Thermal shock

It all comes back to the weather eventually, doesn’t it?

It’s been cold here lately. I should clarify that. A range of 5-12°C isn’t cold relative to what we were used to in Saskatchewan.

Oh, before I continue: this is a rant. Read the disclaimer, especially if you are Japanese, or think that I universally hate Japan and Japanese people, or if you’re curious about why I would need a disclaimer before talking about the weather.


There are generalizations about Japan and Japanese people in this blog. Especially in this entry, which is coloured by culture shock, temperature shock, long days of sitting in an unventilated kerosene-heated office, and other factors too numerous to mention outside of their own weblog entry. I find a lot of things about Japan mystifying. In a bad way. This is magnified by the fact that I have been outside of the country for a total of 10 days in the last 18 months. And there was a natural disaster in the other country while I was there. The generalizations are not meant to offend, in the same way that octogenerians at the grocery store pointing at Lia and yelling “Gaijin da!” (Look, a foreigner!) every stinking day don’t mean to offend. This is ridicule, satire and sarcasm, not invective. There are still a lot of things I absolutely love about this country. If it helps, wrap a towel around your head or try to keep in mind that I grew up reading Kurt Vonnegut and listening to Monty Python. Yes, listening. On vinyl. Technology advances, but try telling that to the Japanese construction industry. Eeek! The rant is seeping into the disclaimer. Time to bail.

With that out of the way, we now return you to your regularly scheduled misery… er, programming

The big difference between Japanese and Canadian homes in the winter is that Canadians believe in insulation, central heating, and in the absence of the latter, large breaker boxes. Not so in Japan. At least not in these parts. It might be because we live in a subsidized teachers’ apartment that was built in an era of different building standards, but aside from shinier facades most newer buildings share the same “features”. I’d guess our apartment block—and I mean block literally—was built (assembled, poured-in-place) in the 1950s, inspired by Russian city planners. The building is a 4-storey smog-stained concrete block with a few asymmetrical protrusions. There is no elevator, which isn’t much of a surprise, nor is it terribly inconvenient, and the doors to each apartment are painted with an off-pink paint that is struggling in its battle against corrosion. For those of you familiar with Douglas Adams’ work, think of a small Vogon Constructor Ship on the verge of dereliction that’s flown through the Bladerunner universe a few times and then been abandoned outside Prague: blocky, hideous,the colour of a moldy sidewalk, but not at all out of place.

I digress. Cold. 5 degrees isn’t really that cold. Especially for anyone who’s cycled through more than one Saskatchewan winter. On an abstract level it’s not even the fact that it’s a “wet cold”—humidity is pretty high here year-round. And I survived the cold + humidity equation the two years I lived in Toronto. The lack of central heating wouldn’t ordinarily be a problem. Our apartment is small. In theory, it should be easy to heat. But consider two key issues: insulation and heat source.

What is protecting us from the elements? A heavy, hollow steel door. It has a large slot for mail (embossed with the post office logo), a smaller slot without a logo. It fits into its steel frame in such a way that if the stars are aligned just so, the door isn’t. And thus it needs a good strong tug to close properly. I’ll leave the musical possibilities of the wind through the assorted gaps in this assemblage to your imagination and continue with the tour. All windows are single-glazed. With aluminum frames. I’ll count the heavy cotton (or are they linen? I dunno) curtains as an additional insulating layer. Because it is. The walls are steel-reinforced concrete, approximately 20 centimeters thick—that’s about 8 inches. As I’ve found no evidence otherwise, I believe that the rebar in the concrete fulfills 3 functions: structural support, insulation, and vapour barrier. On some walls, and in all the closets there is wood panelling. Unfortunately some of the panelling has warped from moisture, and there are a few mildewy areas despite our best efforts to regularly change the dessicant pots.

What are dessicant pots? They’re small plastic containers with a porous top. Inside are two layers separated by a plastic mesh. The top is filled with crystals of dessicant. The bottom is empty. Moisture bonds to the crystals, and the liquified compound drips into the reservoir. The crystals get depleted about the same time the reservoir fills to its 2-cup capacity, and you replace the whole contraption. In our case that’s about every 3-4 weeks. I haven’t found refillable ones. The crystals are the same substance that you find in electronics packages and dried food (especially stuff imported from Asia), in sealed packets that say “Dessicant: Do Not Eat.” I’ll spare you the sub-rant about the Japanese tendency to address symptoms rather than causes, but suffice to say that someone is making a lot of money from great big holes (pun intended) in the Japanese building code.

Ok, that’s enough about heat retention or lack thereof. Our apartment has emmenthalian defenses against the loss of heat. What’s emmenthalian? It has nothing to do with holy space beings. Cheese lovers will be able to guess. If you need another hint, check out this piano. If the link is broken, here’s a local copy. If all else fails, try this. What are the options for heating such a structure?? Electricity or fire, of course. Sometimes together. The standard issue heater here is the Sekiyu sutobu, or kerosene stove. I’ll quote the JET Guide to Life in Fukuoka after another short vocabulary lesson.

Sekiyu sutobu are free-standing kerosene heaters. Older types are lit with matches. Newer versions are equipped with electric starters and fans to disperse the heat. Despite the fact that the kerosene used and the fumes emitted from the heaters make them smelly, sutobu are widely used as they are cheap to run. All sutobu are designed to put themselves out if they are moved, tilted, or shaken. Newer sutobu put themselves out when there is not enough oxygen in the room. Make sure to keep your window open a crack while using a sutobu. The kerosene used in sekiyu sutobu is called both sekiyu and toyu and can be purchased at any gas station. Most rice stores sell and deliver kerosene oil. Containers for kerosene (pori yoki) and siphons (kyuyu pompu) are sold at most supermarkets and hardware stores. Put a kettle on top of your sutobu to put moisture back into the room (also convenient for a nice cup of tea).

Kerosene? And rice???? Sounds about as appetizing as nuts and gum. Newer stoves put themselves out when there is not enough oxygen in the room??? What about the older stoves? Perhaps that’s why I hear more ambulances at night in the winter. No thanks. Jarrod’s asthma (thankfully mostly outgrown now) and my years as a printmaker make me want to keep volatile solvents and fuels as far away as possible from of our living area.

Next up is gas heaters. Same idea as the kerosene heater but powered by natural gas which is already piped in for the cooking stove and bathtub. Ask me about the bathtub. I dare you. The gas heater is about the size of a large cat or a small dog. But rectangular, hairless and made of metal and plastic. Hmmmm. This comparson isn’t going anywhere, is it? You all know what a space heater looks like? The blocky kind that doesn’t have the big dish on top for transmitting back to the mother ship? Imagine one the size of a small companion animal. It has an electrical cable to power the igniter and the circulation fan, and a hose to connect it to the gas supply. Yep, your own personal portable barbecue to snuggle up to at night. It doesn’t shed, doesn’t need to go for a walk, and never sleeps on your head. Operators are standing by to take your order now! But hoses and cords together with burning gases can be a dangerous combination in a household where a certain 9-year-old has grown 6cm in the last 9 months, with the loss of coordination you can expect from someone trying out a new body.

The answer? Electricity. We have a couple of portable space heaters. The high-powered one goes up to 1000 watts. That’s less than a lot of hair dryers in Canada. One cord is better than a cord and hose. These also have built-in switches so that if they’re tipped over, they automatically switch off. Probably due to earthquake risks. The gas heaters probably have them to, but the point is moot, no? The main heater in our living room is actually a multi-purpose air conditioner. Cool in summer, warm in winter. But it’s mounted at the top of the room, for maximum cooling efficiency (cold air sinks, warm air rises—basic high school thermodynamics). If we could walk on the ceiling, I bet our feet and lower bodies would stay warm. So we have heaters. Yay warmth!

Why keep complaining? Well I’ll tell ya… and this is the third pillar in my thesis: not enough current. For those of you with any knowledge of home wiring, you can skip the rest of this paragraph after the next 4 words: 30 amp breaker box. For the entire apartment! I know it’s a small place, but really. Here’s an inventory of the heat-generating electric devices in our apartment: air conditioner/heater, 400/800w space heater, 500/1000w space heater, 850w toaster oven (this has the words “High Power” printed on it), hot water pot, rice cooker, hair dryer, kotatsu table (this is small table with a heater built into the bottom). Now, pick any two. Yes, 2. Any more than that, and we blow the breaker. With two devices on, turning on the exhaust fan in the kitchen overloads the system. Sometimes just the air conditioner and blow dryer will do it. It’s next to impossible to heat three rooms simultaneously.

Basically, on a cold windy day, the venting prowess of our apartment exceeds our capacity to generate heat. There’s equilibrium between the outside and inside temperatures and we have to dress appropriately. Coat, gloves, hat, long underwear under sweatpants under fleece pants. No kidding. The other day I took a picture of our thermometer. It was 12 degrees inside. For the past 2 weeks I’ve routinely been able to see my breath. When I went to go pee one night, I was shocked by the combination of seeing my breath and seeing steam rising from the toilet bowl. I hadn’t thought the curry I ate in Thailand was that hot.

In any case, all this makes me wonder how the Japanese do it. It’s hard enough for me to get up in the morning, let alone get up only to have all the warmth sucked out of my body by the ambient air. And thats after Lia’s already been up for half an hour with the heaters going full blast.

3 thoughts on “Thermal shock

  1. There are 2 things missing from this rant: – Japanese women in micro mini skirts and bare legs in the 5C weather and – the toyu truck song (though perhaps that would make a better blog entry on its own with descriptions of all the singing delivery vehicles – complete with MP3s!) (maybe I should start my own blog! ;0)

  2. Here’s the conspiracy theorist in me… I’ll bet that those apartments without the #4 (i.e. floors 1,2,3 apartments 1,2,3 etc) have heat and insulation. “They’re” attempting to freeze you to death. (not sure who “they” are)! ps- very nice blog 🙂

  3. Pingback: yoga & sencha & dragon pearls » Blog Archive » Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes - Thoreau

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