Jul 17

Behind the scenes with iBook vocabulary

I was visiting with a friend the other day.  He’s got a young son and was curious to see my new iBook so I opened it up and began walking him through it.  He engaged right away, enjoying the “read-to-me” audio and the “touch-to-play” pronunciation glossary feature.  “This is great; I think my boy will like this.  Looks like I need to get an iPAD.”  Yup.

He practiced turning the iBook pages back and forth before settling on the page where Kenji encourages neko to crawl in under the kotatsu (koh-taht-sue) for warmth.  He asked if this was a “normal” part of a Japanese home.  Good question.  I decided to tell him a story.

A cozy kotatsu table

When I first arrived in Japan I didn’t have a job.  I’d made a decision to leave Canada and move to Japan confident that I would find work with the help of friends who live there.  Early on the young owner of a juku (cram school) just around the corner from my apartment knocked on my door.  He introduced himself and asked if I would like some part-time work.  Of course I said yes.  We went for kohi ($5 a cup!) coffee and chatted.  Then he took me to his school for a tour which was basically one very crowded room with a large oval table in the centre.

After a few months working with kids and adults, he offered me another job which required going to the client’s home to teach her child.  After the lesson we would all share dinner. It sounded like lots of fun so I agreed.

It took me awhile to find the client’s aparto (apartment) but luckily I was given a piece of paper with the kanji (Japanese letters) written on it so if I got lost I could ask someone for directions.I asked the first person I saw who actually took me to the door and rang the bell for me!  After the stranger and the client bowed and chattered nervously while staring at me, stranger left and client practically pulled me inside into an even smaller unit than mine!  In the middle of the kitchen was a kotatsu.  Her boy was sitting on the floor in front of a very low table that was covered with a blanket.  His legs were under the blanket and he was wearing his winter coat, drinking hot tea, and staring at me with very wide eyes.  (After the first month I was used to blatant staring and pointing and finally accepted it as a gesture of pure adoration!)  She motioned for me to join him.  This was the first time I’d seen a kotatsu. Today’s modern kotatsu consists of the electric heater attached to a low table frame. Generally, a blanket (or shitagake) is draped over the frame under the table top. This first blanket is covered by a second heavier blanket, known as a kotatsu-gake. Kotatsu-gake are often decorative. A person sits on the floor or on zabuton cushions with their legs under the table and a blanket draped over the lower body. The kotatsu was designed for people wearing traditional Japanese clothing where the heat would enter through the bottom of the robes and exit around the neck, thus heating the entire body. The inside temperature wasn’t much different than the outside so I left my jacket on.  I was nervous about getting down onto the floor gracefully.  Perhaps my legs were too long?  Of course they were too long!  These things are made for Japanese most of whom could fit snugly under my armpit!

I didn’t totally humiliate myself, although I did hear a few titters as I “landed” on the floor and settled in for the lesson with Toro-chan. I rested my back against the wall for comfort.  Hah!  Truthfully, there was no comfort.  I was in agony.  I could feel numbness creeping up from my toes, to my legs, to…..

While  Mom was preparing an elaborate meal on a cutting board-size counter, Toro-chan and I began our lesson, distracted by growling tummies which he found hilarious.  Pots, pans, produce, meat, and utensils were strewn about the work area, sometimes ending up on the floor.  I can’t call it a real kitchen; it was a hotplate, a sink and a small sideboard set in the middle of a big “living” room.  That was it.  At bedtime, floor futons were hauled out of a closet and, voila!, a bedroom was created.

After the lesson we had hot noodle soup loaded with vegetables and thinly sliced beef in a tasty broth. The room filled with the sounds of slurping and sucking noodles which provided many hilarious moments for my new friends as I tried unsuccessfully to follow suit.  The more noise you make eating the better the hostess feels.  It’s a sign of appreciation.  The soup was delicious and provided needed warmth to the upper body while my lower parts were feeling quite toasty, thank you.

Most Japanese housing is not insulated to the same degree as in the west.  There is no central heating so families rely primarily on space heating.  A kotatsu is a relatively inexpensive way to stay warm in the winter, as the futons (blankets) absorb the heat. This is also the time of the year where many activities take place around the kotatsu, such as studying, eating, reading, watching television, and socializing. Families may choose to concentrate their activity to this one area of the house in order to save on energy costs.

As the seasons change, the blanket is removed, and the kotatsu  is used as a normal table. It is possible to sleep under a kotatsu, though unless one is quite short, the body will not be completely covered. This is generally considered acceptable for naps, but not for overnight sleeping. Traditionally, children are told that they will catch a cold if they sleep under a kotatsu. However, nekos (cats) frequently sleep under kotatsu.

It has been said that, “once under the kotatsu,  all of your worries slip away as a familiar warmth takes over and you become completely relaxed.”  This old saying applies only to Japanese people, I can assure you!  When it came time to leave, I was in bad shape and wondered how I would manage.  Suffice to say I did manage but it wasn’t a pretty sight.

My friend shook his head and muttered “I had no idea….”.  At that moment I was inspired to write “story” posts about all 80 Japanese words in Fly Catcher Boy!  Hope you’ve enjoyed the first post about kotatsu.  Stay tuned; 79 to go!


  1. Jacquie

    Enjoyed this story, Rebecca. Felt my legs and back cramp up along with you!

  2. Eva

    Hi Rebecca, I also have an interest of Japan so your blog is pretty cool! Looking forward to those 79 next posts.

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