Sunday, 28 December 2014

Keep warm the Japanese way: Build a family nest

by Morgan Mae Schultz/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
When the weather turns arctic like this, a curious item of furniture appears in our living room and causes a bit of a buzz. It brings the family together like bears round a honeypot (even the teenager is enticed out of his cave, sometimes) and visitors rave about it:

Ah, that feels gorgeous.
Ooh, it’s like getting into warm bath – without getting wet.
Oh my word. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to move from here.

What is it? It’s a "kotatsu". Ko (as in coffee), ta (as in tango), tsu (as in tsunami). And this is what it looks like.
A kotatsu is a Japanese invention: essentially a low table frame with an electric heater attached to its underside, a thick quilt over it to trap in all the warm air, and a table top over that. 
You sit with your lower body underneath it and it warms you up in an intensely comforting way. Think hot water bottle/snuggly blanket/sitting in a pool of sunshine/standing round a bonfire/group hug, all rolled into one.
by Kuji Tourism
A kotatsu is as commonplace in Japanese living rooms as a mantelpiece is in British ones. Houses and apartments in Japan – surprisingly – don't have central heating and so this is their way of keeping warm in the winter months. And what a nice way to do it. They talk here, drink tea here, do their homework here, eat here, watch TV here, nod off here.
by J4NE/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
And traditionally, there’s a big bowl of vitamin-C-jammed oranges on the table top to snack on and keep winter lurgies away.

You can find miniature kotatsus for dolls' houses in toy shops.
by http://www.private-export.com/kotatsu/
And in Iwate prefecture, there's even a "kotatsu -train" in winter. 
by Kuji Tourism
My first experience of a kotatsu was when I lived in Japan (many, many wrinkles ago as you can see). I was instantly smitten and rushed out and bought one from the local supermarket for my apartment, for the equivalent of £25 as I remember. 
When I returned to the UK, I yearned for a kotatsu every winter and dabbled on and off with looking into getting one sent over. But there were always too many issues: shipping costs, different voltage ... I even made a special trip to a second-hand Japanese furniture shop in Acton, London, where there's a large Japanese ex-pat community. But the owner told me that whenever he got a kotatsu in, it was snapped up within minutes.

Finally, two winters ago, the year of the Mini Ice Age, I found instructions on the internet for how to make a kotatsu from scratch out of an Ikea coffee table. “Shall we do it, shall we do it?” I said to my husband jibberishly excited. (He correctly interpreted this as “Will you do it? Will you do it?” I don't have a DIY bone in my body). He was game.

This is what we needed:
Lack coffee table from Ikea (The lower shelf is cleverly used as the table top. We used a square one).
Kotatsu heater fan unit (For safety reasons, it must be a heater specially made for a kotatsu!)
Voltage converter 
Double duvet 

As for the actual building of it, the person who explained it to me explains it here much better than I ever could (though he is converting for American, not British voltage). He also suggests using some some Ikea Snille chairs without the legs fixed on as floor chairs!
In the end, making our own kotatsu worked out about eight times the cost of the one I bought in Japan all those years ago, but I console myself that it should last forever (after all, it only comes out for a couple of months of the year) and we can crank the central heating right down when we're using it.

Anyway, now we have one. And I am very happy. And warm. And getting leg-tanglingly close with people I am related to, and unrelated to. I wonder if they could become the next big new Japanese craze to sweep Britain, after YO!Sushi and Hello Kitty?
There is a downside though: Now the kotatsu's out, I get very, very little done. Once I'm submerged in that warm, welcoming, relaxing cocoon, the urgency and importance of any chores I'd planned to do just evaporates. 

As a 10-year-old girl who has breakfast with us before school a couple of mornings a week said, “I love the kotatsu but it’s a really mean trick. It sucks you in and then, well ..."

7 comments:

  1. I never heard of this before but I just love the idea of it! What a wonderful way to keep toasty warm and cozy during these cold winter months. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. I know, Susan! I'm almost annoyed that the weather has turned milder!

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  3. Your blog is delightful

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  4. Ah, thank you. That is so nice to hear.

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  5. I had one of these in Spain called a brasero. We have no heating here- we all fight over the cat to put over our knees.

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  6. Ha! Yes, I'd heard that they have something similar in Spain - I've never seen one though.

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