Insulating my apartment

In Skyfall, the latest 007 film, there is a scene where James Bond is barricading a Scottish mansion from the imminent attack of the revenge-seeking villain. He put up shutters, black-out curtains and booby trap the whole house. Last weekend I was doing the same thing to my apartment, protecting myself against the biggest villain of Fukui: winter. 

My first line of defence is BUBBLE WRAP. You may laugh, but it keeps the freezing cold windows directly from the warmer air in my apartment thus keeping me that extra degree warmer! I bought some aluminium wrap too and taped it to most of my windows with wide pieces of sellotape and carpet tape. I now can’t see what’s outside from my bedroom but that’s not a problem. I already know if it’s raining due to the corrugated iron roof directly above my ceiling which gives a perfect indication of the weather. It’s like camping in an iron tent!

My bedroom windows with aluminium wrap on them

My bedroom windows with aluminium wrap on them

My second line of defence is CARPET. The cold can invade from all three directions of my apartment; the walls, ceilings and floor. They are all useless insulators of heat so I have tried to help the floor from sapping the little heat my apartment holds. I’ve placed aluminium sheets underneath the rug and carpet I have to give these most-used areas a double layer of insulation.

My third line of defence is HEATING. I dusted off the kerosene heater my predecessor left me and looked at it with suspicion. ”Will your fumes kill me? Will you go off with a bang when I turned you on? Are you a friend or a foe?”. After a little research and encouragement from other users that the fumes would not kill me if I opened the window every hour, I gave it to it. I filled up the container with touyu from a nearby petrol station and suctioned it into the heater’s internal container. I hauled it in to my kitchen and plugged it in. I pressed the ‘On’ button and stood back, half expecting it to blow up. It looked at me and I at it. After 20 seconds of this staring game it gave in and stated up with a puff of smoke. Still standing across the other side of the room, I waited. Within a minute it was radiating a warm, addictive, if slightly fumey, heat. ‘‘We’ll get through the winter together.’’ I thought.

My three heaters: an oil heater, the kerosene heater and a small electric one (from right)

My three heaters: an oil heater, the kerosene heater and a small electric one (from right)

My fourth line of defence is FUR. Not the real kind, but the Japanese kind. The cheap, thick, acrylic material that people wear, sleep on and cuddle up to here in Fukui. My obsession started with a kotastu table blanket that I bought from the home store Nitori. It quadrupled in size as I opened the vacuum packed bag and I was left with this bear of a blanket in my arms. It has turned into another close friend and I keep him on my duvet in my bed. Then, I found another blanket which I use for my kotatsu that keeps my friend and I legs’ toasty as we watch films together. But it doesn’t stop at this, I have at least two other blankets, a few pairs of socks and a hoddie made of the same material. I’m a true convert!

My kotatsu table and blanket

My kotatsu table and blanket

Closely related, my fifth line of defence is CLOTHING. Long thermal underwear, the Heat-tech kind from UNIQLO, is my base layer, followed by a few more layers and topped off by a fleecy jacket that my loving parents sent me from England. Cottons don’t work here due to the 80% humidity but anything artificial seems to do the job. Such as down jackets that are very popular in Japan but I’m waiting until I find one which doesn’t make me look like an inflatable snowman before I buy it! Also, I now have an indoor hat. It is got a Mickey Mouse print on it and couldn’t get more Japanese. Fingerless gloves may be my next investment as my fingers are losing dexterity as I write this.

My last line of defence is my beloved BATH. If I am really losing the battle to keep warm, I pull out my last gun; a hot bath. Due to my petite height, I have no problem with the Japanese sit-up baths which are half the length of a western bath. For me this just justifies that I can run it deeper because of that reason. At least I’m putting some of the ridiculously high amount of rainfall in Fukui to good use.

So does all this protection and makeshift insulation work? The heater, blankets and bath yes. I’ll just have to believe that the bubble wrap is doing its job!

A final anecdote; this morning I had a dream the helicopter from Skyfall had finally found my apartment block and had dropped on bomb on it! I woke up to another clash of thunder which went off right above my apartment!  ”It’s ok”, I thought, my apartment may not be bullet proof but I can withstand three months of stormy, cold and generally miserable Fukui weather. Now let’s turn that heater on!

The first snowfall

The first snowfall

Heating in schools: Furry underwear and dalek heaters

How has Japan adapted to its piping hot summer and finger-numbingly cold winter? I’m finding out that it’s not in the most high-tech ways! 

Four months ago, I first entered my school and a thermometer read 38’C. I would’ve died from heat exhaustion if it wasn’t for the air-con in the shokuin shitsu (teacher’s room). Now it’s reading a mere 10’C but feels a lot less. The 80% humidity here wraps itself around you like a damp blanket and you have to work hard to shake it off. I imagine this isn’t easy if you’re a junior high school student and have to sit at your desk all day. For me, I cowardly retreat to my desk in the heated shokuin shitsu whilst the students suffer the cold in the drafty corridors and chilly classrooms.

Let me set the scene. This is an average classroom. Behind the curtains are single-pained windows. On the other side are metal doors. There is no heating or cooling system in place, yet.


Yes, that’s a black board you see! And each student has a wooden desk and a chair with his or her name on it.  In contrast to this Victorian era set up, each room also has a magnetic whiteboard, a document camera, which is great for showing student’s work, and a normal overhead projector. In Echizen City a lot of money is channelled in to new equipment for the schools, but the blackboard remains an essential part of every lesson.

So, how do the students cope with the hot summers and freezing winters? 


In the summer the girls wear white, short- sleeved, sailor-style shirts and mid-length blue, pleated skirts. Boys have a white shirt and black trousers. During special times of the school year, students wear their PE kit that is a breathable sports t-shirt and purple shorts. Both are UNISEX and seem to be flattering to most of the students. Indoor white trainers are worn all the time and are changed for outdoor trainers when students play sport outside.

What is most amazing about JHS uniform is that the students don’t alter them in any way! The dress code is so strict that a girl couldn’t get away with rolling her skirt up one inch! And it’s not just the uniforms, no make-up is allowed, girls’ hair has to be tied up if it is pass shoulder length and bunches must be tied below the ear line! This changes considerable in high schools, where ties loosely hang around boys’ necks, girls’ hair is long and untied and some girls roll their skirts to a dangerously short length! The uniform police, aka the strict teachers, must retire in the transition between the two schools!

During the winter the girls are wear navy, long-sleeved sailor uniforms and boys wear a black, military style uniform.  In school, no other outer clothing is allowed to keep them warm. This is especially difficult for the girls who must wear skirts that offers little protection from the cold. Yet now the students are wearing long socks, cardigans under their uniforms and wear coats to school. Tights are permitted, but only on the coldest days. So one unusual piece of clothing I’ve seen in shops are these, ”pokapoka pantsu” and the girls at my school tell me they love them!

Fluffy pants!


Summer is dealt with quite simply: open the windows and hope the draft blows the stifling heat away. But in the winter it gets so cold the students’ fingers would freeze without any sort of heating. So one chilly November afternoon, lessons were suspended and I was told that heating was going to be installed. Little did I imagine that it would be kerosene stoves and even more surprising, that the students were going to construct them!

At first sight the stoves look like a dalek from Doctor Who. What’s more, they need a metal chimney constructed across the classroom to take away potentially harmful fumes, such as carbon monoxide. The chimneys are made from about 30 parts which need to be slotted together, hoisted to the top of the classroom and attached there with thin pieces of wire to screws in the ceiling. I watched as this was done in less than an hour by a class of 30 twelve year olds and their home room teacher. I was as much use as a glass hammer so I just watched and took photos.


The chimney being constructed

Everyone helped out and held it in place for about 30 minutes!

Everyone helped out and held it in place for about 30 minutes!


Attaching it to the ceiling with dubiously thin pieces of wire!

So within an hour all the classroom in the school had a heater ready to go! This cooperation of the students and teachers was amazing to watch and next year I’ll have to be of more help!

Why do the schools still use kerosene heaters? Well the school is about sixty years old and was built to last but not built to keep the heat in. Therefore there is zero insulation and no central heating. Installing air-con units would be expensive and running anything from electricity is pricey on such a large scale. Kerosene, on the other hand, is cheap, widely used and gives out the best heat, like I’ve found…

An unpredicted problem

The kerosene heaters are switched on whenever there is a frosty day and it turns out I personally have a problem with them. Heaven forbid, they’re too hot! As an ALT I usually stand right next to the heater at the front of the classroom so I often overheat due to the multiple winter layers I wear and come out of the lessons rosy cheeked! The kids in the front row suffer too and are practically getting their leg hairs singed from the blazing heat! But the poor kids in the back rows wouldn’t know if the stove is on or not!

So Japan, you can invent 8K TV and buildings which withstand earthquakes but your heating system is lacking. How about that thing called insulation and maybe even central heating?