Japanese landscape through a cat’s eyes

I have written about my favourite internet cat, Shiro, once before (click here to read the article). Usually Shiro and his fellow feline housemates are featured sleeping, with an array of odd household items on their head.

Shiro and his feline friends

Shiro and his feline friends

Cats with towels on their heads

Beautiful blue skies and cats with towels on their heads

My favourite videos of Shiro however, are the ones where you can see in what kind of stunning environment Shiro and his owner live. I have the impression that they live on an old Japanese farm somewhere in the mountains. The scenery always makes me long for Japan and its beautiful landscapes.

Here is a video of Shiro walking outside in the snow:

And below is a more elaborate video where you really get a good look at the environment. Also notice the crow sounds in the background, which to me are very reminiscent of Japan.

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The vicious deer of Nara

Nara is an ancient city not too far from Nagoya. At one point it was the capital of Japan (from 710 to 785). The most famous sites include the largest wooden structure on earth (Todaiji Temple), a 15m Buddha statue and the second tallest pagoda of Japan (Kofukuji Temple).

But never mind all that, because perhaps the most famous tourist attraction in Nara are the deer. Large numbers of Sika Deer (‘shika’ in Japanese) wander freely around the premises. Visitors can purchase rice crackers, called ‘shika senbei’, to feed the deer.

Sika deer in Nara

Sika deer in Nara

Nara deer everywhere

Deer everywhere!

selling shika senbei

A stall selling shika senbei, the special crackers to feed the deer.

At first sight, the deer seem quite tame. In fact, they appear to be downright lethargic.

This deer just couldn't be bothered, although I am practically in its face with my camera    This deer just couldn't be bothered, although I am practically in its face with my camera. Even when I start petting it, it acts as though I am not there.

This deer just couldn’t be bothered, although I was practically in its face with my camera. Even when I started petting it, it continued to act as though I was not there.

But don’t be fooled. Their innocence is but a ruse. As soon as they smell food, the deer of Nara turn into vicious predators. They stop at nothing to get hold of the rice crackers, even going as far as attacking the humans holding the crackers.

deer looking for food

Obtrusive deer looking for food. These people didn’t even buy shika senbei. They are just trying to enjoy a bit of yaki-imo (grilled sweet potato).

My personal deer feeding adventure soon turned into a shouting frenzy when one of the deer tried to head-butt me. Another person in our group got bitten in theĀ  behind while feeding the deer.

In all fairness, the park authorities did warn us this might happen. Here is an overview of what the deer might do to you:

nara warning sign

Warning sign in Nara park

Be forewarned!

Autumn in Japan

The Japanese love to celebrate the seasons. As autumn approaches, the Japanese longingly look forward not only to a relief of the summer heat, but also to the beauty of the autumn leaves. The most popular kind of autumn leaves are (Japanese) maple leaves, that turn bright red in autumn. They are called ‘momiji’, although the term may also be used to denote autumn colours in general.

While Japan is most famous for its cherry blossom tradition, the red leaves of the maple can definitely compete with the cherry blossom in terms of popularity. Maps and forecasts tell you when the autumn leaves are at their most beautiful. In the ‘top weekend’, Japanese and gaijin alike flock to the most famous autumn leaves viewing spots in the country (click here for a brief list), causing severe traffic congestion along the way. I have heard stories of people who set out to view the autumn leaves at Kiyomizudera in Kyoto during the top weekend, but who instead ended up spending seven hours in traffic and didn’t even get into the city at the end of the day. But of course if you do manage to get to a good spot, it is usually worth your trouble. Autumn in Japan is truly beautiful!

Momiji in Takayama, Japan

Momiji in Takayama, Japan

Ginkgo in Takayama, Japan

Beautiful yellow ginkgo leaves in a temple in Japan

Toyota City Tip: The most popular place for viewing autumn leaves in Toyota City is Korankei Gorge, in the town of Asuke (Toyota City). You can walk up the mountain, visit the temple and enjoy various types of food and drinks that are sold at special autumn festival booths.

Korankei gorge in toyota city

Korankei gorge in Toyota City

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!

A day in paradise

Around the middle of April it was cherry blossom time in Japan. Needless to say I had been looking forward to this for a while. When foreigners think of Japan and typical Japanese things, the beauty of the cherry blossoms is one of the first things that comes to mind.

Sakura beauty

Beautiful cherry blossoms

My anticipation was only increased by the excitement that takes hold of the entire Japanese nation as the blossom time approaches. The news report even gives daily reports on the advancement of the ‘cherry blossom front’.

Cherry blossom front for 2008. The flowers open first in the south and then the front makes its way north. The blossoms were a bit late this year due to the cold weather. (picture taken from http://stlelsewhere.blogspot.jp)

Why do the Japanese people love cherry blossoms, or ‘sakura’, so much? Apart from the simple fact that the sight of a street lined with blooming cherry trees is just gorgeous, the Japanese feel touched by the transient beauty of the blossoms. The sakura are at their most beautiful for only a few days. One day of rain may destroy the fragile flowers. This short-lived beauty is often taken as a metaphor for life: so beautiful and yet so short and sad. Indeed when watching the blossoms, one may be touched by an intense joy and a sweet melancholy all at the same time.

Sakura detail beauty, Nagoya, Japan

Cherry blossoms against the bright blue sky

Sakura detail

The delicate beauty of a cherry blossom

Apart from these rather poetic feelings, of course the Japanese also love to celebrate the seasons and never pass up an excuse to gather with friends and enjoy some typical festival food.

Sakura selling sweet potato or yakiimo

A small cart selling grilled sweet potato (called 'yaki-imo' in Japanese)

Sakura sweet potato salesman

A happy salesman, also selling sweet potato

Sakura selling takoyaki or octopus balls

A stand selling 'takoyaki': baked balls of dough stuffed with vegetables and pieces of octopus

In my efforts to see as much of the cherry blossoms as possible, I prepared for a ‘hanami’ (the viewing of the blossoms) on a sunny afternoon in April at one of Japan’s 100 most beautiful cherry blossom spots: the Yamazakigawa riverside in Nagoya.

Sakura Yamazakigawa riverside, Nagoya, Japan

The Yamazakigawa riverside in Nagoya

Cherry walk in Nagoya, Japan

Walking alongside the river Yamazaki in Nagoya

Having been to a few other cherry blossom viewing spots earlier that week and being slightly underwhelmed, I was not prepared for the beauty of this place. Not only was it simply gorgeous, all other conditions were perfect as well: the weather was sunny and warm with a slight breeze, it was not too crowded since it was a weekday, and everyone I met was just as happy as I was. Even the animals I met were in a good mood. It truly seemed like a paradise on earth; some place as yet untouched by the rest of the world. A magic spell, just for one day.

Sakura and fish, Nagoya, Japan

Cherry blossoms and sunlight on the water. Even the fish seem happy.

Sakura rabu rabu, Nagoya, Japan

A young couple, enjoying a romantic moment under the cherry blossoms

Sleeping under the cherry blossoms

It doesn't get any more relaxed than this: having a picnic and a nap on a sunny afternoon

Sakura and children playing in Japan

Children playing in the river

Sakura salaryman escaping modern life

An office worker escaping from modern life just for a moment

Spring is in the air

Ever since a week or two, we have had the first hints of spring in the air. The weather is definitely changing, with alternating days of rain and sun; as opposed to winter where almost every day is sunny. The temperature has been notably higher too, although this week there has been a plunge in temperature that has taken us straight back to winter weather.

But nevermind that, because along with the first wafts of spring came the first blossoms of the season: plum blossoms or ‘ume’. The plum trees typically flower in the beginning of March. Due to the cold winter however, the blossoms are a bit late this year. We still have to wait a little while longer for the cherry blossoms, which bloom in April.

First pring blossom in Toyota City, Japan

The first spring day and the first blossom of the season

There is always an unmistakable joy to spotting those first tender flowers, in Belgium as well as in Japan. But somehow I seem to enjoy the blossoms even more here in Japan. Is it the collective excitement that takes hold of the Japanese people as the first blossoms appear? Or are the flowers just more beautiful here? In any case they are more abundant. I see blossoms everywhere I go, even as I was walking through an abandoned industrial site the other day. The rusted up machines and the delicate flowers made for a beautiful contrast.

Ume or plum blossom with industrial background

Plum blossoms with industrial background

The ‘hanami’ or blossom viewing parties are held when the blossoms are at their prime. You can see how they advance in the pictures below.

Ume or plum blossoms at a temple in Kyoto

The first of the plum blossoms at a temple in Kyoto, February 2012

Plum blossom grove

Plum blossom grove almost in full bloom, March 2012

The plum blossoms come in various shades of white and pink.

Plum blossom bright pink

Plum blossom bright pink

Plum blossom pink

Plum blossom pink

Plum blossom soft pink

Plum blossom soft pink

Plum blossom white

Plum blossom white

Plum blossom white

Plum blossom white

The sunny side of Japan

Yesterday it snowed in Toyota City. That’s a big deal because in this area of Japan it rarely snows. In addition to that, the amount of snow we had yesterday (about 15 cm) occurs only once every twenty years, according to my Japanese teacher.

Snow in Toyota City, Japan

The view from our terrace in the morning

A lot of snow in Toyota City, Japan

Snow piled high

Snow covered flowers in Toyota City, Japan

Snow covered flowers

I was surprised to see that everyone in Japan uses an umbrella when it snows. In Belgium, just brushing off the snow before entering a building always seemed to do the trick. But come to think of it, snow is of course precipitation just like rain is, and I did seem to feel slightly less freezing when the snowflakes were kept away from my face thanks to my umbrella.

Umbrella and snow in Toyota City, Japan

Braving the snow with an umbrella

Of course Japanese kids love the snow, as I imagine kids do all over the world. I came across different snow men all day long.

Snow man in Toyota City, Japan

Snow man at Toyota City station

Kids playing in the snow, Toyota City, Japan

Children playing in the snow

As you can see in these pictures, it wasn’t long before the sun was shining again. That is one of the great things about winter in this part of Japan: lots of sunshine! In Belgium people often suffer from the ‘winter blues’ due to lack of sunshine.

Sunshine during Japanese winter, Toyota City, Japan

The view from our terrace the next day. Blue skies and sunshine, the snow all but molten

In Japan, all along the Pacific coast (the area called ‘Omote-Nihon’), winter is sunny and bright. On the Japan Sea coast however (the area called ‘Ura-Nihon’), they always get lots of snow, even up to 4m high this year. This difference in winter precipitation is caused by a mountain range that runs across the middle of Japan from north to south. The humid air blowing inland from the Japan Sea is stopped at the mountains and deposits its humidity as snow or rain, causing the other side of the mountains to be virtually cloud free all winter long.

japan precipitation map

Japan precipitation map, showing precipitation only on the Japan Sea coast, Toyota City is at the red cross (map from the Japan Meteorological Agency, click on the map to go the their site)