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Saturday, Nov. 9, 2002

JAPAN LITE

Hunching to keep from dying of cold poisoning


If I could bring one thing from my home country to Japan, it would be a fireplace. Of course, the hearth wouldn't make it through the security check these days. But still, to have an open fire blazing in the living room would be nice, not to mention warm.

But alas, this is Japan, where there is no central heating and no fireplaces. Thus, winter weather conditions take place inside the house as well as out. The recent cold snap has us all hunching over morning coffee, hunching over the newspaper, even hunching over the toilet. I've adopted a permanent hunching position that doesn't end until around April. It makes cleaning the floors much easier and straightening the shoes in the "genkan" easier , but I haven't seen anyone in a long time .

Part of hunching is due to the fact that after waking up in the morning , you never completely uncurl from the fetal position. If I could, I would go everywhere in the fetal position. This would require rolling, however, and I would need a special strap to cinch around my body to keep me together.

Hunching and chanting is an old tradition in Japan. Japanese people hunch while chanting, "samui, samui." I hesitate to chant anything for fear of letting more warm air out of my body. If there is scientific evidence that chanting works, however, I think I would rather chant, "there's no place like home, there's no place like home," where I might have the chance of waking up in my warm, centrally heated house in the U.S.

On the other hand, perhaps the cold is one reason why Japanese people have the one of the longest life spans in the world: They freeze their bodies -- and the aging process -- a few months of every year.

This would explain why the Japanese take a very casual "sho ga nai" attitude toward the cold. For example, most people shun electric blankets, as they are believed not to be good for you. A heated futon, however, is so good, it will cost you 170,000 yen. Heating one small six-mat room with an electric heater will cost you over 10,000 yen per month, so most people content themselves with the more economical "kotatsu," a low table with a heat lamp underneath. The table is covered with a thick blanket to keep the heat in. Why anyone would decide -- of all the places in the house -- to warm the space under the table is beyond me.

By some cruel twist of kotatsu engineering, at 28 cm high (the heat lamp hanging down to just 20 cm above the floor) the table is not designed for fitting the entire body under it, although I do know of Japanese who do manage, and spend most of the winter there. It makes you wonder why people don't just turn that kotatsu upside down.

Like most Japanese people, I confine my activities to one room, which I attempt to keep warm. But every time I leave the room, my muscles do a collective "gyaaa!" as I enter the cold parts of the house. I believe I have already exhausted my hunching muscles for the rest of the winter.

It's enough to make you book the next flight to Tahiti. I almost did. I called the travel agent, and she said there was a flight leaving tomorrow. "Don't you have anything sooner?" I said. I could be dead by then.

I'm surprised that the government doesn't give warnings on the dangers of cold. After all, we often get sick from the cold and can even die from it. Yet cold is not considered a disease, and if you die from the cold, it's not even called cold poisoning.

Nonetheless, you would think they would have figured out how to import Tahiti for medicinal purposes. Or at least offer emergency flights for those on the verge of freezing to death.

Contact Amy at amychavez2000@yahoo.com or visit the "Japan Lite" home page at www.amychavez.com


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