May 13, 2009

Out with the old


In his aforementioned Tokyo travelogue, Orson Scott Card also mentioned that

Japanese have never built their houses to be permanent. When paper is a major component of interior walls, you're not building for the ages. Houses have no resale value--only the land they're built on.

This, bemoans Alex Kerr as well, is all too true.

When I was working in Osaka, I observed a house on street lined with Japanese-style "row houses" get torn down to the foundations (the street looked like a kid missing a tooth), and a new house (that looked the same) being built in its place using an I-beam steel frame.

That last bit reveals a big reason why Japanese aren't so sentimental about "old" buildings. Earthquakes. The Kobe earthquake in January 1995 killed 6400 people, most of whom were living in older wooden houses that collapsed, triggering fires from space heaters and ruptured gas lines.

Card also observes that "[Tokyo] is a city with little air-conditioning, though it gets as hot (and as cold) as Washington, D.C." Actually, there's plenty of air-conditioning in Tokyo, but little central heating or air-conditioning in residences.

What can be additionally confusing is that like the switch from winter to summer school uniforms, air-conditioning tends to be turned on and off according to long-established seasonal rituals, not necessarily because of the weather.

When I was living in Osaka, my very nice and fairly new apartment didn't have central heating or air conditioning, or high-pressure hot water (you could run hot water in the shower, or the kitchen, but not both).

There were hookups for a heat pump, but that was an after-market accessory I couldn't afford. My missionary apartment in Odawara did have an air-conditioner, but only thanks to a generous landlord. Heating was by the ubiquitous kerosene stove.

The delightful anime series Strawberry Marshmallow takes place in an upper-middle class suburb. Watch carefully, and you'll note that the rooms are heated and air-conditioned separately (it figures occasionally into the plot). There's no central air.

A recent episode of the NHK science program Tameshite Gatten! ("Science for Everyone") analyzed why people sometimes fainted and even drowned after getting into a scalding hot o-furo. One recommendation was letting the shower run for a couple of minutes first.

The problem, you see, is that in the winter, stepping from the cold bathroom air into a hot o-furo causes the blood pressure to spike and then plummet. Why such cold bathrooms? Because they're not heated! Hence engineering marvels like the electric toilet seat.

So, just how eager are you to reduce your carbon footprint?

To be sure, most newer studio apartments do come equipped with a combined heating/cooling heat pump, an important prop in Freeze Me.

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