In winter it’s cold and damp in Osaka. A biting wind blows into town from the icy tundras of Siberia and we all go “brrrr . . .” In Japan we don’t use central heating or double glazed windows. No insulation or even solid walls, no, we like to sit around on the floor and complain about the cold weather under a kotatsu火燵.
The first time I encountered a kotatsu I was mostly confused as to the why of it. Why put a blanket under and over a table then sit on the floor using the blanket to warm your legs? If you’re eating dinner there, isn’t that blanket going to get dirty? I’m a pretty sloppy eater; my mum used to put newspaper on the floor under my chair for every meal. I’d hate to see my kotatsu after a week! Why not just turn the heater on and wear some warm tracky dacks? well, because Japanese houses suck. Yeah, I said it. Oh sure, they’re pretty and look all movie-ish historical and stuff, but you try living in one. Geezus it’s freezing!
This is the kotatsu in my apartment; the tatami room has a concealed compartment beneath one of the mats and there is a detachable table top.
To set it up you need to put a wooden frame on the top of the compartment that’s built into the floor. To get to this frame, I need to pull out all of my crap from the closet, because stupidly, I packed it behind all of the stuff that I own but don’t use everyday – yay Japanese apartments.
Then I have to set up the frame, get a friggin blanket and ta-dah! Another reason to sit on the floor.
I don’t particularly like kotatsu; they annoy me. First of all it’s extra washing you gotta do and Japanese washing machines are small, plus my balcony is like the back alley behind a Chinese restaurant; everyone drops their crap down from 7 stories up (not actual crap, I mean debris and such). Washing a blanket at my house is a pain in the bum. Secondly, you gotta set the whole thing up and the table top is removable so it slips around on top of the blanket while you’re eating your flippin’ noodles.
And finally, you’re always touching people’s feet under the table accidentally so there’s this pervading air of awkwardness because you’re not sure if a certain someone is doing it on purpose. It’s alright if it’s just your boyfriend, but at a house party? I don’t wanna spend the whole night avoiding other people’s toes in the dark. I detest kotatsu. Why are we sitting on the cold floor anyway?
The only time I have truly loved a kotatsu was when I had no heater – just the tiny little bar heaters that I misappropriated from my friends’ Nova apartments when the company went bankrupt and we all lost our jobs, ah good times. The house I moved into next was semi-traditional, i.e. it wasn’t insulated, doors were made of actual frikkin paper and there was a general dusting of asbestos if you brushed against the wall. It was my first real winter in about 20 years and it bloody well snowed!
The long and the short of it was I ended up sleeping under the kotatsu after my heating system – a.k.a “The Ring of Fire” (an affectionate name for the 4 bar heaters I positioned around my stolen futon on the floor) accidentally lit my doona on fire! NOTE: “doona,” is the Aussie word for quilt or comforter. I woke up in the morning in my lovely wooden, non-insulated, breezy, paper-doored, asbestos house with a hole burnt into the blankets, feeling very . . . lucky?