I have to say that one thing I love about my New York apartment is the amount of heat that gets pumped out of its steam radiators. I am lucky to have three old fashioned radiators, even though one of them is 4" wide, another incessantly hisses and the other sounds like the milk frother on an espresso machine. Fortunately, I only need to keep one of them on for most of the winter to keep my apartment snug and cozy. Also, I can not complain- heat is included in my rent. After spending that long frigid winter in Japan, I have come to appreciate and LOVE heated spaces.
As an architect, I was especially offended (and often ranted) that Japanese homes are not insulated against the cold winters or the hot, humid summers. I mean, seriously- when you see your breath inside your apartment, is that an acceptable way of life?!? Is it humane to walk into a stuffy, hot, burning oven after being at work in a non-air conditioned office all day? At least I had AC during the summer, but the winter was BRUTAL. I shuffled around my apartment in a coat, hat, and thick-soled slippers that kept my feet off of the freezing floor. I usually had several self-sticking heat patches on my body and in my socks at any time. My olive oil was always solidly congealed and all utensils and plates had to be rinsed under hot water before they could be used so that they didn't instantly cool the food that came into contact with them. I huddled inside my living room under the kotatsu (coffee table with a built-in heater underneath to heat your legs) and slid the fusuma (sliding doors) closed to conserve the little heat which didn't radiate out through the flimsy thin walls. And I avoided the icy little toilet room as much as I could possibly stand (oh the horrors of squatting above a "long-drop" non-flushing toilet!).
Actually, since my family is Chinese and um, frugal, (we were not allowed to turn on the heat unless we absolutely had to in order to "conserve" heat- you know, so we didn't have an expensive energy bill) I should have been somewhat prepared for the bitter surprise of non-insulated Japanese homes. But California winters were nothing compared to New York or Japan, so I had no idea what I was in for. I had been spoiled by my warm but tiny New York hallway/apartment.
Typical of most westerners, I was accustomed to central heat so that I could walk around comfortably in a t-shirt, even in winter. When I explained this to my Japanese friends and coworkers, they thought this type of heating was extremely wasteful- "You mean, all the rooms are heated?!? But you are only in one room at a time!" they would exclaim incredulously. They, on the other hand, use "direct contact" heating appliances such as kotatsu, carpet pads, heated toilet seats, and feet warmers to provide localized heating. Personally, I think these solutions are energy inefficient and discourage or restrict movement around the apartment.
The kotatsu, which was the only major form of heat that I had in my um, "traditional" (rickety) apartment is kind of like Japan's modern day version of the hearth. Since most Japanese still take off their shoes upon entering a home and sit on the floor or tatami, it is the place for families and friends to gather around to eat their meals, watch TV, do homework, and socialize. Originally, Japanese wore long robes so that when they settled under the warm kotatsu table and blanket, the heat would warm their legs and presumably travel up to keep the rest of the upper body warm. How this warmed their (exposed) arms and hands, I have no idea. Especially since few people wear kimono now, it seems like the whole idea should be revamped. In addition, most westerners are not used to sitting on the floor for extended periods of time, so having our legs stuck out directly in front of us and practically scalding our knees while our upper body froze just seemed completely crazy! I felt like I was leashed to my kotatsu as I spent all of my waking hours at home practically underneath the table. Of course, this contributed to my unsightly winter weight gain!
However, many Japanese socialize outside of the home to keep warm- they eat and drink at local izakaya (local bars with food) and take baths at the communal onsen. And women have no feeling in their legs anyway as they spent their school years wearing only mini-skirts and knee high socks (no tights allowed) during the winter, walking and biking their way (often times up to 40 minutes!!) to school. Throughout the whole year, it was only the foreigners I met who seemed to complain about the cold. Most of my female students just shrugged and said that this was the way of life- and reminded me of how comfortable their short skirts were during the other three seasons. For me, riding my cranky old bike through that stinging frigid air the few minutes to school or the train station was absolute torture.
Apparently the Japanese also believe they should be "in tune" with whatever season it is, maybe a type of Japanese stoicism from the ancient Shinto religion. When it is winter, you should be able to see, smell, feel winter. All of your senses should be aroused so that you can maintain a strong connection with nature, all year long. The idea of wearing a t-shirt in winter does not appeal because it is just not "supposed to be". I remember visiting Japan with my family one unseasonably warm October. My sister and I were walking around in flip flops, jeans, and tank tops (well, we are from California...) However, all the local Japanese were wearing boots, chunky wool sweaters, and fuzzy scarves & hats because that was what they were "supposed" to wear in the fall!
Well, the reason why I am writing about the heat-in-Japan-versus-America topic is because I was walking back to my apartment the other day and it was one of those super cold days that actually makes your head hurt and your nose is red and dripping without you realizing it because most of your exposed face is frostbittenly numb. Yeah, that cold. Anyway, after walking up the 6 flights to my apartment, I had somewhat warmed up and was looking forward to sinking into my chair and warming my hands by my lovely hissing radiator.
As I opened my door, I was confronted with a blast of warm, wet, stale air. I looked up at my walls and ceilings which were were completely covered with an indistinguishable yellow orange-y liquid that was running down my walls and condensing on the windows. (My first instinct was to quote Kramer from Seinfeld "It's like a sauna in here!!") I realized that the little nondescript white pipe that has quietly stood in the corner of my apartment was the culprit- there was a little steam nozzle at the top of the pipe that was angrily spewing and spitting out hot water, presumably from the boiler 7 flights down. The hot water, combined with the heat from the radiators, had created a steam shower my apartment.
***Sigh*** I would have to call my super and maybe he'd come by and fix it. I was lucky that none of my artwork or furniture was stained or damaged and I was relieved to see that the orange-y yellowy rusty liquid easily came off the walls with a little bit of wiping. I got out my Swiffer, and layered a few paper towels onto it to soak up the liquid, and then used the "fresh" smelling wipes to dutifully scrub off the rusty stains on the walls and ceiling which left my apartment smelling sickeningly like a moldy citrusy stale orange.
At that moment, I thought of how humorous the situation was. If someone looked into my window, they'd be like- "Oh, she's painting her walls and ceiling... wait, no... she's, mopping them..." and shake their head- another crazy person in New York. If someone from, say, Japan, asked me what I did that evening, I would've replied, "Oh, I swiffered my ceiling." (And confusion would have certainly ensued as there would be an awkward pause and a perplexed "Ehh?!?" "Nani? Su-wi-fu-ru-do?") I even took photos in order to effectively explain that a "Swiffer" is a type of "mop" (or "broom?") although "swiffering" technically isn't mopping or sweeping.
And I laughed, not only because of how ridiculous that sounded, but at the thought that certain words and products such as "Swiffer" or "Google" have effortlessly entered our vocabulary as normal, accepted words. They have even evolved into adjectives and verbs, and phrases such as "I googled him before I agreed to meet him on a blind date", are completely comprehensible. Hearing and using new words like this is fascinating for me- it's like a sociological experiment to gauge the changes in our daily lexicon as technology and trends evolve.
So, anyway, the whole incident made me think of how this would have NEVER happened in Japan and how lucky I am to have a warm, heated apartment... even if I have to occasionally mop my ceiling.