With temperatures now up at 37 to 38 C and humidity draining all will from your willingness it is nice to have some kind of agent that might buffer the effects of the heat. Here in Japan sounds have traditionally stepped in to make a psychological difference when the thermometer is about to burst. The most obvious ones are the wind bells that people hang up outside their windows and the bamboo fountains that fill up and drop to the rock base below, where they make a distinct “PUNK” sound, sort of like a hollow wooden replication of a bat hitting a baseball. Japanese also like the sound of suzumushi, a kind of ground dwelling tree cricket whose song sounds like a zithering bell. There are also the calls of bush warblers and oblong-winged katydids, jungle crows and, of course, bubbling streams. But my favorite sound of all, and one that fills me with melancholy and remembrance every time I walk along the paths among the rice paddies while swatting mosquitoes on my legs, is that of the Higurashi zemi, the evening cicada. For me it is one of the most beautiful and haunting sounds in the world.
At the other end of the year right about now the sultry Japanese summer heat invades homes like a giant, lazy, fat cat, nudging its way through the doors and windows and prostrating itself on the straw mats (tatami ) and linoleum floors with the sole purpose of draining everyone of life. That is what, traditionally, Japanese houses are designed for, to induce as much breathing throughout the house as might entice the cat to dissipate, a passive effort to encourage Cheshire-ism.
It doesn’t always work… my first floor apartment, not at all traditional except for the tatami in the living and bed rooms, acts like an isolation tank (in more ways than one!); you open the front door and an invisible wall of lugubriousness, sort of like that watery interface you see in the jump gates of the television show “Star Gate”, greets you… but the idea is sound: leave a space under the ground floor where the sun doesn’t hit and create a katabatic air space, keep the floor over this space perforated enough for the free passage of air, and create a heat sink space in the attic of the building, to which warm air is sucked. The idea is to draw the cool air out of the space beneath the house up into the attic, where it is supposed to dissipate. And it works very well in traditional, thatched roof farm houses.
The trouble arises in mid-January, when the deep freeze sets in and that cold air space beneath the house continues to crank away nice, juicy drafts through the floor and tatami, especially when my (noisy and much-disliked… I have yet to discover exactly why it is necessary to move the furniture around at 3:00 in the morning every day) upstairs neighbor cranks up his heater (which creates a racket outside my living room window with the squeaky and misaligned fan drumming away) and does a fine job of heaving all my precious warm air up into his place, and replacing it with the cold air from under the house. I didn’t realize until last week that the cold air actually streams through the tatami like spring water welling up from a sandy creek bed; I could feel the cold air pooling around my outstretched hand.
We only have one tiny electric, infrared heater to heat the spaces. Our Dutch oil heater started smoking last year when I turned it on, and we haven’t been able to afford to replace it. Normally this little heater is enough to warm up the small room it is placed in, as long as the door is kept shut. If it gets a little colder we use the spare sleeping bag and our fleece jackets. We’ve also covered the living room floor with a closed cell foam sheet and two layers of fluffy carpets. And normally that works… for when we are awake and spending time in the same room. It saves on electricity.
But when I am working in my study, the cold works its way through the floor boards and sends me running for my big, midwinter down jacket. When I breathe out white breath billows across the computer screen. Sometimes my fingers are so cold that I can barely type on the keyboard. And since infrared filament heaters are dangerous to keep on at night, the preparations for sleeping at night resemble pitching camp: dress up in fleece layers, don my fleece cap, fluff up two layers of down pillows, prop up the closed cell foam ground mat against the three layers of curtains to stop the draft, slip under a thick fleece blanket and lie on top of three layers of fleece sheets underneath, and finally pull the huge down quilt over us. If someone would walk in on us at night while we slept they would come across a huge lump on top of the bed, with no evidence whatsoever of inhabitants. Even our breathing is absorbed by the profoundness of the layers.
Waking up provides a wonderful exercise in will power. You open your eyes and wonder if it is light or dark outside because the curtains are so thick that no light passes through. You tentatively reach your hand into the world outside your cocoon of warmth, instantly recognizing this environment is hostile, not unlike that of Mars. You pat around until you locate the bed light, switch it on, and let out an experimental breath: snowfall… ice storm … whiteout … You imagine having slept all night on a block of dry ice. And that is precisely what your foot tells you when you poke it out and set it down on the floor. The temptation is to pull it right back in, like a snail’s eye stalk, but it’s time to get ready for work and you want to beat the crush of the Tokyo rush hour trains and you’d also like to get in a mug of tea and check the e-mail… so out you jump, dancing about the tatami like an Irish dancer, rush to the toilet, let out a yelp as you bare your bottom, dance back out to the shower, turn on the gushing, smoking river of heat, dash to the kitchen to set the kettle to boil, pop two slices of bread into the microwave-oven, and scamper back to the shower for a few minutes of revitalization. You turn up the water heat high enough to turn your skin blooming red before breaking the bathroom door open just long and wide enough to snatch the towel and slipping it into the sauna of the shower stall. Dried off you can safely negotiate the sub-arctic temperatures and dismiss the imaginary penguins tottering about the hallway, to do your shaving and prepare the tea.
But it doesn’t last long. Like the shadowy ghouls in the movie “Ghost”, the cold creeps back again and uses the soles of your feet to reacquaint you with the concept of stack ventilation. So back you go to mouse dancing, slapping on layers like a pancake artiste, until all contact with the outside world is reduced to the circle around your face and the inconvenience of your fingers. You stoke your core with piping hot tea and toast spread with a thin film of butter, and then you’re off, into the purveyor of all this defensiveness: the out of doors.
But of course, it is warmer outside than inside. As you march away toward the train station you unbutton your coat and let the morning sunshine take a peek in. You don’t look back; the suction itself might be too much.