This is my 5th time in Japan, yet it is my first time to arrive with a suitcase filled with woollen jumpers, thick socks and gloves. Japan, also known as the land of the rising sun, is often seen as the hot and humid geisha-green-tea-temple-and-sushi-country. To be honest, I am guilty of it myself – a couple of years ago I would have never pictured thermal underwear or winter tyres a necessity here in Japan. But now, as I am sitting here in my cold room and I see the vapour escaping from my nose as I breathe, I will never again doubt this fact: Japan can actually transform into a winter wonderland with temperatures below zero.
The first snow fall in Katashina is during the end of November and the fields will most likely remain covered by a white duvet until May – that is nearly half a year! The ‘snow-assuredness’ makes Katashina a popular ski and snowboard destination offering 6 different ski areas – Marunuma Kogen, Katashina Kogen, Iwakura, Oguna, Hotaka Bokujo and Tokura (you can find an individual blog post about each of these ski parks). Katashina’s pistes are varied for beginners to advanced or freeride skiers and snowboarders. The slopes are known for its thick layers of powdery snow. At the moment there is 180cm of snow, yet February is the month with the highest snowfall. Unlike in Europe, where some people go on skiing holidays only for the après-ski, there is no big drinking after a day of skiing in Japan. They might enjoy a refreshing beer along with their bowl of ramen or curry rice but that is pretty much it.
Various people of Katashina used to ask me about the seasons in Germany or the Netherlands and I realised how the seasonal changes of Japan are often described in great detail. Only now do I understand the importance of the 4 seasons in Japan. Life with its daily rituals have to be altered according to the extreme changes in weather – to the heat and humidity in summer, the large amounts of rainfall during the raining season and the frost in winter.
The many farmers of Katashina have a complete change in lifestyle, as they close their farm during the winter season and work at the ski slopes or at the busy guesthouses.
Japanese houses have thin walls, designed to withstand earthquakes and to stay breezy in summer. Moreover, the houses have little insulation, no double-paned windows and no central heating. However, the Japanese are clever and creative and have adapted to the cold. As central heating is to expensive, homes are filled with space heaters running on oil and electricity to warm up individual rooms where you spend most of the time. Some homes even have a little heater in the toilet! Also, I finally understand and appreciate the existence of the Japanese heated toilet seat!
To save space and furniture most Japanese houses only have a low table where you kneel on the floor. During winter a blanket is put around the edges of the table with a heater blowing hot air underneath it. This genius invention is called ‘kotatsu‘ and many people may even fall asleep under them! A typical Japanese winter image contains the family huddled up under a kotatsu, watching TV and eating ‘mikan‘ (tangerines).
The Japanese traditional ‘onsen’ also makes a lot more sense during these freezing winter months. The hot bath is just a miracle, especially after a long day out on the ski slopes. The hot water relaxes your muscles, warms up your entire body and is also beneficial for your skin. After a visit to the onsen the Japanese like to wrap up, have dinner and then go to bed.
A typical winter dish that warms up body and soul is called ‘nabe‘. This is a hot pot dish like a stew with different ingredients bubbling together in a bit pot on the table. Nabe can include meat, seafood, egg, tofu, mochi (rice cakes) and various vegetables. This dish is also popular among sumo wrestlers to gain strength and weight. To heat you up even more hot sake is the common beverage during winter.
Then when the day comes to an end and it is time to go to sleep, the worst thing is when you have to crawl under an ice cold duvet. The problem is that the bedrooms are often the coldest rooms in the house. However, many Japanese use an electric blanket to either preheat the bed or keep you warm all night long. Yet, I dread the moment when I to get out of my warm and snugly bed at night or the next morning and step into the ice-cold temperatures of my room. But don’t worry – the guest houses and hotels are always kept warm with lots of space heaters around the place!