It can be done for a price
We wrote a guide to staying cool in the summer a while back, and given how cold it has been this year thought a winter version might be timely.
I wasn't shocked per se when winter arrived in my first year in Japan (mainly because I had already survived a winter in a freezing student dorm with no heating in Qingdao) but it wasn't pleasant.
Sendai is apparently the furthest north you can get without decent house construction -go any further north and the homes are built for warmth. Sadly the ones here largely aren't.
It's a common situation in Japan, particularly in the rental market. Newer homes tend to be insulated and some of them are even airtight. Rental apartments and manshon, not so much.
Dealing with the cold seems to be a pressing concern too, as there seem to be hundreds of articles on the subject online. I'm not going to link to any as I couldn't find any outstanding ones, but if you search for 'winter in Japan' or 'staying warm in Japan' you'll get a lot of hits.
So here is the RetireJapan Guide to Staying Warm in Japan in the Winter. Hopefully some of the suggestions will be helpful. We're going to focus on keeping your home warm, as I'm hoping most people are familiar with the concepts of warm clothes, layers, hokkairo, heat tech, etc.
1. Live in a warm home
If you buy a house, pay a bit more for decent insulation and air-tightness. Don't forget ventilation, preferably heat-exchange mechanical. You'll probably save money over the long-term.
If you are renting, look for a newer place. Recently I've been seeing new apartment buildings in Sendai going up with double- or triple-glazing, insulated front doors, and other fanciness.
2. Make your home warmer
If you failed to achieve 1. above, or it isn't an option, you can try to make your current home warmer. If you own your place you could try something like the project we did last year. If not, these are some temporary fixes we've found good in the past:
- Bubble wrap (or similar) over all windows
This looks horrible but works quite well, and is cheap
- Heavy curtains over windows
Combined with the bubble wrap, makes a big difference
- Plastic sheeting or curtains over the front door
Hang two or three sheets (like a supermarket meat locker) to make it easier to get in and out
- Close all interior doors at all times
Only heat the spaces you use
- Window heaters
You can buy specialized electric window heaters (they are long and thin) which counteract the cold windows somewhat
3. Heat your home
Once you have insulated your home you can then try to heat it. Remember that the insulation will make a huge difference, so it is worth spending some time and money on getting it as good as you can.
The cheapest/quickest way to heat your home is probably with a kerosene heater. You can get electric fan ones or the stove type. The latter is great during earthquakes, as they work even when the power is out (we discovered this on 3/11). However, you have to be careful with fumes and I hate buying, storing, and refilling kerosene.
The best kerosene heaters are the ones that are fixed in place and run off an exterior tank, venting most of the fumes, but even those produce some fumes and you need the kerosene truck guy to come round every so often and fill you up.
You can use your A/C unit to heat a room, but it tends to dry the air. Unless you also humidify it will not feel very warm. Make sure it is clean as dust and dirt will reduce the efficiency and make it use more power for less effect.
My favorite way to heat is electric oil heaters like the one in the picture above. No smell, no dry air, but can be expensive and aren't as powerful as other options. If you are able to insulate the room somewhat though, they are probably the most comfortable option. Anything other than basic models also come with timers.
4. Heat yourself
If you can't heat your home effectively or economically, you can focus on heating yourself.
I don't own a kotatsu, but I used to and they are a relatively effective way to heat a small part of your home and can be very cost-effective.
Hot water bottles and similar devices (my wife has hot water slippers!) are also cheap and effective. There is possibly nothing nicer than a hot water bottle in a freezing bed.
Electric blankets and carpets, futon dryers, and microwaveable pillows can all make life more pleasant too.
Having a hot bath is great, particularly if there are several of you to share the water Japanese style (less wasteful that way).
Personally I think food and comfort are two areas where it is okay to spend a bit more to improve your quality of life, so I don't mind paying more to have a warm home. Makes a huge difference when you get home after a long day.
Anything else? How do you keep warm in the winter? Have we missed anything?