Overcome the Cold of Winter with these 7 Items Imbued with Long-held Japanese Wisdom

There are many traditional cold-weather gear in Japan that have long protected Japanese people against the harsh winters. Many of them are still used today, so be sure to try them if you are in Japan in the winter. Here are seven traditional winter gear, including ones that can be easily purchased or experienced at restaurants and hotels.

Winter in Japan

Winters can be harsh all around the country in Japan, so if you are visiting at the height of winter in January or February, be sure to bring a thick coat or down jacket and other cold-weather gear such as scarves and gloves. There is snow in many places, particularly along the Sea of Japan, and some are ranked among the world's top areas for heavy snowfall. It has not been long since heaters that warm up the entire room were adopted in Japan, and it was common for traditional Japanese houses not to have heating. Traditional Japanese tools that were developed to survive the cold under such conditions are packed with the wisdom of people from the past.

1. Disposable "Kairo" (heat pads)

"Kairo" refers to hand warmers that incorporate material that generate or retain heat through a chemical reaction. It is said to originate in "onjaku", which were heated stones that were wrapped in cloth and carried in pockets during the Edo period (1603 - 1867). Today, disposable ones of powdered metal that generate heat when exposed to air wrapped in non-woven fabric are mainstream. There is a wide variety, such as portable ones to carry by hand or in pockets, ones to attach to clothing, and ones to put inside shoes. They are widely available at convenience stores, drugstores and other shops.

2. Kotatsu

Kotatsu, which is popular in Japanese homes, is a heated table with a futon blanket and tabletop placed on top of a frame with a heater attached to it. It creates a warm space to place your lower body in and warm up. It has a history of over 500 years and was originally heated by coal, but most kotatsu today are electric. It is usually placed in a central place in the home, such as in the living room, so that families can gather around it for meals or to relax and watch TV. Some hotels have rooms with kotatsu, so look for one if you wish to try it.

3. Yutanpo (hot water bottle)

"Yutanpo" is a tool that was introduced from China more than 500 years ago. A container made of metal, ceramic or plastic is filled with hot water and wrapped in a towel so there is a steady, comfortable warmth that lasts for a long period of time. It can be placed in a cold bed before going to bed and will keep it warm throughout the night. It does not use electricity, so it is an economical way to stay warm. It can be purchased at shops that sell daily items, as well as major drugstores and discount stores.

4. Irori

Irori are said to have existed about 16,000 years ago, during the period of pit dwellings. They are hearths made by cutting a square out of the floor or ground and was used not only for warmth, but also for cooking. There are few houses with irori today, but in a traditional Japanese house, they were in the room that was the equivalent of a modern-day living room. There are many places you can experience irori at, such as restaurants that serve food around irori, ryokan inns with irori in the lobby, and inns in converted old houses.

5. Hibachi

A "hibachi" is a heating device with ash and charcoal fire. Unlike an irori that is made by cutting a hole into the floor, a hibachi is placed on top of the floor. It is rare today, but has a history of over 1,000 years and was widely used till about 100 year ago when charcoal was the main fuel. It not only warms, but can also act as a humidifier with a kettle on top. It can also be used for simple cooking, so it has many uses. It can still be purchased at antique dealers but be sure to properly ventilate when using it as it produces carbon monoxide.

6. Dotera

A "dotera" is a traditional Japanese coat that is a size larger than a kimono and is long enough to go down to the ankles. It is stuffed with cotton and has been valued as an item to protect against the cold while indoors. Today, "dotera" sometimes refers to padded hip-length jackets. Today, it is rarely seen worn on a daily basis, but can still be purchased at futon shops, DIY shops and kimono shops. It is sometimes offered at onsen hot spring inns to wear on top of yukata (light cotton kimono worn after bathing or during the summer).

7. Tenugui

"Tenugui" are small Japanese towels that are still used in a variety of different ways, such as to wipe hands, as washcloths and to wrap things in. During the Edo period, when they were widely used, they were often wrapped around the neck or head to protect against the cold air. They are available at specialty stores and stores selling miscellaneous items as well as at discount store. They come in a range of patterns, so look for one that suits your taste.

How was it? Kairo and tenugui may be handy while traveling, and if you get extras, you can give them away as gifts! Appreciating cold weather traditions is a great way to enjoy a winter trip to Japan.

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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