Most buildings and houses in Japan do not have central air-conditioning. In summer, the “Cool Biz” campaign in government offices keeps the thermostat at a high 28 degrees Celsius, hotter sometimes than the outdoors where one can at least pray for breeze.
In winter, things get worse. Scurrying from icy corridor to clammy office (thermostats set at 21 to 23 degrees) to freezing toilet can be something of an endurance test, particularly for those of us who are used to the perpetual blanket-warmth of the tropics.
Japanese have devised patchwork solutions to ameliorate this state of affairs. Front halls are partitioned off from living and dining rooms by sliding doors. Toilets (lucky enough to be) equipped with washlets have heated seats. Fluffy pajamas and room wear, lap blankets, leg warmers and socks, even home-use scarves and mittens, are de rigueur at this time of the year. Electric blankets, hot-water bottles, and De’Longhi oil-filled radiators help create pockets of warmth. Energy-efficient Japanese airconditioners cool and heat and regulate the room temperature on demand.
Concerns about carbon monoxide poisoning have resulted in “intelligent” gas heaters that emit beeping sounds to signify that fresh air is needed in the room and shut down automatically if they have been in continual use for more than eight hours.
The hearth of the home can be found in the room–tatami-mat or western-style–that contains the kotatsu. The kotatsu is basically a low table covered by a heavy blanket, with a detachable tabletop over the blanket. In the old days, charcoal braziers were used to heat the table. But by the late 1950s, tables with electric heating sources became widely available.
Nowadays, the addition of electric carpets under the kotatsu has upgraded the level of comfort, making the kotatsu a tropical island amidst the chilly sea. Legs stretched out under the table, blanket wrapped around them, Japanese spend many happy hours reading, sipping tea, chatting, doing their homework, eating, watching TV, and napping. New types of “sofas”–basically large padded carpets surrounded on three sides by cushions–have been designed with the kotatsu as centerpiece, and can even be used for sleeping and as playpens for toddlers.
There is a Japanese word, nukumori (温もり), that best captures the cozy, cocoony warmth and intimacy created by snuggling down or cuddling up under the blanket, whether futon or kotatsu.
Young and middle-aged Japanese couples now use double beds, but the traditional futon–foldable padded mattresses and quilts–is still laid out individually, partners sleeping side by side but separated by a moat of tatami-mat. The act of crossing over into someone else’s futon carries a wealth of meaning beyond the sexual one. For nukumori warmth is expansive: it covers everything from acts of kindness to sense of ease, tranquility, and security, from what feels comfy to what inspires passion and ardor.
Far more than the futon, the kotatsu is about sociability, about the bodily warmth and regenerative spirit of close contact made possible by the gathering of family or friends or lovers. Kobayashi Issa’s haiku “Winter seclusion–/Listening, that evening,/To the rain in the mountain” becomes even more poignant when read aloud on a rainy winter night.