Context: During my two years in the JET Programme, I lived in a small apartment in northern Japan
Originally published on January 30th, 2012
“Place us below, nor be disdainful of it,
There where the cold doth lock Cocytus up.”
-Canto XXXI, Inferno, Dante Alighieri
“I’ve lived in the American northeast for most of my life. The cold is no big deal. I’ll get to show these Japanese what kind of hardy stuff Americans are made of,” I boasted to myself, minutes after learning of my northerly job posting and immediately following the initial distress regarding proximity to Fukushima radioactivity.
The only hardiness about me was foolhardiness.
The radioactivity was in fact nothing to be feared. My school diligently measures the microsievert level out in the yard every week (a task the vice principal hands off to me, of all people?), and every time, it’s lower (?) than normal.
In any case, even the summer was nothing to sneeze at in this land of harsh extremes and—would you believe it—FOUR seasons. With the humidity rarely dropping below 90%, I was drenched in sweat every waking and sleeping moment, with the only respite being in the shower, where I could feel clean for a few minutes each day. Mosquitoes buzzed outside, and electrolytes were lost by the bucketful. “Being hot all the time sucks,” I whined to no one and everyone. “I can’t wait for winter. At least then you don’t sweat and you can always put more clothes on if it’s feeling nippy! No way am I gonna complain about the cold after going through this irksome summer.” What a fool I was. For you see, heat does not impede life in the way that lack of heat does. Cold requires strategy. Survivor contestants are never placed in the Canadian wilderness or the Siberian tundra, for they would die in minutes, shirtless as they are. Facing down the cold requires ingenuity and fortitude, and it’s laughable to recall that I ever once thought winter would be preferable to summer.
Continuing down the timeline, fall was downright pleasant, as it is wont to be in most of the world. The air was chilled enough to cut off the flow of sweat, but not so much that I still couldn’t prance around in nothing but a t-shirt, sweatshirt, jeans, socks and sandals. Then winter crept up. Now, the trouble with winter in Japan is the lack of insulation in buildings, such that the inside and outside temperatures are the same, and any heat produced inside quickly escapes through the windows and walls. They say that buildings in Hokkaido are constructed differently to deal with the cold, but apparently I’m located about as far north as you can go without hitting that crucial dividing line.
I started adding another layer to my outfit and switching to slightly heavier outerwear every two weeks. Sleeping became unbearable, as the two walls hugging my bed are both exterior ones, and each contains a massive window. Fortunately, Papa Hashimoto’s care package with an electric blanket arrived after only a few sleepless nights. With that, I could stave off the threat of frostbite to my fingers and toes, and preheat my pajamas and pillow at night and my clothes in the morning before getting dressed.
At this point, the electric-powered wall-mounted heating unit still sufficed to heat the living room adequately as long as every door in the apartment remained closed. I bought a cheap area rug in the hopes of raising the average temperature of the room by a degree or two and so that I wouldn’t have to sit directly on the cold wooden floor at the (non-functioning) kotatsu during breakfast every morning. I began pre-heating the shower water to avoid two minutes of naked shivering while waiting for the temperature to adjust. The several times that I forgot to put the milk back in the fridge for the whole day were of no negative consequence. I started getting dressed in the living room, directly under the blast of warm air from the heating unit, for the alternative (stripping down in any other part of the apartment) was a painful prospect that produced Pavlovian palpitations in my heart.
The first snow fell a few days before winter break, and with it came the sad realization that I could probably not wear my flip-flops to work for that much longer. Taking the advice of some Miyagi JET veterans, before heading back home for Christmas, I shut off my water and power, and poured a bit of vodka into the toilet tank to keep it from freezing while I was gone.
My two weeks in New York were amazing. I strolled out into the streets of Nyack and even NYC with my light fall jacket and only the fifth warmest pair of gloves I own. I rolled my eyes as I heard strangers speak with trepidation of the upcoming 35 degree weekend. My cozy bed in my radiator-heated childhood home never felt so amazing. When it was time to come back, I had no reservations about returning to the job, the kids, or the strange lack of hamburger buns and vanilla yogurt. Just the damned cold.
So, just as Dante departed the comparatively toasty Eighth Circle for the frozen prison of the Ninth, so did I plunge back into Miyagi Prefecture. The sun was shining and only two inches of snow coated the ground, but when I went around back to turn the water back on, it started gushing out of the external pipe box. I unscrewed the cover plate and discovered a small but critical crack in a single pipe. It turned out that even with the water shut off, what remained in those pipes was enough to burst them. My neighbor and fellow American had forgotten to turn off his power, so he was fine, because apparently as long as the power is on, a small heater runs inside that pipe box. A plumber arrived an hour later to assess the damage, but the problem could not be fixed for an entire week. While I was nevertheless grateful that the town would foot the bill, this still represented a mild inconvenience. With no running water, I brushed my teeth either with bottled water or at school, got takeout for every meal, showered at a neighbor’s place, and took care of most of my toilet needs while on the job. Still, I had no choice but to pee into the dry shower drain a few times late at night. I have to wonder what they would have proposed had nobody been there to offer me a place to shower.
The plumber did come back a week later to take care of the problem. Unfortunately, he didn’t bother verifying his handiwork before leaving. As he drove away, I discovered that even though the water was turned on, none of it would run, as all the pipes between the external box and my faucets were completely frozen. As the kitchen is the room most distanced from the unforgiving winter air, the kitchen sink was the first to be liberated of its icy shackles; its water started flowing after about an hour of leaving the faucet on. I poured buckets of the hot water from there onto the shower’s tap unit, until at last I heard the ice inside breaking up. It was at that point that I checked the toilet for the first time since getting home. The inside of both the bowl and tank were solid blocks, despite my turning them into vodka cocktails. Higher proof next time, perhaps? Several more buckets of hot water sufficed to defrost the toilet. The bathroom sink, though, refused to start for another week or so.
Even with the water back, though, conditions continue to worsen. I wake every morning to an additional two to three inches of snow and ice coating the world and, more tryingly, my car. Despite my blasting the heater as soon as I arrive home, the inside temperature refuses to rise above 37 degrees. I bought a pair of rugs and tacked them up over my bedroom windows to keep in a bit of the heat. The loss of sunlight is unfortunate, but I already take vitamin-D supplements, and survival is the primary concern. I also purchased another electric blanket so that I may be encased, sandwich-style, while sleeping. As if in a scene from some hellish wonderland, icicles hang from the ceiling in my shower room. The walls of my hallway, once merely dripping with condensation, are now covered by thin layers of ice. The snow that I kick off my boots in the entryway accumulates and forms into drifts, never melting. The changes from pajamas to work clothes and vice versa are the most agonizing parts of the day, for during those few seconds, my skin must contend with the frigid air. The days grow longer but the temperature still drops. It is 25 degrees inside when I wake each morning, my visible breath an instant and cruel reminder that despite whatever coconut-filled, tropical-themed dream I was having, my reality is terrible and inescapable.
The pipes froze again this weekend. Now, in order to use any water, be it in the kitchen, toilet, bathroom sink, or shower, I must install the small electric space heater in the room of choice an hour in advance. The echo of the ice breaking up in the pipes signals me to move quickly, shuffling the heater to the next room whose water I anticipate wanting to use. My spirit endures, but my flesh grows weak. They say the worst will break by the end of March, but I don’t expect to last. Most likely, I will either pleasantly drift off to eternal slumber via the numbing cold or burst into flames after turning both electric blankets up to max power in desperation one frigid night. Naturally, I would that it were the latter – a final blazing act in defiance of this unforgiving force of nature.