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!

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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:

WITH REGARD TO THE RAIN

  • 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.
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The lightest man in sumo

When we think of sumo wrestlers, we usually imagine very big, even fat, men. Like Kotoshogiku for example:

sumo wrestler kotoshogiku

Sumo wrestler Kotoshogiku

Weighing in at 176 kilograms, Kotoshogiku is a formidable man. There is, however, one exception to the rule of big sumo wrestlers. With only 93 kilograms, Czech born Takanoyama doesn’t have a gram of fat on him.

czech sumo wrestler takanoyama

Czech sumo wrestler Takanoyama

I am not sure why Takanoyama is so lean. Is he unable to put on the weight? Or is it a deliberate choice? If so, is it because of vanity? Or is it perhaps a way to stand out among all the other wrestlers? One thing is for sure though: it is not helping him in the ring. When I was following sumo, in 2011-2012, he was struggling to stay in the maegashira division (which is the lowest part of the top division). Usually he attempted some judo-like techniques and while they gained him the occasional win, overall he simply couldn’t compete with the heavier wrestlers. Meanwhile he has dropped out of the top division completely and is placed in the middle of jūryō, the second highest division.

Despite his poor ring performance, Takanoyama was (and perhaps still is?) very popular with the fans. I wonder if this is due to his unusual physique. It certainly isn’t due to his sunny personality, as I had the chance to discover one July afternoon in 2012.

Prior to the 2012 Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament, we had the chance to attend a sumo practice session and eat some chanko nabe handed out by the wrestlers. As the wrestlers left to retire to their quarters, they were followed by a group of fans, asking them for pictures. Among the group was a very pushy Japanese lady, who seemed intent on touching the wrestlers as much as possible. When she took a picture with kind natured Takayasu, she even held his hand! Unfortunately I don’t have pictures of the pushy lady, but I do have our own pictures with the wrestlers.

japanese sumo wrestler takayasu

This is me and a friend posing with Takayasu. Such a sweet and shy guy!

After having taken her picture with Takayasu, the pushy Japanese lady approached Czech wrestler Takanoyama. As she was posing alongside him for a picture, she tried to cuddle up to him and take his arm. Takanoyama was having none of it though. He barked at her “Chikai!”, which literally translates as ‘(too) close’. In Japanese, just barking out the word is a very rude way to say she was too close. The lady shrieked and jumped at least a meter away.

We were witness to this incident because we were waiting to take our own picture with Takanoyama. In fact, our turn was up right after the pushy lady. Needless to say we were a bit anxious about approaching this ill-tempered wrestler after witnessing such a scene. In the pictures below, you can clearly see that my friend is keeping her distance from Takanoyama, as is my husband. Because I am standing a bit to the front, it looks like I am closer, but I can assure you that I was equally wary.

Czech sumo wrestler takanoyama

Posing with scary Czech sumo wrestler Takanoyama. Notice how my friend is keeping her distance.

Czech sumo wrestler takanoyama

Even my husband is afraid to come too close and I can’t blame him!

People watching – The Golden Clock in Nagoya Station

The best place for people watching in Nagoya might be The Golden Clock in Nagoya station. It is a favoured meeting place and around every full hour (e.g. 18:00h) the area is positively teeming with people. It is remarkable how much calmer it gets at around the ten minute mark (e.g. 18:10h), when all the meeting up is concluded and people leave to go do whatever they were meeting up to do.

Nagoya Station Golden Clock

The Golden Clock at Nagoya Station, a very popular meeting place – image from Wikipedia Commons

In the above picture, it looks uncharacteristically calm. The video below gives a better impression of what it is usually like to wait for someone at the Golden Clock. For us gaijin, it is fairly easy to find the person we are meeting, or rather it is easy for them to find us, since most gaijin are at least a head taller than most Japanese people. If you have blond hair to boot, like me, it makes you virtually impossible to miss. But how Japanese people manage to find anyone in the crowd around the Golden Clock is beyond me.

As I already mentioned, it is one of my favourite places for people watching. Have a look at this beautiful young lady in kimono.

girl in kimono

Girl in kimono – a mobile phone might help to locate one’s friends in that crowd

girl in kimono 2

Notice the long sleeves and exuberant design, typical for a kimono worn by unmarried, young women. I think she was meeting up with friends to attend a wedding.

Japanese people are human too

Recently I moved back to Belgium after having spent a year in Japan. People often ask me about my experiences in Japan. One of the questions that I get asked the most, is “Did you get to know any Japanese people?” Quoted out of context like this, the question may seem fairly innocent. Although the fact that people feel the need to ask this, knowing that I have just spent a year living there, could be the first clue that there is a little more to this question than meets the eye. The idea behind the question becomes even more apparent when considering people’s reactions to my answer. They seem surprised when I tell them that, yes, I did manage to acquaint myself with a few Japanese people. In fact, in my experience Japanese people were warm, open and sociable; some of them were even extroverted. I have made some wonderful friends while I was there. “Gasp! Horror! Shock! You mean to say Japanese people are human too?!” That’s exactly what I mean.

Belgian people (and I think Westerners in general) hold many stereotypical beliefs about Japan. One of them is that Japanese people are shy, introverted and even cold. Perhaps a little like robots. Where does this idea come from? Allow me to illustrate with a little anecdote.

I vividly remember footage from right after the Tōhoku disaster. A man is looking out over the wreckage of his town. He has just lost everything. With a flat voice he tells his story to the camera. He gazes into the distance while talking. There are no tears rolling down his cheeks. Afterwards, a Belgian talk show host comments on the footage. “How can Japanese people be so cold? Don’t they feel anything when witnessing such devastation?”

What the talk show host doesn’t realize, is that he is being confronted with a cultural difference. I think there is no culture quite as different as the Japanese culture (as I have argued before). The way people interact and express emotion is culturally defined. In Japan, it is considered childish to openly show your emotions. Self control shows strength of character. That doesn’t mean there is no emotion, or that it is not clearly visible to the trained (i.e. Japanese) eye. But to Westerners these more subdued expressions of emotion come across as cold.

Another reason for the idea of Japanese people as being cold or distant, is that some Japanese tend to freeze up when being addressed in English by foreigners. Many Japanese people feel insecure about their English skills, even when they can actually manage pretty well. Knowing the language is the key to truly unlocking a culture, especially in Japan.

If all my ranting up to this point still hasn’t convinced you that there are, in fact, outgoing and sociable people in Japan, I will make a final effort to convince you by submitting the picture below. During a trip in Kyoto, me and my two fellow gaijin companions were ‘ambushed’ by an elated Japanese family. They started talking to us and insisted that we take a picture together. They were joking, laughing and having lots of fun. It totally made my day.

gaijin with elated japanese family in kyoto temple

A visiting friend from Belgium posing with our new Japanese friends. Can you spot the gaijin? ^_^

People watching – Legs for Days

After having lived in Japan for a while, I gradually started feeling more and more at home there. As life in Japan became ‘normal’ to me, I often forgot that I myself still looked all but normal to Japanese people. A tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed gaijin stands out in a Japanese crowd, no matter how ‘Japanese’ the gaijin in question might feel on the inside.

My acclimatization to life in Japan, and consequently my familiarity with that sea of dark-haired, fairly short Japanese people had a funny consequence: I started feeling surprised whenever seeing a gaijin (‘OMG, look, a gaijin, I wonder what they’re doing here’) or tall people (‘I can’t believe how tall that person is! Look how much they stand out.’). After which I was of course forced to remind myself that I am, in fact, a tall gaijin myself.

Nevertheless, it prompted me to attempt a sneak photograph of an exceptionally tall Japanese lady that I saw on the train. Especially her legs seem to go on for days:

Legs for days, in Japan

Do you think she noticed my sneak photography attempts?

What is so special about Japan anyway?

I absolutely adore Japan. And I am not the only one. More and more foreigners are becoming true Japan-o-holics. But where does this fascination with the land of the rising sun come from? What is so special about Japan anyway?

One of the most interesting things about Japan, at least to me, is that it is just so different. Even the smallest aspect of life becomes an adventure if you have no idea what to expect. The slogan of the Japan Tourism Organization captures this idea perfectly with three simple words: “Japan. Endless Discovery.”

Japan endless discovery

Japan National Tourism Organization slogan

Of course any foreign culture might make for an endless discovery. But in my experience, there is no culture quite as ‘different’ as the Japanese culture. Off the top of my head, I can think of two reasons why Japan feels even more different (to us Westerners) than other foreign cultures .

  • Up until roughly 150 years ago, Japan had very little contact with the outside world. During the Edo period (1603 – 1868), foreigners were not allowed to enter Japan. This has given the Japanese culture the opportunity to develop independently of foreign influences for over 200 years, leading to a truly unique culture. I think the influence of feudal Japan can still be felt in today’s modern Japan.
  • Japan is a first world country. Usually when Westerners think about cultures that are very different from their own, they imagine third world countries. And naturally we expect a third world country, that is already so different in terms of infrastructure, economy, etc., to have a very different culture as well. But to experience a severe culture shock in the midst of the comforts of modern-day Japan is quite something else.

Another thing that makes Japanese culture so fascinating is that it is a culture of subtlety and contradictions. In Japan, many things are not what they seem at first sight. That often makes it difficult to accurately describe or understand certain aspects of Japanese culture. But of course it also makes life in Japan very interesting (or frustrating, depending on your viewpoint). Living as a foreigner in Japan, just as you think you have something figured out, you encounter a new piece of information that defies your previous logic.

An additional reason for my fascination with Japan is the sheer amount of cultural expressions there are. There is ancient Japan with its temples, ladies in kimono and the age-old arts of tea ceremony, flower arranging and calligraphy. And then there is the colourful abundance of modern-day Japan filled with game centers, Harajuku girls and karaoke. Even as Japan starts to adopt more and more Western influences, the Japanese always find a way to transform these foreign elements and truly make them their own.

Harajuku girls Tokyo

Harajuku girls in Tokyo – image from blog.theholidaze.com

Perhaps after reading all of this, you are still mystified as to why I love Japan so much. Indeed the reality of life in Japan is difficult to describe. It is something that has to be experienced. This became most apparent when all of my visitors in Japan were baffled by the diversity and complexity of Japanese culture. And they all became fans, vowing to be back for more.

Return of the mukade

There are few Japanese animals as fabled and feared among expats in Japan as the poisonous Japanese centipede (called mukade in Japanese). Proof of this widespread fascination is the number of people who find their way to this blog on a daily basis, looking for mukade information.

Having been a Japan geek long before moving to Japan, I had of course heard of mukade. Some of you might remember my elation when I saw my first mukade only a few days into my stay in Japan. I can assure you that I felt equally elated about never meeting a mukade since that day. Until a few months ago, that is.

It is a beautiful day in May. My parents and I are having a walk in the forest, in the lovely town of Asuke (Toyota City).

forest in Asuke

Forest walk in Asuke

Suddenly my mother calls out. “Look at this interesting animal I have found”. What could it be? A butterfly? A squirrel perhaps? I rush over to see what it is. I catch a glimpse of a shining brown exoskeleton and bright orange legs. It’s the dreaded mukade! And a big one too. “Stay back!” I shout. “It’s a mukade”.

mukade

The mukade, who almost appears to be posing for the photograph

But there is no need for fear. The mukade completely ignores us. He’s just scrambling about the leaves, probably looking for a good place to hide from us. This provided me with some wonderful photo opportunities. The previous mukade I met (in the supermarket) ran straight towards me when I tried taking a picture.

After a year of living in Japan, I think it is safe to say that at least in the Toyota City and Nagoya area, there is no need to fear the mukade. I don’t know anyone who has had problems with mukade (apart from one horror story about ‘the mukade mountain’, an overgrown mountain that is apparently teeming with mukade and is causing some problems for the nearby apartment building).

So why are expats so afraid of this animal? Speaking from my own Belgian point of view, we are not used to giant, poisonous bugs. The most dangerous bugs we have around here are mosquitoes. In hot and humid Japan, the sheer size of the bugs is a trigger for expat imagination. And then we find out they are poisonous as well! That is one advantage to being back in Belgium: no more scary bugs!