Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Memories of Japan: Doing the Laundry

Japanese twin tub washing machine.  This
is a much newer model than the one I used.
Today is Tuesday, December 17, 2013. 

An American friend of mine in Osaka insisted on bringing a big, American-style washer and dryer with her to Japan.  Most people don't have room for a washer inside their home, so it gets put outside, in back of the house, or on the veranda, for apartments. 

Like most other American washers, hers was fully automatic, with an agitator.  You could do something like 10-14 pounds of clothes in about 40 minutes, and then dry the clothes in about an hour.  Her washer and dryer were both out in a sheltered area of her back yard, and she noticed her Japanese next-door neighbor lady surreptitiously peering over the fence, watching her as she did her laundry. One day the husband came out to watch as my friend calmly did her laundry.  A week or so later, the lady struck up a conversation with my friend as she did her laundry. 

"Can you use your dryer even when it's raining?" the neighbor asked.

My American friend told her that she could.

"How long does it take you to do your wash?" she wanted to know.

My friend told her that she could get three loads of clothes washed and dried in one morning.  

"How many clothes can you put into one load?"

My friend demonstrated.

The neighbor lady gasped.  "What do you do with all your free time?" she asked.

*** *** *** *** ***

My apartment in Osaka had two verandas: one was on an outer wall of the building, and the other one was in an inner, recessed area that was protected from the rain, but which didn't get any direct sunlight.  I aired out my sleeping mats (futon) on the outer veranda, and did my laundry on the inner one.  I had only a washer, no dryer, and mine was a Japanese model, very tiny, with two tubs.  It was not automatic, and it was not hooked up to a water source.  By tiny, I mean it was about half the size (length and width) of a standard American washer, and maybe two-thirds the height.  It washed no more than about 4.5 pounds of clothes at any one time, so just about a third of a full load in an American washer.  That meant that for every load an American housewife did, I did three loads.  

Inside the twin tub washer.  Wash clothes on the left
and spin them dry on the right.
To use the washer, I first manually closed the drain at the bottom of the larger tub on the left. Then I took a plain rubber hose like the ones Americans use to water their gardens and hooked it up to my kitchen faucet.  I threaded the hose through a small separate opening at the top of the sliding veranda doors and hooked the other end up to my washing machine.  Then I went back into the kitchen and turned on the water.  I did have the option of using warm or hot water, but most laundry is done with cold water in Japan. 

You can see the small windows at the top of these larger
ones on this veranda.  They have separate little sliding
glasspanes and no screens.
I filled the tub with the clothes and put in some soap.  I had to watch the tub as it filled and turn off the water from the kitchen faucet before the tub overflowed onto my veranda.  Next, I had to turn on the machine.  These machines didn't agitate your clothes.  They had a one-way spinning action, so all of my laundry eventually got pulled, twisted and stretched as it was spun around and around the same way.  At least it had a little timer button, so I could set the spin action for a certain number of minutes.  When I thought the clothes were clean, I stopped the machine and manually drained the washer tub, then closed the drain again and filled it about half-way with clean water from the kitchen sink.  I then started the machine again, while the water was still running and opened the drain.  In this way, the clothes were rinsed until the water ran clear.   I had to pay attention to the rinse cycle, so that I wouldn't leave the water running.  (Anyone who knows me will not be surprised to learn that I left the water running a number of times while living in Japan.  The veranda floors had drains, but they could only handle so much.  Once our neighbors under us complained about the water dripping from our veranda to theirs.  My husband took care of the matter, but not gladly.)

Laundry poles suspended from the
veranda above.
When the rinse was done, I turned off the water and let the tub drain, then I took each item out of the tub and wrung the water out of it and stuffed it into the basket on the right.  I couldn't always stuff the whole load into the spinner basket, so I did a few things at a time.  I set the spinner for a certain number of minutes and closed the lid.  Then I took the clothes out of the spinner and hung them up to dry, usually while spinning the other half of the load I had just washed.  

I didn't have a clothes line.  I had a pole that was on large hooks suspended from the veranda above mine.  For t-shirts and things with sleeves, I threaded one end of the pole through both sleeves.  For slacks, I folded the pants and hung them up over the pole.  I used special clothes pins meant to be used with the thick pole.  The close-up pictures of poles I found on the web show metallic poles, but we used poles made of plastic when I was there. 

Special clothespin for poles
 For some things, like socks, Japanese use little frames with lots of little clothespins dangling from it.  The frame can be round or square, and it may hold 12-20 items, depending on how big it is. 

Depending on the weather and how humid it was outdoors, the laundry could take a long, long time to dry.  If I left my clothes on the line after sundown, the dew would moisten them again, and I had to leave them out and let them dry the next day or bring them in and drape them all over everything until they dried out.  The idea was to wait for a day when the weather was expected to be nice and sunny and get my laundry done early in the morning, so that the clothes would be dry by late afternoon.  I still couldn't get more than three or four loads done in one day, and remember that this is about the same as one large load of laundry in the United States.

Clothes threaded on a pole or hung on a little frame.
Very few Japanese have a large back yard like this.
I didn't have to pay quite as much attention to the weather, because my clothes pole was in a covered veranda in a recessed area of the building.  However, I had no sunlight, either, so although my clothes never got rained on, they didn't dry very fast, either.  My clothes got a little bent out of shape in Japan, but at least they didn't shrink in a dryer.

 High-rise apartments in Japan with laundry and bedding
hanging out to dry or freshen.
Now that you know what is involved in doing the laundry in Japan, you can appreciate why my friend's Japanese neighbor lady was so amazed at how little time it took her to do the laundry.  The "free time" question struck me as funny when my friend told me about it, but I realized, especially after I came back from Japan, just how much free time Americans have in comparison to Japanese housewives, whose household chores are so much more time-consuming. :-)

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