“Baby, it’s cold outside!”



It is cold outside and the Japanese have a brilliant way of dealing with it: The kokatsu!

A kokatsu typically consists of the electric heater attached to the underside of what is essentially a low-standing but large table. A duvet-like blanket (or shitagake) is draped over the frame.  A person sits on the floor or on “zabuton” cushions with their legs under the table and the blanket draped over the lower body. Dating as far back as the 14th century, the kokatsu was originally  designed to burn charcoal

Because most  Japanese homes are not insulated and don’t have central heating, we are mindful of the cold winters 24/7; not just when outdoors (Japanese winters stand in sharp contrast with the sweltering heat and humidity of  the monsoon season. Of necessity I’m guessing, the homes have to be designed to accommodate the demands of summer rather than winter). Although heating is expensive due to the lack of insulation and the draftiness of housing, I unhesitatingly pay whatever it takes to not have to see my breath indoors. I’m also quite fortunate in that I have an efficient gas heater that will warm a small room without costing a king’s ransom. Other ALTs (Andrew, included), are not so fortunate and have to rely upon kerosene heaters.

The kokatsu is a relatively inexpensive way to stay warm in the winter, as the blankets trap warm air in a small enclosed area. People often choose to concentrate their activity in this area of the house in order to save on energy costs. They often sleep or snuggle under the kokatsu; it’s a little like indoor “camping out” in a warm pup tent.  During the winter months in Japan, it is often the center of domestic life. In the evening family members gather around the kokatsu to enjoy food, television, games and conversation while keeping warm. It has been said that, “once under the kokatsu, all of your worries slip away as a familiar warmth takes over and you become completely relaxed”. With regard to things that provide comfort and relaxation, similar to an “Onsen”, I suppose, but I’ll write about them in my next post.

Andrew tells me the weather will be noticeably warmer in about a month. Oddly enough, as if to belie everything I’ve just written about the cold (and contrary to the weather forecast for today), the sun is now streaming into my living room, I’ve opened the window a crack and it seems to be about twelve degrees outside! Go figure…I’m guessing it will be cold again by tomorrow morning though.


Time flies. In four days I’ll have been in Japan for six months, thus fulfilling the first half of my contract. In just another month the grade three classes will graduate: I’ll miss them, they are all great kids and I wish them well in high school. I only regret that I don’t yet have the Japanese conversational skills to talk with them at greater length. It’s been an amazing six months, certainly one of the greatest experiences of my life!


ALTs spend a fair bit of time marking student’s notebooks. Although the notebooks are standardized in “B5” format, they are manufactured by a number of different companies. Some keep it simple and utilitarian, blank lined pages with a plain cover. Others however, include “pithy” messages and information on the inside and outside  covers of the notebooks.  Among my favorites are:

Campus Notebooks:

Campus has no messages or editorializing but does include both the English alphabet and the Japanese kana on the inside covers in a nice, easily read format. So much so that I detached the cover and taped it above my desk when I was learning the kana. Now, if I could only find the kanji in a similar format…

Incense Notebooks:

Less practical but far more fun. Includes this message on the cover: “This is the most comfortable notebook you have ever run into. You will feel like writing with it all time.” (sic). Japanese does not have articles like the, a or an. Missing articles are among the most common grammatical errors made by Japanese students (and apparently, the people who print notebooks for them). At least it’s comfortable though.

Junior Line Notebooks:

Fairly straightforward info: “The most advanced quality gives best writing features and satisfaction to you.” Sounds reasonable to me.

English 13 Columbus Notebooks:

These guys print fun notebooks. The covers are made of translucent vinyl with simulated weather reports for Seoul, Honolulu, Sydney, New York and L.A. It also has Japanese tide charts and sunrise/sunsets. I haven’t the slightest idea what it all means but it does look pretty cool.

Schedule Memonote Notebooks:

Again, pretty straightforward: “A wonderful living and wonderful life”. Not bad for a notebook though.


“Time flies like an arrow: Fruit flies like a banana”.

Incidentally, in almost every class, ALTs read words aloud to students from large “flash cards”. The ALT reads the word: the students repeat it. Then you do it a second time and move on to the next card. Depending upon the class, the student response can range from lackluster to enthusiastic. If things are a tad slow though, you need only play the “banana” card. In Japanese, all “syllables” are accorded an equal modulation; unlike English, nothing is stressed. That is one reason it is difficult to follow a Japanese conversation; they speak with “seeming” rapidity to western ears and, with a lack of modulation it is challenging to differentiate between sounds. Say the word baNAna aloud to a class though, and they will invariably reply with thunderous enthusiasm “baNAna”! Say it the second time, emphasizing the second syllable,  and they are practically screaming a response and convulsing in laughter. Having done “baNAna”, subsequent English flash card words are greeted with far more enthusiasm.

’til next time









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