Keeping Warm in Winter the Japanese Way

I live in a traditional Japanese wooden house with modest insulation.

Engawa is the Japanese version of a veranda/porch which also resembles a sunroom.

It doesn’t snow much here, though winters are fairly cold and nighttime temperatures can dip below freezing.

For me, staying comfortable in winter isn’t as trivial as setting a central heating’s thermostat, which my house doesn’t have anyway. But I manage just fine without it.

Over the centuries, Japanese have learned how to stay warm and comfortable in winters using minimal energy and resources.

I try to put the old wisdom to use, which also helps keep my heating bill low. Below is a short list.

Engawa

Engawa (pictured above) is the Japanese version of a veranda/porch which also resembles a sunroom.

Basically, it is a wide hardwood strip along the edge of the house with sliding windows/doors. It faces south to let in the most winter sunlight.

In winters, windows along the engawa catch the low winter sun and transfer its heat into the adjacent rooms.

In summers, engawa serves as a porch-like veranda. You slide the doors open to let the breeze into the room or sit outside along its edge.

Not surprisingly, the adjacent rooms are the warmest in my house during winter and the coolest in summer.

Engawa is arguably one of the most important elements of Japanese traditional architecture. Japanese movies often include scenes showing the actors sitting on an engawa with the windows open, talking or sipping tea while looking out into the garden.

Kotatsu Table

with a removable table-top, so you can sandwich a big quilt between the table-top and the frame

Kotatsu is a low wooden table with a removable table-top. You can sandwich a big quilt between the table-top and the frame. Almost every home in Japan has one.

My kotatsu is a typical one with a built-in electric heater under the top frame. It has low, medium and a high setting for the really cold nights. On most nights, I’m okay without using the heater.

It’s great for having a meal with legs tucked cozily underneath, using my laptop, watching TV or even taking a nap.

Winter Foods

Seasonal foods are something which I, like most Japanese, look forward to.

stewed in a light, soy-flavored dashi brothThe quintessential Japanese winter dish is “oden”— a simple pot dish stewed in a light, soy-flavored dashi broth.

My favorite oden ingredients are daikons, fishcakes, boiled eggs, atsu-age (deep fried tofu), and konnyaku (konjac).

A hot cup of very low-caffeine green tea (like hoji-cha or genmai-cha) is a wonderful winter nightcap. So is a cup of kuzu-yu, which I sweeten with honey and add things like cinnamon powder, freshly grated ginger or matcha powder.

Slippers

Japanese winter slippers Comfortable winter slippers and a few pairs of warm socks are among my top winter must-haves.

I also keep a few pairs of slippers in my genkan (front entrance) for my guests.

The Old and the New

It is easier to dial a thermostat and heat rooms up, of course. But I would not trade my old winter comforts for a new central heating system.

The age-old routines do more than just keep me warm for a much smaller utility bill. Each offers simple pleasures in its own way, while together they create a way of life, and memories which stay long after winter is gone.

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