Why Grandmas Handle Winter Best

Winter has returned to Japan and that means two things: kotatsu and mikan.

Of course, it also means freezing my bum off at school, Christmas holidays and fluffy ear muffs, among other things.

But the most important words I learned during winter in Japan last year were kotatsu and mikan.

A kotatsu is a small, low table, with a futon laid between the frame and the table top, and a heater built into the underside. You sit on a floor chair or a cushion, stick your legs under the table, tuck the futon in around yourself and stay there, warm and cosy, until spring.

Mikan translates into ‘orange’, though they are actually mandarins, and at this time of year, they are prolific. They are a Japanese winter staple food and kind of iconic of the colder months.

Anyway, for whatever reason, these two things are considered to be complementary–like fish and chips, popcorn and movies, wine and dancing on the bar–and a popular winter activity here in Japan is to sit at your kotatsu and eat mikan.

I always quietly thought that was a rather odd thing to do in your spare time, but I chalked it down to Japan’s lovely little oddities. Apart from anything else, I didn’t have a kotatsu last winter, so I was forced to eat my mikan at my desk.

This winter, however, I went a bit nuts and actually bought a kotatsu. I finally got sick of not really having anywhere to eat or watch movies comfortably (without being in bed) and the thought of having the lovely “cat on lap” feeling that people refer to was too much to resist.

I did some nifty online shopping at Nitori and picked out a small, inexpensive kotatsu, plus a futon and a floor chair and arranged for them all to be delivered.

I was pretty excited in the days leading up to the delivery and the day before I told some students that my kotatsu was coming.

They nodded with all the wisdom of third graders.

“Ah, yes, Hannah sensei,” they said. “You will sit under your kotatsu and eat mikan all day and look like a little grandma.”

I laughed at them. Just because I’m getting a kotatsu does not necessarily mean I’ll eat mikan at it, and I certainly won’t look like a grandma!

But I’m not laughing anymore.

I’m sitting at my kotatsu, wrapped in the futon, eating mikan, and yes, I probably look like a grandma.

And you know what? Obaachan Hannah is armed and ready; bring it on, winter.

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