Archive: Life in a cold climate

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Kinkakuji, Kyoto, in winter

Kinkakuji in Kyoto: pretty, but impractical in winter

I am not good with the cold. I am frileuse, a samugariya, the one who turns blue come December and doesn’t thaw out until spring. I am, conversely, well adapted for tropical heat. While others sweat and swear, I revel in the comforting soupy warmth and thrill to the knowledge that it’s going to be like this all year.

Japan had a sting in its tail there – arriving in sweat-soaked August I could never have imagined that in four months’ time the palm trees would be heavy with snow. My apartment, replete with charming tatami mat floors and paper-thin sliding doors, proved impossible to heat; having established that my kerosene heater made me see things that weren’t there, I resolved to pass the time wedged under my kotatsu, a heated-table contraption designed for someone a foot shorter than me.

Work was no warmer. The teacher’s room was, in theory, heated – more of those kerosene burners – but as an infrequent visitor I was usually assigned the draftiest desk in the room. I kept warm by drinking umpteen cups of coffee, and, in the few schools where one was available, sneaking off to use the heated loo. The classrooms froze your breath; the students devoted all their energy to fidgeting and looking forlorn; the teachers paced frantically back and fore in an effort not to freeze. Very little was learned.

Mystified as to the logic behind the icebox approach, I asked around. Older teachers spoke of the need to imbue children with the spirit of gaman, of perseverance. Younger teachers alluded darkly to funding issues, took me on a tour of the more impressive cracks in the school walls. All expressed polite amazement at how well looked after we British were – “but then, you are a rich country!” Relatively speaking, no, but…

From here on December 11th 2008.