Dealing with kotatsuholism
By Arthur Binard
I was addicted. I guess I still am, though now I refer to myself as a "recovering kotatsu-holic." It's a seasonal thing, so every winter I need to muster my will anew. Quitting wasn't easy. Sure, I'll always miss that relaxing sensation, that warm rush, but I had no other choice. I mean, I'd come home, sit down, slide in, switch on, and then just doze off. With my nether half in that cozy space, I couldn't get any work done.
Forgive me. I should have begun with an explanation of kotatsu. In Japan this ingenious piece of furniture is universally known, and two ideograms suffice to spell out the word. Yet in English, it requires a bit more fleshing out.
The kotatsu is both a table and a space heater, in three parts -- a short-legged base with a heat-lamp screwed to its underside, a coverlet draped over that, surmounted by a tabletop. Before electricity, kotatsu were warmed by charcoal heaters. In farmhouses and some spacious city dwellings, one finds the hori-gotatsu, a deluxe dugout version, which provides extra luxurious legroom by way of a hole carved down into the floor.
I had thought that the kotatsu was uniquely, exclusively Japanese. Then one chilly Saturday, when I was out shopping, buying yams and tangerines at my neighborhood greengrocer, I met a guy named Ali. He was buying tangerines too, and we struck up a conversation, about Japanese food, and then the cold weather. Ali told me that in Iran, where he grew up, people use something called a korsi to stay warm. The korsi is both a table and a space heater, with a coverlet draped over it, set up just like a kotatsu and, among Iranians, just as universally beloved.
I told Ali about my kotatsu addiction, and how I'd gone cold turkey. He admitted to being somewhat hooked himself too, but said that his kotatsu habit didn't interfere with his work or social life. "Maybe it's because I grew up side-by-side with the temptation. The korsi was a natural part of daily life, a family thing, so nobody ever went overboard."
I dream of a day when kotatsu is able to stand on its own four legs in English, up there together with sushi and futon. Tomes of winter haiku featuring kotatsu now sit untranslatable, waiting for an era when they might make sense without footnotes. However, it's the transition period that worries me. If Americans in great numbers start sitting down, sliding in, switching on and dozing off, it could bust an already busted economy, adding more fuel to the deficit fires.
What if that led to more Japan-bashing? Mobs take sledgehammers to kotatsus in the streets of Detroit ... . Not a pretty picture in any season.
Shukan ST: February 25, 2011
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