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Winter in Gunma: A guide to keeping sane

Guy juggling stuff
Illumination, with dinosaurs!
Deckchair, not in season

It’s December! The first snow has fallen in the mountains, the last of the summer mosquitos are dying (thank god) and everyone in Gunma is setting up their kotatsu, refilling their kerosene and buying this season’s most fashionable puffy down jackets. It’s time to brace yourself for the long dark winter ahead.

Winter in Gunma can be a harrowing experience. JETs from the warmer parts of the world (Australia, California, Tatooine, etc) can struggle to adapt to the unique problems that frozen water falling from the sky can bring, while even those JETs from colder places (the UK, Canada, Hoth, etc) can have problems dealing with a cold winter without all the comforts of home, family and friends. Aside from the practicalities of cold weather, winter in Japan has its own challenges. Depending on your mindset and preparation going into winter you could think of Gunma as a winter wonderland, or a frozen desolate place where cabbages freeze in the ground and monkeys mug innocents.

This article is to help you deal with some of the more abstract problems that you can face in winter. Winter in Gunma is dark, cold and dry. It’s hard to go outside, and meeting with friends takes more effort than in summer. It’s easy to succumb to depression, homesickness and thoughts of setting your school’s staffroom alight so that just once it can be a little warmer than zero degrees. For new JETs the first winter in Gunma comes at an unfortunate time where the euphoria of first arriving in Japan is starting to wear off and you’re firmly on your way to Stage 2 (see Peter’s article on stage 2 here: But with a little preparation and the right mindset you can have an amazing winter that’ll leave you sad when the snow melts away in April.

Here’s what you can do to help you survive to see the cherry blossoms:

Get a Hobby

When you’re not diligently planning your lessons, professionally developing yourself, reading pedagogical papers or running a community eikaiwa lesson, what do you do to relax? I know we’re all passionate about our work and wouldn’t go home before 8pm every day if our contracts didn’t clearly state our end of work time as [$_YOUR_FINISHING_TIME], but you need something to do other than hit your head against the wall of the Japan

ese education system.

Do you like baking? Knitting? Games? Juggling mikan? Instead of sitting at home staring at a wall, why not spend some time doing literally anything else? For a good balance, try to have:

  • A hobby you can do by yourself inside (writing, making music, painting, etc)
  • A hobby you practice with others (team sports, video games, cooking, etc)
  • A winter hobby you can do outside (skiing, snowboarding, outdoor onsen, competitive snowball fights)

It can be harder to fill up your time than it is in summer, but with a little thought you can ensure that you’re not just sitting in your dark, frozen house, eating the last of your hoard of snacks from home, wondering who exactly this “father winter” is, and how much you’d have to pay to have him ‘taken care of’.

Experience Japanese Winter Culture

After the hectic, loud summer festivals you can be forgiven for thinking that Japan doesn’t have much going on in winter, but there’s just as many seasonal cultural events, you just need to look in the right places.

  • Snow festivals are held in many regions, especially in the mountains, to celebrate their abundant snow. You can see ice sculptures, ride on snow slides, eat hot foods and participate in snowball fights. Ask your school or nearby ALTs about what happens in your area.
  • Japanese Christmas is not western Christmas. It’s all about KFC, cake, having a romantic time, and (in a disturbing number of Tokyo department stores) crucifying Santa Claus. Depending on how you feel about this, you can either dive in and have a Japanese Christmas, or you can try and set up some ‘real’ Christmas events to show your Japanese friends and co-workers the true meaning of the holiday. Alternatively blow their minds with Hanukkah (“What do you mean you don’t celebrate Christmas?! You’re from Gaikoku!”)
  • Illuminations. Do you think electric lighting is the best thing since sliced bread? Do bright colourful lights grab your attention like a cat with a laser pointer? Illuminations are for you. Different areas in Japan compete to have the fanciest, most romantic illumination displays every year. Great for dates.
  • Japanese New Year! Lament to your Japanese friends or coworkers that you’ve never eaten ozoni (traditional Japanese new year soup), kagami-mochi (new year’s rice cake) or done hatsumode (the first shrine visit of the year). Someone may offer to share their family holiday with you. New Years in Japan feels like a very different holiday to many western countries. It’s time to spend with your family thinking about the upcoming year and enjoying traditional games and foods.

Work on your Tan

Winter in Gunma is dark. The sun rises late and sets early, and many days you’ll be inside for all the daylight hours. Turns out perpetual darkness is not that great for humans. We need sunlight to maintain healthy sleep patterns, produce vitamin d and generally feel like ourselves. It’s important not to lock yourself in a dark room on the weekends or you’ll start to feel like you did when you were 15. A tortured soul that nobody understands. You may even start listening to Dashboard Confessional again. I promise you their songs aren’t as deep as you remember.

Luckily it’s not too hard to get light; even if you’re at school. Sit near a window when it’s sunny and soak up dem rays. If you take up an outdoor hobby like snowboarding you’ll get lots of sun out on the ski fields.


There are a few good chances to travel over the winter months. Obviously the winter break (roughly December 26th – January 6th) is your best chance to do a serious trip. But there’s also National Founding day in February, conveniently the same time as Hokkaido’s famous Snow Festival. If you have the money and inclination you can travel around Japan, or if you’re like me you can flee the country for warmer climes. Head to the equator or southern hemisphere for a quick top-up of summer heat.

Just remember to take all the normal precautions when travelling. Let your supervisor know when and where you’re going, take your JET travel insurance booklet, register with your country’s embassy, and don’t combine alcohol + dangerous activities (especially driving). As my school’s PE teacher says, there are three cars you don’t want to ride in on your holidays: police cars, ambulances and hearses.

Be Proactive

Really this whole article could just be replaced by the advice “be proactive in winter”. I probably could have said that before you read the ~1000 words before this. My bad. Actually this advice works for most of your time in Japan. If you shut yourself away, you’re going to have a Bad Time™. This doesn’t mean you need to be a crazy party animal who’s busy every day of the week. In fact, as a lifelong introvert and proponent of “stay-at-home-and-read-a-book-Fridays”, that sounds like hell. But as with so many things in life, you’ll only get out what you put in*.

* (doesn’t apply to financial markets or magician’s hats)

Support Networks

To end this article I’d like to remind you that as much as it may feel like it sometimes, you’re not alone in Japan. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The Gunma ALT community is one of the best in Japan. There’s a lot of people you can call if you need some help, support or just to hang out.

Two last sure-fire events to enjoy winter and avoid stage 2:

Come to the GAJET Ski Trip on January 31st up in Minakami for a day of awesome snow sports followed by unwinding those tired muscles in the famous Takaragawa Onsen and a dinner and party before bed.

Or if you’re missing home and want a bit more ‘foreign’ culture, come to the GAJET Art Share Night on February 21st in Takasaki. It’s a night where the entertainment is provided by fellow JETs and includes everything from live music, stand-up comedy and poetry readings to showcases of art.

This is all well and good, but I’m physically freezing HELP ME.

Check out some of our other winter guides on how to stay warm, winter-proof your home, or get into snowboarding

Surviving a Gunma Winter


Source: Travelista1 @ WordPress
Photo: Peter Frazer
ashly shanback

For those who may not know, I was born and raised in sunny San Diego, California, which is famous for its year-round Mediterranean climate (average 13ºC–22ºC throughout the year). Though I spent my university years in a slightly colder and damper Berkeley, California, it was still a shock to my system when temperatures began to fluctuate in the fall of my first year on JET.

Thanks to the temperature difference between day and night, as well as Gunma’s infamous cold dry winds, I was constantly on the verge of either catching a cold or being completely destroyed by a sore throat, runny nose, and every other common cold symptom throughout fall and winter.

Remembering how utterly unprepared I was for the cold, I’m writing this article particularly for JETs who were also raised in warmer climates to provide some basics on keeping warm and healthy this winter. For those from colder climates, give the article a once-over—some of these tips may prove useful for you, too (and if you have any additional tips to share, feel free to comment!).

  1. Wear layers.
    • I highly recommend wearing thermal underwear (such as “HEATTECH” from Uniqlo) as your undermost layer on top and bottom. This special material keeps your body heat in so you feel warmer from the get-go. On top of that layer, I usually wear a sweater, a puffy down-jacket, and pants as my base.
    • Layers are important because though you may feel just warm enough when you’re outside, as soon as you walk into a super-heated office, you may start sweating, which could cause you to catch a cold. Layers allow you to match your surroundings.
    • Note: School hallways will most likely be the same temperature as outdoors, but many schools ban wearing hats, scarves, gloves, and down-jackets inside, so layer accordingly.
  2. Invest in warm winter clothes.
    • The difference between my first and second winter on JET comes down to one thing: my jacket. My first year I mostly wore peacoats, which were cute, but did not keep me warm in the least. My second year I invested in a puffy down jacket, which looked a bit silly, but was so well insulated, I didn’t mind. Gunma is famous for its soul-crushingly dry and cold wind, so choose clothes that are wind resistant (shiny jackets tend to be a good indicator).
  3. Cover as much of your body as possible.
    • A hat, gloves/mittens, and a scarf are vital for keeping body heat in. Every bit of exposed skin is an opening for body heat to escape. Some Japanese people also use a haramaki (a wrap that goes around the lower abdomen) to keep the stomach and lower back warm. I personally like wearing a haramaki, so you may want to give it a try!
    • For those who will cycle a lot this winter, fuzzy neck warmers that cover your neck and part of your face can help keep you warm, but beware: they can also trap your sweat, which again can become the source of a cold. Ear muffs are great normally, but should be avoided on snowy days when wet hair could lead to a cold.
  4. Take a bath at night.
    • This may just be personal preference, but I find that on the nights when I only take a shower, I am not nearly as warm as the nights when I take a shower and then a bath. If I clean off the day’s dirt and sweat and then heat my body for the night, I always feel healthier in the morning. On a side note, my pipes froze over twice my first year, so my coworkers suggested running hot water just before I went to bed to prevent this phenomenon, which became a good excuse to take a bath every night.
  5. Keep your room heated and humidified.
    • Most people use their air conditioners as heaters during the winter, which is great for keeping warm but tends to dry out the surrounding air, causing many a sore throat. I recommend using a humidifier, which replenishes the moisture in the air and can help prevent scratchy, sore throats. At work, you may see tea pots on stove heaters, or even your coworkers spraying water bottles into the air, for this same reason (to humidify the atmosphere).
  6. Eat warm foods.
    • Nabe literally means “pot”, but during winter it describes the unbeatable “hot pot.” If you like the prepared soup bases available at grocery stores, you can make nabe very simply by adding the soup base to a ceramic nabe pot, adding any assortment of vegetables (Chinese cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, etc.) and proteins, and heating the pot. This dish is best enjoyed cooked over a portable stove under the comfort of a kotatsu, a square heated table covered with a blanket. If you want even more warmth, I recommend a heated carpet and/or heated blanket, both can be purchased from Cainz HomeNitori or similar stores.
  7. Soak up the sun.
    • The next two points are more for mental health. On clear winter days, it is incredibly uplifting to feel the sun on your face. Typically it’s dark when you leave for work and it’s dark when you get home from work, so some people don’t get enough Vitamin D from the sun’s rays. Accordingly, if you can, give yourself some time during the day to go outside and absorb the sun’s restoring rays. Even if it’s cold, if you walk around for a bit in the sun you’ll feel warmer, and the exposure to the sun will provide you with some much needed revitalization.
  8. Don’t lock yourself inside all winter.
    • It’s very tempting to spend the entire winter season watching movies while eating nabe under yourkotatsu (see No. 6). While this can be an enjoyable way to spend some evenings on your own or with others, I highly recommend leaving your apartment to explore Gunma during the winter. Gunma is famous for winter sports such as snowboarding, skiing, snowshoeing and more, so this could be a great chance to try a new activity! GAJET Epic Ski and Snowboarding Event will be held on January 24–26. Click here for more details.
    • For non-sports fans, I recommend trying a winter onsen day trip. Kusatsu is extremely hot, but in the heart of winter the water’s heating powers can keep your body warm all day while you explore the town’s lovely cafés, restaurants and shops. For a comprehensive Kusatsu guide, check out Japan Guide’s Kusatsu page. Japan Guide also introduces some of Gunma’s other famous onsen here.

There you have it! Just some basics to start your winter off right this year. 🙂

Combat the cold – Winter proof your home


Suffering separation anxiety when parted from your kotatsu? Sub-zero apartments and icy bike rides to school mean Gunma’s cold is already biting. Without wanting to sound like a doom-monger, the worst of the winter is yet to come! Meet the cold head-on and make your pad a hot-haven…

Bubble wrap your windows

Bubble wrapping your windows will give you instant double glazing. Bubble-up to keep the cold out and your precious warmth in. Wrap with smaller bubbles will be more effective as the bubbles are packed together more tightly than those on a larger grade wrap. Fitting it is simple; clean your windows, cut your wrap to size, and use masking tape to attach it to the frame. Some websites recommend just spraying water onto the bubble wrap and sticking it directly on to the glass. Here’s a step-by-step for the DIY-phobic.

You can pick up sheets of bubble wrap at the 100円 store. For larger lengths visit Cainz Homes. Try and resist the urge to pop all those lovely bubbles before Spring!

Banish drafts

Don’t let a draft blow that warm fuzzy feeling out of your kotatsu. Wobbly doors and flimsy windows seem to be the norm in Japanese apartments. A sukima teepu (すきまテープ) is a quick fix to keep the cold winds out. These tapes have a peel-off sticky back and are available in foam and brush varieties. Cut lengths to size and stick them around the edges of your doors and windows. These are also great for keeping out noise, dust and summer insects. Pick some up at a hardware store or online.

Curtains for the cold

Tackle the shivers by investing in some drapery. Flimsy curtains will let the heat escape and the cold penetrate. I did away with my apartment’s flimsy, too short, lurid green curtains and replaced them with some heavy heat keepers – the improvement was instant. Heavy curtains will serve you well throughout the year by keeping the sunlight out and you cool during the summer. A makeover at your mado won’t cost the earth either… I picked up my miracle ‘heat-in, sun-out’ curtains at Sanki for a bargain 1,000円. I did a smaller window for 500円. Hang some new threads at your genkan for an extra defence against the winter.

Fit a stop panel

Another solution for window warmth warfare is a ストップパネル (stop panel). These plastic or foam sheets have a reflective silver side and can be cut to size. Fit them to windows and glass doors to tackle heat loss and drafts. These panels are only high enough to cover the bottom section of your windows and doors, so are maybe worth considering if bubble wrap alone isn’t keeping you toasty. You can find stop panels on Rakuten.

Apply some heat

It seems there isn’t anything that can’t be heated by a kairo. The word kairo comes from the kanji 懐 (futokoro) meaning pocket, which can also be read as kai, and 炉 (ro) which is translated as oven. Eco-kairo are environmentally friendly microwavable gel pockets offered in an endless array of designs. Pick up your ‘pocket oven’ at a hundred yen store or go high-tech with a USB version.

When your futon feels like a block of ice, slip in a kairo bed pad and pillow for a cosy night’s rest. Try a kairo band-aid which can be strapped to your favourite cold spot for a guaranteed 40 degree glow on the skin.

But the heat doesn’t stop there… A set of USB kairo glove warmers could come in handy when you’re bashing out February lesson plans on the keyboard. And for ladies who are very brave, and presumably very cold, there are even kairo panty liners. Good luck girls!

Stay warm Gunma.

Cover photo by Michael Sum on Unsplash

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