Forest hike and Japanese tea ceremony

Today I wondered: what was I doing in Japan around this time four years ago? The answer did not disappoint me: I was hiking through a virgin forest and attended a field tea ceremony (nodate 野点).

Me and my aunt, who was visiting from Belgium, were invited by my lovely friends Nobuo-san and Motoko-san to go on a hike with them. Being avid hikers, they claimed to know the most beautiful spots for hiking around Toyota City. They took us to a beautiful virgin forest. It was kōyō (autumn leaves 紅葉 ) season and the light was gorgeous that day.

japanese forest

Our guides are leading the way. Seeing bamboo in a forest was very exotic to me.

japanese forest

The autumn light on the coloured leaves was spectacular.

japanese forest

Looking up the trunk of an ancient tree.

As if taking us to this precious place wasn’t enough, they surprised us with an impromptu tea ceremony in the forest. When we sat down in a clearing to have a little rest, Motoko-san started unpacking several implements that she had been carrying in her backpack. As I had no knowledge of tea ceremony at the time, we were very curious to see what all those beautiful objects were for.

nodate field tea ceremony

Motoko-san is unpacking her wares.

nodate field tea ceremony

She produced two gorgeous red chawan (tea bowls) out of her backpack, and some wagashi (Japanese sweets). The stop at the sweets shop on our way to the forest suddenly made a lot more sense.

nodate field tea ceremony wagashi

Seasonal wagashi

nodate field tea ceremony

Omnomnom. Wagashi are delicious. The bowl of tea is waiting on the bench to be drunk.

It was one of my first experiences with the Japanese tea ceremony and it made a deep impression on me. The spontaneous enjoyment of tea in that beautiful natural setting was such a special experience. That day I learned about the concepts of wabisabi (わびさび the Japanese aesthetic of transience and imperfection, perfectly embodied by the fallen leaves, the rough table and the setting in general) and ichigo ichie (一期一会 litt. ‘one time, one meeting’, indicating the preciousness of meetings with people and emphasizing that every moment and experience is unique).

Thank you Motoko-san and Nobuo-san for that once in a lifetime experience!

Tiny Japanese iron

Living space in Japan is limited. At first glance, Japan’s population density of 336 people per square kilometer seems deceptively low. In fact, it is lower than that of Belgium, which is 370 people per square kilometer. We should, however, take into account that only roughly 20% of Japan’s surface is fit for human habitation, due to the large amount of mountainous terrain, thus leading to an actual population density that is much higher.

Japanese people therefore tend to live in much smaller houses and apartments than Belgian people do. This limited living space has sparked numerous creative solutions to save on space. One of those is the tiny iron, accompanied by an equally tiny ironing board.

I had already seen an extensive range of small irons when shopping at an electronics store but hadn’t paid much attention to it at the time, since they also had Western sized irons. I was very surprised, however, when during an afternoon of crafting my friend showed me her ironing board. It was so tiny! And it was intended to be used while sitting on the ground, as you can clearly see by the short legs, although it could arguably also be used while sitting at a table.

tiny Japanese iron

Tiny Japanese iron and ironing board

My friend told me that she doesn’t like ironing and who could blame her with such tiny implements. It must take ages to iron one item of clothing. Japanese clothing store Uniqlo has cleverly responded to the ironing conundrum in Japan by developing a range of ‘super non iron’ shirts. This again shows how Japan is all about convenience, which I love. It also illustrates how the Japanese love to use the word super in their branding. To Western ears that sounds a bit funny. It always puts a smile on my face whenever I hear it. Somehow it makes everything sound cute and powerful at the same time.

uniqlo non iron shirt

Uniqlo super non-iron shirt, perfect for people who don’t like to iron!

After writing this article, I found out that non-iron clothes are full of chemicals that are harmful to the environment, so I am no longer a fan of non-iron clothes.

For comparison purposes I will describe a Belgian ironing board. It stands on high legs and is about three times the size of the Japanese ironing board. Belgian irons are larger and often have an external steam generator, which produces more steam and helps to iron more efficiently. With the Belgian setup I actually quite enjoy ironing. For honesty’s sake I do have to mention that there are also many Belgian people who dislike ironing.

large Belgian iron

Belgian ironing setup, with large ironing board and iron with external steam generator

Despite my ravings about the wonders of large ironing boards and external steam generators, I would probably also turn to the tiny Japanese iron if I lived in a Japanese ‘one room mansion’ (ワンルームマンション). A one room mansion, as the name suggests, has only one room of about 10m², with a very small bathroom and cooking area. The one room mansion blocks often look a bit depressing to me, with rows of uniform doors, leading to identical square boxes.

one room mansion

One room mansion in Japan

What is your experience with ironing in Japan?


Typhoon season

Typhoons are a part of life in Japan. The typhoon season in Japan runs from May through October, with peaks in August and September. Since weather in Belgium is usually pretty mild, the occasional summer thunder-storm excepted, I was quite worried at the prospect of facing tropical cyclones during my stay in Japan. My concerns were not lifted by ominous typhoon warning e-mails sent out by the expat support agency that was hired to watch over all Toyota expats. The e-mails advised everyone to stay inside, keep away from the windows and have enough supplies to last 1-2 days in case you couldn’t get out of the house and the electricity failed. Part of the advice literally read:

If you don’t have water and other supplies, now might be a good time to go out to your local convenience store. There is no need to go overboard, as this situation is only likely to continue for another 1-2 days at the most, but you may wish to get enough to tide you over. In case of electricity failure, having some candles and torches / batteries would be advisable.

I have included the full warning e-mail below.

Being the good little gaijin that I am, I dutifully followed this advice, particularly the part about ‘now might be a good time to go out to your local convenience store’. So I wrestled through strong winds and pouring rain, holding on to my umbrella for dear life, to get enough supplies to last me through the upcoming natural disaster.

This video gives you an idea of the weather conditions during my shopping run:

Having arrived home with my supplies, I huddled up inside the house to wait out the terrible storm that was surely about to hit soon. But instead of gaining in strength, the storm seemed to die down! I turned out I went shopping during the height of the typhoon! It seems that I severely overestimated the strength of the typhoon.

Nevertheless, my neighbour also seemed a bit worried the typhoon, because this is what she did to protect the plant at her front door:

plant protection typhoon

This plant was carefully wrapped to protect it from the strong storm winds. This still didn’t prevent it from falling over, which it did, but the plant nevertheless made it through the storm in one piece.

Despite my own personal experience with typhoons (i.e. them being pretty mild), typhoons can be quite dangerous. Especially in the Southern parts of Japan, people die every year because of typhoons. The year I was in Japan, parts of Nagoya and Okazaki were flooded for a few hours because of the rain front preceding the typhoon. Even just two weeks ago there was a large typhoon associated flood in the Kanto region that killed several people.

Considering the big picture, I am still unsure on how to react to typhoons. Go about my business as usual and ignore the whole thing? It seems I would have been better off having done so instead of having gone shopping for emergency supplies. Salary men also seem to ignore typhoons completely. There is no question of staying inside as advised. They go to work or die trying. But on the other hand there are these disastrous stories in the media. I also heard that sometimes schools close when a typhoon approaches. So what is the best way to deal with an approaching typhoon? What is your experience with typhoons? What is the advice you would give? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section!


Full warning e-mail from the expat support agency:

Typhoon #15, also known as Typhoon Roke, will hit Nagoya Tomorrow at approximately 15:00/3pm.  Please exercise caution. 

An evacuation warning has been issued to all areas of Nagoya City, and in certain parts of Nagoya such as Moriyama, actual evacuations have been ordered. While the rain has settled in the past few hours, there is a good chance that heavy rain fall will occur overnight and again tomorrow morning, through until when the Typhoon is scheduled to pass through this area at 15:00 tomorrow.

We recommend the following:


  • If possible, stay at home and keep advised of the situation by watching NHK. While not always in English, important notices are given in English on NHK.
  • Stay clear of rivers / streams and large drains. There is potential for any of them to overflow without warning.
  • Avoid using a vehicle, especially in the dark, as it is difficult to see flooded areas and it is often too late once you enter them. Kindly note that your insurance is, for the most part, unlikely to cover the loss of your vehicle due to flooding.
  • If your parking spot is in a low-lying area, move your car to a local supermarket or other such car parks that are on higher land. This would be advisable especially if there is already 5 – 10 cm of water that you need to wade through around your vehicle.
  • If you don’t have water and other supplies, now might be a good time to go out to your local convenience store. There is no need to go overboard, as this situation is only likely to continue for another 1-2 days at the most, but you may wish to get enough to tide you over. In case of electricity failure, having some candles and torches / batteries would be advisable.

WITH REGARD TO THE TYPHOON (scheduled arrival tomorrow at 15:00)

  • Stay inside! Keep advised of the situation by watching NHK. While not always in English, important notices are given in English on NHK (Channels 1 and 3).
  • Secure or move inside outdoor items such as toys, grills, bicycles, furniture, plants and anything moveable on the balcony. Move potted plants and other heavy objects away from windows inside as well.
  • If you have shutters on your windows and doors, pull them shut. Shutters can prevent your windows from being broken by flying items.
  • Set your freezer to the coldest temperature setting to minimize spoilage if the power is cut off
  • Watch for leaks around windows and doors. If the wind is strong enough, water may be blown into your home even if the windows are closed. Have handy towels, rags and mops
  • If the storm becomes severe, move into a hallway or area where there is the least exposure to external glass windows.
  • Draw curtains across the windows to prevent against flying glass should windows crack.
  • A window on the side of the house away from the approaching storm should be opened a few inches. This will compensate for the differences of indoor and outdoor air pressure.
  • Remember that typhoons have “eyes”, areas in their center where the weather appears calm. If the eye passes over your area, it may appear that the storm has finished, with winds then picking up again as the remainder of the storm arrives
  • After the typhoon is gone, check for broken glass, fallen trees and downed power lines which may present safety hazards near children’s school bus stops, outdoor trash areas, around your car, etc.

My viral video: gift wrapping in Japan

Last year around Christmas time, something very exciting happened: one of the videos on The Japans went viral. The video I am talking about is ‘gift wrapping in Japan’.

It was a big surprise when the video went viral. The article on my blog ‘Japanese gift wrapping‘ had already been published since October 2013 so I was by no means expecting anything to happen with it anymore. If anything, the video I might expect to go viral was ‘moving fish head on a sashimi plate’. But the internet is an unpredictable thing and while ‘moving fish head’ currently has a mere 6000 views, ‘gift wrapping in Japan’ went viral.

It all started when ‘gift wrapping in Japan’ was picked up by Digg around the holidays. They posted the video on their homepage and the link generated lots of traffic to my YouTube channel. In two days’ time, the video got over a million views. Currently the views have stabilized at about 3 million views.

viral video gift wrapping in japan

A link on Digg. Hurray!

viral video gift wrapping in japan

3 million views, I can hardly believe it!

It was a super exciting time. I never expected something like this to happen when I started this blog. It was really validating to reach such a wide audience and to see my content alive on the internet on such a large scale.

But we all know that the viral phenomenon is short-lived and both the excitement and the large visitor numbers have died down since late January. Today, however, I felt a new rush of excitement when I saw ‘gift wrapping in Japan’ on 9GAG. Although there is no mention of The Japans and therefore no traffic to my blog, it is still really exciting to see my content pop up unexpectedly on the internet.

I reminds me of how much I love blogging and how great it is to connect with people from all over the world through the internet. I think this is the perfect time to send out a big thank you to all my readers. No blog without an audience. Thank you!

video gift wrapping in japan on 9gag

Here it is, in the 9GAG feed

Docile Japanese cats

Are Japanese cats more docile than other cats? Before having lived in Japan, I would have thought this to be a ridiculous question. Surely cats are the same everywhere? Cats are not subject to cultural differences, are they? But living in Japan, surprises are never far off. I have seen Japanese cats tolerate things from their owners that most Belgian cats would never stand for. There was that one time when I saw someone walking a cat on a leash in Okinawa. And then there was the time when I was walking through crowded Asuke village in Toyota City at the start of autumn leaves season and saw a guy having a walk while holding his cat. Can you imagine visiting a festival and bringing your cat along? I am not sure how the cat felt about it, but in any case it wasn’t trying to escape, which is saying something.

docile Japanese cats

Never mind me, just having a walk with my cat during a crowded festival

docile Japanese cats

The cat looks slightly dubious but remains calm nonetheless

docile Japanese cats

If you ask nicely, most people in Japan are more than willing to pose for a picture. Too bad my Japanese wasn’t good enough to ask him why he was carrying this cat around.

I am not sure why these Japanese cats are so docile. Are these just exceptions and are most Japanese cats in fact as ferocious as Belgian ones? Or were these particular cats treated like that from when they were kittens and have grown used to it? Or, the far more interesting possibility, are these cats somehow influenced by the calm personal energy that, in my opinion and compared to Belgium, is typical for Japanese culture? I would love to hear other people’s thoughts in the comments section!

A map that doesn’t point north

Found in Toyota City near the train station: a map where the north is at the bottom of the map. I think it was my first time ever to see a map where north wasn’t at the top of the map. It was very confusing trying to orient myself with this map, since I was used to seeing maps of Toyota City oriented the usual way (i.e. north facing up).

Is this random map orientation a common Japanese thing, or was this map just a one time thing? I wonder who made it and why they decided on this orientation. Any thoughts, anyone?

a map that doesn't point north

A map of Toyota City that doesn’t point north, at the train station

I’ve just had an epiphany, shortly after writing this post: what if the map orientation is chosen to correspond with the direction you are facing when you are standing in front of this map? This would also explain why maps outside stations seem to be oriented in different directions in a seemingly random fashion, as someone mentioned in the comments section.

Maybe some person in charge of maps thought it would be more convenient if the person using the map wouldn’t have to perform a mental rotation of the map in order to see where they needed to go. It is certainly possible. The Japanese are all about convenience.

So here’s another question: is this actually more convenient or less convenient than having maps always oriented with the north above?

On terraces in Japan, or the lack thereof

The weather in Belgium is beautiful at the moment. The sun is shining and the temperature is finally going over 20°C. Having long, dark winters, Belgians tend to go a little crazy when the weather becomes nice like this. One of the symptoms is the mass migration to pub terraces everywhere, to sit in the sun and enjoy a beer with friends. We even have an expression for it: ‘een terrasje doen’, which literally means ‘to do a little terrace’.


Belgian summer habits: sitting outside in the sun, enjoying a beer with friends. A side-effect of this is lots of people with bright red sunburn after exposing their delicate winter skin to the direct sunlight for several hours.

Despite my love for Japan and my efforts to adjust to Japanese culture as much as possible during my stay, my Belgian background stirred itself from time to time. So come March or April of my year in Japan, when the weather in Nagoya started getting really nice after a relatively cold winter, I started to get serious ‘terrace withdrawal’. It was so hard to find a pub terrace in Japan! The Japanese seem to have no inclination whatsoever to sit in the sun with friends to enjoy a drink. In fact, rather the opposite is the case: they try to avoid the sun as much as possible, to protect their skin from UV damage. Another contributing factor may be the hot humid summers in Japan. From the middle of June to roughly the middle of september, outside temperatures can be unbearable and air-conditioned spaces are preferred. But still, spring and autumn are very nice in Japan and would lend themselves perfectly to sitting outside. Might the lack of terraces also be related to the Japanese notion that it isn’t polite to eat or drink when you are walking around? And therefore also not polite when sitting outside? Or is this notion dated and doesn’t apply to Japanese culture anymore? I’m sorry to say I am not very well informed about this point.

I found the lack of outside sitting space in Japan so noticeable, that I took pictures whenever I did find a terrace. You will notice below that I have exactly two pictures. Apart from one terrace in front of a big building in Nagoya, where nobody was sitting, Starbucks seemed to be the only place that offered outside seating. But it looked far from inviting. The cozy Belgian terraces were one of the few things that I really missed from Belgium.

Japanese terrace in Nagoya

A Japanese terrace in Nagoya, that actually looks quite inviting, apart from the fact that nobody is sitting there! Might it be connected to the Tully’s Coffee in the background? I’m sorry to say I did not investigate further due to time constraints at the time.

starbucks terrace in Toyota City, Japan

The Starbucks in Toyota City, located on the walkway between the two train stations in the city. It was one of the few times that I saw the possibility for outside seating in Japan.

starbucks terrace in Toyota City, Japan

Another view of the Starbucks terrace in Toyota City. It doesn’t look very inviting, does it?

I wonder, do other countries also have this terrace culture, or is it specific to Belgium? How did you experience these things in Japan? Please share your stories in the comments!