I’m no stranger to winter – I grew up in midwestern America, where the temperature could drop down to -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite this, the mild winter in Japan is much worse! It’s a combination of factors: lack of insulation, lack of central heat, and being outside walking in the cold much more often. As a result of the poorly warmed apartments, I develop chilblains every winter on my fingers and toes.
Chilblains are low-level frostbite resulting in exposure to cold (but not freezing) temperatures; basically, it’s an abnormal reaction to the cold. I never had them in America, but every year like clockwork I get them in Japan. My fingers swell and blister, and my toes swell and itch, and sometimes, like now, it’s so bad I can’t fit my feet into half my work shoes. It’s also extraordinarily uncomfortable to try walking and working with hard, swollen, painful red patches over your extremities.
Insulation doesn’t exist in walls in Tokyo. And without central heat, you are forced to resort to your wall A/C unit for all heating and cooling needs – and if you only have one in your living room, your bedroom is freezing. These units are turned off during the day when you’re gone (or else your bill will be around $500) and when you return home in the evening, often times your apartment is colder than the winter outside! This kind of living is what triggers my chilblains, and there’s really no way around it. Both my running and my writing have slowed way down as a result of this discomfort.
I think I must conveniently forget this issue every year once winter is over, because it’s a surprise each time it happens again. My husband has been making a DIY 湯たんぽ (basically a hot water bottle) out of his steel water bottle, and we’re keeping it at our feet in the bed at night. We have a small floor heater for the bedroom, but it fails to regulate temperature like the wall unit does, so two hours of power and the room is a sauna. However, without insulation, you lose all the heat an hour after you turn the heater off! It’s a no-win situation.
This is our last winter in Japan before we leave for good, so at least the end is in sight. I’ll be glad to be back in a place that builds houses to keep the heat (and cool) inside, rather than let it all out! And my poor frostbitten fingers and toes will be glad, too.