I admit that I do not understand and cannot share the Japanese love-affair with the kotatsu. A good number of non-Japanese also come to love the square table with an electric or charcoal heater built in that is covered with a thick quilt. Under it family members tuck their legs. Here they share meals, do homework or watch TV. For many it is revered and romanticized: they couldn’t think of living without it.
I don’t get it.
Here I am on the floor layered in ski underwear over which I have pulled yoga wear, a t-shirt, a turtleneck sweater, a fat down vest and a hanten (a quilted, blanket-like indoor coat made popular in the Edo period) borrowed from my lovely friend Kyoko-san with whom I am staying. I am unable to move for all the stuff I have on—like being trussed up in a sumo fat suit.
In a house that is not insulated or centrally heated, I am tethered like an indoor dog to the one square meter of space (other than the bath and the toilet seat) that is warm. Oh yes, there is also an oscillating electric heater that does a 180-degree arc and pumps hot air into the room. However, any heat it generates heads straight to the ceiling while we are parked on the floor.
Under the heavy quilt the kotatsu’s electric heater bakes my shins until they are itchy with crisp flakes of skin that crumble like a fine croissant. My upper thighs, however, feel the chill. Iced knives pierce my back straight through my clothes to my kidneys, and my spine aches except for that scorching second that the heater’s arc hits.
I struggle to find the romance in this.
Before bed Kyoko-san asks me to turn on the kotatsu in my room upstairs. She sleeps with her legs under it to stay warm—and says she has burned them on the heater coil more than once.
Not a chance. I have other ideas. I flip the quilt back so that the heat can work its way into the 2 x 2.5 meter room. That way it gets up to a toasty 12 or 13 degrees by the time I go up to sleep. Later I build a tent over the futon and kotatsu with numerous furry blankets.
I bury myself like a hamster, fully clothed inside. No pleasure of sleeping naked under these conditions. When I wake my breath hangs like a mist in the room.
Accustomed to central heating, for me evenings at home are times to relax. Time to ease into a chair, enjoy a glass of wine and let the muscles go limp. Here, good Nihonshu (rice wine or sake) notwithstanding, my muscles constantly constrict against the cold and ache. I am always hunched and scrunched, poised on the edge of shivering. I can’t imagine becoming accustomed to living this way all winter long, much less waxing nostalgic about it as many do.
But hey! I love natto (fermented soy beans which most non-Japanese detest). For me there’s nostalgia in a whiff wafting up from the Kyoto sewer grates like one huge natto fart. What can I say? Different strokes for different folks.