Saiyuki Kotatsu
Saiyuki Kotatsu

How to Keep Warm, Japanese-Style

The seasons are finally starting to change in Chicago, and warmer weather is on its way. But as those of us who have lived here a while know, we haven’t seen the last of cold weather. Hopefully now that we’ve hit 60 degrees we at least won’t see the negatives again for another year, but there’s no guarantee. There’s no better time than the present to start compiling stay-warm strategies for the next long, harsh winter.

So how do people in Japan fend off the winter winds? In most of Japan, winters are not anywhere near as harsh as in Chicago. In Tokyo, for example, it rarely snows, and the average low is around 41 degrees. Perhaps because of this milder climate, Japanese houses don’t usually have central heating (or central AC). The common practice is to heat people and the room they’re in, not entire houses. This means space heaters, electric hot carpets, electric blankets, and hot water bottles. Layer it up with thermal leggings (now you can buy Uniqlo’s heat tech in Chicago!) and a haramaki (stomach warmer). You can also stick a kairo or two under your clothes (similar to an icy-hot patch), and you should be toasty. Hot tea and hot comfort foods are also essential. Vending machines in Japan serve warm drinks like coffee, tea, and “hot lemon” (great if you feel a cold coming on!), so if you forget your gloves, you can grab a hot can to warm your hands.

In the late fall, convenience stores start serving oden – a dashi-based soup with fish cakes, hard boiled egg, konnyaku, and daikon radish. Fill up your bowl of steaming broth, choose your toppings, and take it to the register. Don’t forget to grab a little packet of horseradish mustard, it tastes great with konnyaku. Oden is a yummy and cheap lunch on a cold day. If you want to recreate the oden experience in Chicago, you can get the ingredients at most Asian grocery stores. Jong Boo Market and Golden Pacific Market carry sets of oden fish cakes, often packaged with a soup base. Nami from Just One Cookbook has a great recipe for oden here.

Sukiyaki in Princess Jellyfish
The cast of Princess Jellyfish making sukiyaki.

Another winter food in Japan is nabe, which is a stew served in a communal clay pot called a donabe and kept warm in the center of the table with a tabletop gas stove. You’ve probably seen groups of friends or family gathered around a nabe meal in anime and manga. Popular nabe recipes are sukiyaki, nabeyaki udon, and shabu-shabu (recently featured at Anime Chicago’s Supper Bowl), and Hokkaido-style ishikari nabe with salmon and miso. You can also experiment with less traditional recipes like kimchi nabe. Soy milk nabe and tomato nabe were also in vogue when I was in Japan. Check out Just One Cookbook, Washoku.Guide, or other Japanese food websites for recipes.

If you want to purchase your own donabe, try online shopping sites, Mitsuwa, or restaurant supply stores like Chicago Food Corp. The tabletop gas stoves can be found at Jong Boo Market or Golden Pacific Market, as well as restaurant supply stores. Donabe are available in different serving sizes, from 1-2 people to 5-6 people. Donabe clay pots require special care before you use them for the first time. See Nami from Just One Cookbook’s tips here for how to take care of your donabe.

Last but not least, the most famous and uniquely Japanese keep-warm trick is the kotatsu. A kotatsu is basically a coffee table with an electric space heater built into the underside of the tabletop, with a quilt (futon) to keep your legs warm. The futon can be removed and stored for the winter, turning the kotatsu into a regular coffee table. Many Japanese families will have a kotatsu as the center of the living room. Kotatsu are also a fixture of winter scenes in anime and manga. Snuggling up under the kotatsu is a great way to stay warm in an otherwise chilly room, but once you slip your legs under the futon you might never want to leave.

Cowboy Bebop at Her Kotatsu
Me and my kotatsu

I was first exposed to kotatsu when I was living with a host family for a month in Minakami, in the mountains of Gunma prefecture, where there’s more snow than in Tokyo. I got sick while I was there and ended up spending 5 days lazing under the kotatsu recuperating and watching 80’s pop music videos. After that, I became hopelessly obsessed with kotatsu and I actually bought my own to stay warm after moving to Chicago. Sometimes you can find 1-2 person square kotatsu for sale at Mitsuwa or on import sites like J-list, but I wanted a larger kotatsu that I could sit under with my roommates or guests, so I decided to go the route of using freight-forwarding site Tenso to import a rectangular kotatsu from a Japanese furniture site. The shipping ended up being significantly more expensive than I had anticipated so I can’t really recommend this route, but my kotatsu has more than paid for itself by keeping me warm during two long Chicago winters.

There’s no escaping the cold here in Chicago, but you can always come up with creative methods to outsmart it. Whether you’re looking to recreate the cozy kotatsu and nabe scenes of winter anime at home, or just trying get through another day in the polar vortex, I hope you can take some inspiration from these keep-warm tricks from Japan.