For those who may not know, I was born and raised in sunny San Diego, California, which is famous for its year-round Mediterranean climate (average 13ºC–22ºC throughout the year). Though I spent my university years in a slightly colder and damper Berkeley, California, it was still a shock to my system when temperatures began to fluctuate in the fall of my first year on JET.
Thanks to the temperature difference between day and night, as well as Gunma’s infamous cold dry winds, I was constantly on the verge of either catching a cold or being completely destroyed by a sore throat, runny nose, and every other common cold symptom throughout fall and winter.
Remembering how utterly unprepared I was for the cold, I’m writing this article particularly for JETs who were also raised in warmer climates to provide some basics on keeping warm and healthy this winter. For those from colder climates, give the article a once-over—some of these tips may prove useful for you, too (and if you have any additional tips to share, feel free to comment!).
- Wear layers.
- I highly recommend wearing thermal underwear (such as “HEATTECH” from Uniqlo) as your undermost layer on top and bottom. This special material keeps your body heat in so you feel warmer from the get-go. On top of that layer, I usually wear a sweater, a puffy down-jacket, and pants as my base.
- Layers are important because though you may feel just warm enough when you’re outside, as soon as you walk into a super-heated office, you may start sweating, which could cause you to catch a cold. Layers allow you to match your surroundings.
- Note: School hallways will most likely be the same temperature as outdoors, but many schools ban wearing hats, scarves, gloves, and down-jackets inside, so layer accordingly.
- Invest in warm winter clothes.
- The difference between my first and second winter on JET comes down to one thing: my jacket. My first year I mostly wore peacoats, which were cute, but did not keep me warm in the least. My second year I invested in a puffy down jacket, which looked a bit silly, but was so well insulated, I didn’t mind. Gunma is famous for its soul-crushingly dry and cold wind, so choose clothes that are wind resistant (shiny jackets tend to be a good indicator).
- Cover as much of your body as possible.
- A hat, gloves/mittens, and a scarf are vital for keeping body heat in. Every bit of exposed skin is an opening for body heat to escape. Some Japanese people also use a haramaki (a wrap that goes around the lower abdomen) to keep the stomach and lower back warm. I personally like wearing a haramaki, so you may want to give it a try!
- For those who will cycle a lot this winter, fuzzy neck warmers that cover your neck and part of your face can help keep you warm, but beware: they can also trap your sweat, which again can become the source of a cold. Ear muffs are great normally, but should be avoided on snowy days when wet hair could lead to a cold.
- Take a bath at night.
- This may just be personal preference, but I find that on the nights when I only take a shower, I am not nearly as warm as the nights when I take a shower and then a bath. If I clean off the day’s dirt and sweat and then heat my body for the night, I always feel healthier in the morning. On a side note, my pipes froze over twice my first year, so my coworkers suggested running hot water just before I went to bed to prevent this phenomenon, which became a good excuse to take a bath every night.
- Keep your room heated and humidified.
- Most people use their air conditioners as heaters during the winter, which is great for keeping warm but tends to dry out the surrounding air, causing many a sore throat. I recommend using a humidifier, which replenishes the moisture in the air and can help prevent scratchy, sore throats. At work, you may see tea pots on stove heaters, or even your coworkers spraying water bottles into the air, for this same reason (to humidify the atmosphere).
- Eat warm foods.
- Nabe literally means “pot”, but during winter it describes the unbeatable “hot pot.” If you like the prepared soup bases available at grocery stores, you can make nabe very simply by adding the soup base to a ceramic nabe pot, adding any assortment of vegetables (Chinese cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, etc.) and proteins, and heating the pot. This dish is best enjoyed cooked over a portable stove under the comfort of a kotatsu, a square heated table covered with a blanket. If you want even more warmth, I recommend a heated carpet and/or heated blanket, both can be purchased from Cainz Home, Nitori or similar stores.
- Soak up the sun.
- The next two points are more for mental health. On clear winter days, it is incredibly uplifting to feel the sun on your face. Typically it’s dark when you leave for work and it’s dark when you get home from work, so some people don’t get enough Vitamin D from the sun’s rays. Accordingly, if you can, give yourself some time during the day to go outside and absorb the sun’s restoring rays. Even if it’s cold, if you walk around for a bit in the sun you’ll feel warmer, and the exposure to the sun will provide you with some much needed revitalization.
- Don’t lock yourself inside all winter.
- It’s very tempting to spend the entire winter season watching movies while eating nabe under yourkotatsu (see No. 6). While this can be an enjoyable way to spend some evenings on your own or with others, I highly recommend leaving your apartment to explore Gunma during the winter. Gunma is famous for winter sports such as snowboarding, skiing, snowshoeing and more, so this could be a great chance to try a new activity! GAJET Epic Ski and Snowboarding Event will be held on January 24–26. Click here for more details.
- For non-sports fans, I recommend trying a winter onsen day trip. Kusatsu is extremely hot, but in the heart of winter the water’s heating powers can keep your body warm all day while you explore the town’s lovely cafés, restaurants and shops. For a comprehensive Kusatsu guide, check out Japan Guide’s Kusatsu page. Japan Guide also introduces some of Gunma’s other famous onsen here.
There you have it! Just some basics to start your winter off right this year. 🙂
If you want more advice on how to keep warm, including tips to weather-proof your house, check out these two articles from former Gunma JETs:Guides, Winter