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Cozy with where I am
There are a number of routine small-talk questions exchanged among expats. Back home it would be weird if someone I just met asked, “How long do you plan on staying in the US?” but I suppose my American accent is enough for people to assume that the country on my passport is the one where they’ll put my headstone. But there’s an assumption here among us foreigners: It’s only a matter of time before you become too frustrated or too homesick to keep up this ruse. As a result, strangers feel they have the license to freely interrogate my longterm plans, before they quickly realize it’s a fruitless line of questioning.
When I do consider returning to the US, I remember the walls. Growing up in suburbia, the boundary between me and the weather was something I always took for granted. If we warmed or cooled the house, it stayed that way. That is not the case in most homes in Japan, which are poorly insulated. Some readers may recall my friend who had to go to the hospital after getting frostbite in her own apartment.
As you may have heard, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear. To that end: Japan’s robust indoor cozy winter gear industry: heat tech and space heaters, yes, but also room socks, electric blankets, slankets, heated rugs, arm muffs, heated feet warmers, heat-retaining torso bandeaus, heated neck rings, hot water bottles, fuzzy jackets for hot water bottles. At Muji recently I saw a blanket with the word USB on the packaging, and rolled my eyes, thinking this was a new type of Ultimate Lazy Cozy Gear that lets you charge your phone directly on the blanket draped across your prone body. (It was in fact a heated blanket that charges by USB.)
This time of year, I travel with kairo in my bag. These little packets, which I’ve only ever used for skiing in the US (though a Bostonian tells me he slipped them in his shoes to walk to school), are sold everywhere in Japan. I keep them in my pockets, but there’s also ones that stick to the toes of socks and bigger patches that can be stuck on your clothes. At festivals we stick them on our bodies to stay warm through the night in our tents, though this creates a separate problem of sweating so much that you’re wet, which in turn makes you feel cold.
In Edo Japan people used a predecessor to kairo called onjaku: People took stones heated in the hearth, wrapped them in cloth, and tucked them into their kimono to keep warm in their houses made of wood and literal paper. The modern ones have been popular since the late 1980s and use the heat from oxidized iron powder. The first time I held one I thought it was Japanese magic: D and I had had way too much whisky somewhere in Tokyo, and afterwards the master sent us each off into the January night clutching a big burning kairo. It was still hot to the touch when I reached into my coat pocket the next morning.
The incredible waste of plastic-y furry socks and used-up metal notwithstanding, there is something pleasant about this tactic of warming just the envelope around your body, rather than pumping energy into an entire house and circulating heat into unused rooms. (Also, heaters dry the air, and I resent needing to plug in a second machine, a humidifier, to condition my air further.)
My favorite Japanese winter time content is this music video by the rock band Uchikubi, in which an animated penguin can’t get out of bed because it’s too cold in his apartment. (But he has to go to the bathroom! Shit!) I also enjoy this very ex-pat specific video Michi sent me called “Japan and America: The difference in room coldness.”
There’s no question that the king of Japanese coziness is the kotatsu. A low table with a heater built into the underside, which is then covered in a blanket to trap the heat inside as you slowly lose the will to see friends or eat food or use the bathroom ever again. “It will ruin your life”; “we call it a curse”; “a fire hazard”; “dangerously cozy” were all pieces of advice I got when I was thinking of buying one in Fukuoka.
Despite all the warnings, I bought one that first winter here. I lost myself in the warmth, read books, studied kanji, on multiple occasions spilled wine all over the blanket, then cleaned it, only to spill coffee on it the next morning. I took cute selfies like I was an anime character trapped in the jaws of coziness.
It was mid-January 2020. Everything was so fun. I was in a new country; I was learning a new language; my best friends had just been in town for weeks from the US, and we had seen Fuji, and monkeys; N was getting ready to begin a months-long journey that was to end in his arrival and our new life together, maybe under this very kotatsu. Things then turned very quickly. It’s living under this blanket that I became rapidly isolated, from under it that I would check the news and realize the future was not going to turn out how I had expected. The one time I had mustered the ability to make a longterm plan, with another human no less, and chance came in like wrecking ball. I slid down into my Hot Pocket for One and stayed there for a year.
In December the average high in New York is 10 degrees F colder than the high in Tokyo. But the walls aren’t paper thin. In Saigon’s most grueling months the temperature is hotter and the relative humidity is no doubt higher than summer in Tokyo. But people aren’t riding packed trains wearing three-piece suits. I’ve come to realize that weather is not something you can really convey with facts or absolute numbers. Climate is context.
And political climate seems to work in much the same way.
I’m signed into Twitter most weekdays for work. Until recently, just being on a different time zone from Elon Musk ranked high on my list for reasons not to live in the US. It sounds glib, but living on the opposite side of the day from a lot of very loud and dangerous blowhards with extremely powerful platforms, means that despite working in the news and being hyperconnected, I live in an all-together different intellectual and cultural climate. I still feel the effects, on a personal and global level, of changes and arguments on the other side of the Pacific, no doubt. But being a full 14 hours off from the real-time discourse means being less susceptible to the random gusts of violent atmospheric changes that used to cause me to forget what I was just doing, or thinking, or working on, one minute earlier. I, too, hope to cultivate that silence within, but I only see now that I had no hope of finding it where the air and screens were filled with gunfire.
But there is also an undeniable guilt that follows. I know I’ve lost touch. I no longer have an instinct for the trigger words, the references, that feeling across your shoulders, the smell of racist moisture in the air that really can’t be conveyed by checking any forecast. I no longer have the near perfect pitch that I honed working in New York media during a period of extreme political tumult, living with my heartbeat in synchrony with Twitter; as a result I’m almost certainly becoming more tone deaf. I used to read articles and form the right opinions before my non-media friends had caught wind of the morning controversy. Now by the time I wake up in my cold apartment, my interlocutors have moved onto something else.
Here there may be no insulation from the cold, or the noise, but this other buffer, this insulation made of hours, I feel it. It keeps me warm, protected, lets me hear myself. But sometimes I have to, sometimes I want to, leave the pocket. And I know I’ll be that penguin who opens the door, feels the cold blast, and wonders if I won’t end up flat on my back. In the meantime I’m storing heat to make my emotional kairo, little flavor blasted pockets of concentrated calm, emergency reserves of safety just in case I find myself lost in the violent night.