In the world, there are places that drop to fatal temperatures in winter. The ground freezes over, snow falls in crisp white dust. Yokohama, Japan, is not such a place. In fact, it’s an event if it even hits freezing point. Snow is a big maybe, and some species of flowers are just starting to bloom as January winds down.
That does NOT mean it’s not cold.
This is hardly a comparison of culture. There are plenty of places in the States where people suffer through bitter cold, walking long distances bundled up like marshmallows, their breath making white clouds. I, however, was raised in a very car-dependent city, and the necessity of actually FEELING the cold winters for any long period of time was rare.
Central heating is one of the things Japan does not have. That means that in school and at home, each room is heated individually with a stove or a heater/air conditioner. The hallways at school are frigid. I was shocked to see that even in January, the students and teachers sometimes leave windows open. Of course, the halls are hardly any warmer than the outdoors in the first place, but the concept was unbelievable. My host school is nestled in one of the rare areas of forest in Yokohama, and that makes the neighborhood just a fraction chillier than the rest of the city.
The school rules ban wearing scarves or coats during class hours, so we have to make do with our uniforms alone. It’s the skirt that gets to me. I can wear as many layers as I want under my blouse, but my knees are bare regardless. And beside me, who is distracted by dreams of skirts that reach down to my cold ankles, or dare I even wish it, PANTS, there might stand a girl in a skirt that she’s shortened so it doesn’t even fall halfway down her thighs. The horrors of fashion.
But it’s not that the students don’t make an effort to keep warm. Some more sensible girls go to school wearing sweatpants under their skirts (which, unfortunately, my school’s dress code does not agree with). We all wear thick warm overcoats over the layers of our uniforms. All the girls at my school carry around fleece blankets, called hizakake, that are for covering their laps while they sit through their classes. And of course we take full advantage of the heaters, to the point where environmental activists would flinch at our energy consumption.
The contrast between the outdoors and the inside of the trains can sometimes be a bit annoying. You’re shivering one second, and then you squeeze into a particularly crowded train and suddenly wish you didn’t bother with that extra shirt.
I walk about half an hour from the train station to my house. It’s cold at first, but as I walk I start to warm up…somewhat. The people moving past me are all dealing with the cold weather in their own ways. Masks are popular at this time of year. When Americans picture the kind of masks Japanese people use, they might think of SARS in China, or perhaps the bird flu. In fact, people wear masks all flu season here, both to prevent getting others sick and to avoid the nasty viruses themselves. But the masks serve a third purpose: they keep your face warm. There are many who wear a mask every day for the extra covering. I, without a doubt, sound like I only want to complain about the winter weather. But strangely enough, I’m very grateful.
If I hadn’t come to Japan, I would have continued life in my car-enclosed world, and perhaps would have never really realized the feeling of fighting the cold. Back at home, winter was just a matter of enduring until you reached the next heated place. Here, there are far more instances when you just have to accept that it’s cold, that your knees will have to stay bare, and that it’s still the high thirties and forties. I can’t imagine doing this if it was snowy, or below freezing. Even a valuable educational experience wouldn’t be worth THAT.