, I am very poor at gaman. For that matter, my Japanese hubby is also rather poor in his gaman level :)
Japan has developed its own unique way of surviving the winter months. It is normal to heat only those rooms that are occupied by the family members. This is rather efficient as it results in consumption of lesser resources. Kerosene, gas, and electric heating units are commonly used for heating up individual rooms. Homes and apartments are commonly sold and rented without heating (or cooling) equipment. The occupants purchase these appliances themselves. In Akita prefecture, the most common form of heaters is the kerosene heating units. There are three types of kerosene heaters, namely, the pot-belly type, the radiant type, and the fan heaters. The pot-belly heaters are very cheap but are messy and smelly. They are difficult to refill without spilling kerosene everywhere. Radiant heaters are a little better than the pot-belly heater in terms of their design. These heaters still smell quite a bit when they are heating up and cooling down. Fan heaters are the best kind of kerosene heaters, although they are a bit expensive.
We have a portable type kerosene fan heater at our home that sits on the floor, weighs about three-four kilograms, and can be moved around easily. We have to plug it into a wall socket to get it started. It is very convenient to use this type of heater because we have to just push the power button to turn it on. However, it does not turn on immediately. It takes about 30 seconds for a heating coil to warm the kerosene sufficiently to ignite. It also has a thermostat device that regulates the amount of heat. The heater has a computer control of the temperature, and we can adjust the temperature to higher or lower. In short, the heater has many wonderful features like electronic ignition, timers, thermostats, lift-out kerosene tank, carbon monoxide detectors, and an internal fan to blow hot air around. Because there is a fan blowing over the combustion chamber, it burns the fuel more efficiently and most of the kerosene smells with it. In fact, there is almost no smell in our rather new model of the fan heater.
Portable kerosene fan heater

Control panel of the fan heater

Our fan heater is very compact and nice. It has a lift-out tank that holds the kerosene fuel. The tank has to be filled every other day if used regularly. When the tank gets empty, a music alarm starts in the heater.
Location of lift-out kerosene tank in the fan heater

Kerosene tank of the fan heater

We use an 18-liter red plastic jerrycan container to store the kerosene. When the jerrycan gets empty, we take it to the local gas station to fill it up.
Plastic jerrycan container for kerosene

We use a plastic battery powered siphon pump to fill the heater tank with kerosene. The battery pump is designed to turn itself off when the tank is full.
Plastic battery powered siphon pump

The following photo shows the arrangement for filling up the heater tank with kerosene from the jerrycan using a battery operated siphon pump. Every time while removing the pump from the filled tank, either I spill some kerosene on the floor or wind up with some kerosene on my hands :(
Arrangement for filling up the heater tank with kerosene

We have two kerosene fan heaters for two rooms, although most of the times we need to use only one of them. This is because we tend to use only one of our rooms (the warm toasty one) for most of our household activities (living, sleeping, chatting, watching television, eating, etc.) during the whole winter season!
Our two fan heaters

Due to the safety laws, all fan heaters ought to have a built in timer that automatically turns them off after three hours. This prevents carbon monoxide poisoning and prevents the fumes from building up while sleeping at night. A music alarm starts (which is different from the music for empty kerosene tank) and we can press the appropriate button when the time is up. In any case, we have to keep the room well ventilated, as the fan heater uses up quite a bit of oxygen. We need to open the window at least once in an hour or leave it open about one cm all the time. The fan heater also has a safety feature to turn off the fire and cut off the fuel supply when the heater receives a shake, whether from an accident or due to earthquake. Once I accidentally bumped on the heater, and the safety mechanism automatically (and immediately) turned off the heater. This feature is very useful in an earthquake-prone country like Japan.
Another alternative for warming ourselves is by using a traditional type of heater known as a kotatsu. A kotatsu is a low, wooden table frame covered by a futon or heavy blanket, upon which a table top sits. Underneath is a heat source that is often built into the table itself. We have to then sit on the floor and slip our legs under the table with the blanket draped over the lower body. My hubby used to take naps and doze off by slipping most of his body underneath the table. As a result his feet and legs have got many burn marks that were caused by direct contact with the kotatsu heat source. Also, many a time I saw on the local television news that the cause of fire accidents in homes and apartments were almost always the kotatsu. If not careful, kotatsu has been known to start fire. Therefore, even though the kotatsu is very comfortable, I avoid using it.
There is one more alternative for keeping warm. During winter we often have dinner of nabemono, which warms us from inside so that we do not need to warm up the house for several hours.
Hubby and me are gradually getting used to the long severe winters of Akita prefecture. However, now we are eagerly waiting for the arrival of spring season and hanami (cherry blossom) festivities.


loricute said...

hi, my husband is also you he said the temperature is way too cold..he also came from a tropical country..i just have a much does the electric bill cost?

Manisha Kundu-Nagata said...

Thanks loricute for your comment. It is indeed cold here in Akita prefecture.
Well, electricity is required just to operate the fan heater, and only about 200 Yen per month is the electricity bill. But we need to buy kerosene about four times in a month(18 liters jerrycan) which costs about 4500 Yen. So overall, not that expensive.

loricute said...

thank you so much for answering my you know how to speak their language? and another it hard to have an internet connection there? because its very hard to communicate with my husband since he does not have an internet connection..and he's planning to apply for one.

i appreciate you answering my questions.. thank you so much for sharing! god bless you..more power..

Manisha Kundu-Nagata said...

Loricute, I can speak little bit of Japanese. My hubby prefers to communicate with me in English, and that is the reason why I am still not that fluent in Japanese after all these years.
It is rather simple and easy to apply for internet connection here, and I am sure your husband can get one without any problem.
Best wishes.

loricute said...

yeah.. he will be getting one soon..and it cost 6300 yen..well quite expensive though..i know and i can feel you're enjoying your stay there. goodluck..

Runa said...

Spring is here, Cherry Blossom should not be far. Awaiting to read your blog on that.
Here already the little buds have started to appear in the trees.

Manisha Kundu-Nagata said...

Thanks for your comment Runa. Although officially spring season has already begun in Japan, but it is still snowing here in Akita. Hope that snowing will stop soon. And yeah, I am eagerly waiting for the Hanami season.

Cathy Wojcik said...

I want one of those heater. I can't find them in the US. Would your purchase and ship to me. If I send you money to pay the purchase price plus shipping?


i got a lot of information from ur article. i recently got a osaka fan gas heater 3000 (43-659)and i could not fully operate it because
of japanese language written on it . could u help me in this regard. i eill really be very thankful to u.abdul maajid rawalpindi pakistan

Anonymous said...

I have a friend from Kashmir and despite the cold winters there, they don't have central heating. They use kerosene heaters and a traditional heating method called a kangri, which is a basket with hot coals that they keep under their cloaks (and subsequently is associated with a form of cancer from the soot). But I can understand why they don't have central heating. There is no natural gas line infrastructure. But Kashmiris build thick, insulated houses. Japan on the other hand, I just don't understand. They have the infrastructure, technology, and financial means, and they just prefer to suffer in the winter.

Manisha Kundu-Nagata said...

Thank you very much for your comment Anonymous...I heard that the new houses here in Japan have floor (wooden) heating facility. Hot water pipes are used for heating purposes.... Well here culturally, suffering is considered a great virtue and that is why most of the Japanese people 'Gaman' (patience) in cold winters. But my husband is not one to patiently suffer the cold..ha ha ha...