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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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’.

terrace_belgium

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!

 

Let’s dance!

Today is Obon, an important Japanese holiday. Traditionally it is a day for honouring the spirits of one’s ancestors. But since the Japanese never pass up an opportunity to have a party, it is also an excellent reason to organise a festival and get together with friends and family.

Apart from delicious festival food and lots of people wearing yukata, the Obon festival is characterized by Obon dances, which are called Bon Odori (盆踊り). The dancers gather around a central stage and perform circular dances while moving around the stage. Compared to some Western dances, the Obon dances seem very slow and subdued. But once you give it a try, it is a wonderful feeling to share in the group atmosphere and to do the dances together.

obon nagoya castle

Obon dancing at Nagoya castle. The central stage houses the musicians and from time to time, different people are invited up on stage to dance there.

obon dancing nagoya castle

The colourful crowd in yukata is so beautiful!

Anyone can join in: there are many elderly ladies, but also lots of young people. Even clumsy gaijin like me are welcome to join. In the video below you can see the cutest little boy doing his best to dance along with the adults. There is also an equally cute, but slightly older girl in yukata.

In this next video you get a better look at the crowd and you can really see the circular motion of the dancers. Sometimes you will see ladies in matching yukata. I think they belong to an Obon dance group where they practice all year long and then go to various Obon festivals in their matching yukata.

There are big Obon events like the one at Nagoya Castle where these videos were made but Obon is also celebrated on a smaller scale in local neighbourhoods. When we were wandering around Muroran, a small city in Hokkaido, on an evening in August, we saw this local Obon gathering on a neighbourhood square:

Obon in Muroran, Hokkaido

This was a small, local community celebration in Muroran, Hokkaido. There weren’t any booths with festival food. Instead there were some tables where people placed their homemade food, sharing between everyone.

Missing Japanese summer – crazy, nostalgic, or both?

I really miss living in Japan. I left the country a little over a year ago and at first I didn’t miss it too badly. It was nice to experience all the familiar things in Belgium again. But recently my Japan deprivation has been getting worse. How can I tell that it’s getting really bad? I have started feeling nostalgic about Japanese summer.

Those of you who have experienced summer in Japan will immediately understand why this is a bad sign. If you’re longing to be back in Japanese summer weather, you’re not quite right in the head. The combination of heat and humidity in Japan is brutal. As soon as the summer heat starts, people start counting down to autumn. Heat exhaustion is a common phenomenon and people prefer to stay indoors in air-conditioned spaces as much as possible.

But reason and emotion do not abide by the same rules. Although I realise that I have often cursed Japanese summer while I was living there, I am feeling very nostalgic about it. The sound of the cicada, eating a snow cone (kakigōri かき氷) on a hot day, the evening light over green rice fields, … なつかしいね!

You can hear what a cicada sounds like and read more about typical, nostalgic summer things in ‘Summer in Japan’.

evening light over the rice fields

Evening light over the rice fields – Toyota City, July 2011

riding home from work on a summer evening

Riding home from work on a beautiful summer evening – Toyota City, July 2011

Sun protection in Japan

Japanese women are famous for their beautiful skin. Not only do they seem to stay wrinkle free a lot longer than Western women, many of them also appear to have a perfectly even skin with a beautiful glow about it.

Japanese beauty expert Chizu Saeki, author of the book 'The Japanese skin care revolution', aged 66

Japanese beauty expert Chizu Saeki, author of the book ‘The Japanese skin care revolution’, age 66 – Image from blogs.reuters.com

How do Japanese women achieve such beautiful skin? Apart from paying a lot of attention to skin care, and possibly genetic factors, I think the main reason is that Japanese women stay out of the sun. They do this not only to keep their skin young, they also want to keep their skin as white as possible. While in Belgium many women prefer ‘a healthy sun-kissed glow’, in Japan the beauty ideal is for skin to be as white as possible and free of any blemishes.

Japanese women take staying out of the sun to a whole other level. While most Western women (or should I just speak for myself?) already feel quite proud of themselves if they remember to put on some sun screen before leaving the house in the morning, Japanese women use many different attributes to avoid the sun.

Of course there is the age-old classic, the parasol or umbrella. It is really very common to see people in Japan using a parasol to shield themselves from the sun. Department stores play into this by selling beautiful summer parasols. I have to admit that even I have taken to the habit of using a parasol in summer in Japan. My main motivation is not so much skin care (I think the damage is already done there) but avoiding heat stroke. The summer sun in Japan is very intense. It took me a little while to overcome my culturally based embarrassment since people in Belgium would probably laugh at anyone using a parasol. After getting used to it however, I found it very convenient.

sun protection in Japan

Mid July in Inuyama. The sun is beating down on the pavement and as you can see from the empty street, anyone in their right mind has sought refuge inside. Only two gaijin wander the afternoon streets. It is so hot that a sunshade seems required even while standing in the shade ^_^

A second popular attribute is the summer hat. In Belgium, only the most hardcore fashionistas will be seen wearing a summer hat. In Japan however, hats are very popular. There is a vast range of beautiful summer hats available. Some women, mostly elderly ladies, will even wear special hats with neck and throat covers.

hats and sunshades in the summer in nagoya

Queuing to enter Nagoya Castle Festival in August. Sunshades and summer hats in abundance.

Some women go even further. They insist on keeping all body parts covered at all times, despite the smouldering summer heat of 35° C and over. This results in wearing tights and long-sleeved tops in summer. For women who still want to wear a short sleeve top but protect their skin at the same time, special arm and hand covers exist that can be slipped on when going outside or when driving a car.

protective arm covers for sale in Japan

Protective arm covers for sale

japan sun protection gloves

A stylish Japanese lady with elaborate sun protection, consisting of a parasol, long gloves and nylons that were probably marketed as offering extra UV protection – Photograph by Martin Goodwin

Even women who work the land do their best to keep their skin as fair as possible. They will always wear gloves and a special hat that covers their face and neck as much as possible.

Farmer woman working the land in Japan

Farmer woman working the land in Japan – Image by Aaron Whitfield

The final attribute, and the one that surprised me the most, are special hand covers to be used when riding the bike. The covers are attached to the steering wheel and cover the hands completely.

bicycle with sun protection in Japan

A bicycle with protective sleeves for the hands

Now that I am living in Belgium again, I have eased up a bit on the sun discipline. After a long, dark Belgian winter, Belgian people tend to soak up as much sun as they can get during the summer. But the Japanese attitude towards the sun did have a lasting impact on me. I have gone from being an avid ‘sun worshipper’ to a careful recreational user.

A time for goodbyes… and gifts!

Our time in Japan has come to an end. [insert dramatic silence]

Yes, that’s right. After only one short year, it’s back to Belgium for us. Our pleads to Toyota to extend our stay have been to no avail. The project is finished and new projects await in Toyota Motor Europe. Resistance is futile.

That means it is time to say our goodbyes. And goodbyes in Japan involve gifts. Lots of gifts. In fact you are supposed to give a gift to anyone you have some sort of relationship with, or people you are indebted to. And of course you will be showered with goodbye gifts yourself.

While one might consider this gift giving obligation a nuisance, I for one found it to be heartwarming. The Japanese are incredibly generous when it comes to giving gifts. Some of the gifts I have received are incredibly sweet, precious and beautiful. And as for the gifts I am handing out myself – to say it with a cliché for lack of better words – a goodbye gift can only begin to express my gratitude for all the generosity and hospitality I have received from so many people throughout the year.

So what might be an appropriate gift in Japan, you ask? Of course a personal gift is always good. I found that for example a photo album of your time together, with illustrations and some personal notes, usually makes people very happy. But if you can’t think of anything personal to give, food or drinks are always a safe bet. Especially a box of Japanese sweets. And this brings me to our topic for today: the Japanese sweets shop.

Japanese sweets shop

Japanese sweets shop

The Japanese have their very own sweets culture, that has nothing to do with Western sweets. The sweets are sold in department stores or special shops, which are beautifully decorated. There is often a fountain or a small pond inside the shop.

Pond inside the sweets shop

Pond inside a sweets shop

The selection of available sweets depends on the seasons. The Japanese love to celebrate the seasons! In summertime, jellies are very popular. A popular ingredient in all seasons is ‘anko’ or sweet read bean paste. By western standards this is by no means considered sweet, but the Japanese love it.

Red bean paste anko

Red bean paste or ‘anko’

Japanese sweets anko

Winter selection of Japanese sweets

Box of jellies

Box of jellies, typical for summer

Jelly and senbei

A display with giftboxes of jelly and senbei (shrimp and rice crackers)

Whenever in doubt what to give someone, remember you can never go wrong with a box of Japanese sweets, whether it is a goodbye gift or you are visiting someone’s home for the first time.

If you want to know more about the Japanese gift culture, check out the Japan Guide (click here) for some more tips on how and when to give gifts in Japan.

My never-ending bad hair day

Summer in Japan is in full swing and that means at least two months of extreme heat and humidity. Before moving to Japan I had been warned about the hot and humid Japanese summers. But somehow I wasn’t able to fully grasp the meaning of those words until after actually having lived through the experience myself for the first time.

Allow me to elaborate for all of you ‘Japanese summer virgins’ out there. Here are the numbers: Nagoya has temperatures of about 30° C and an air humidity of around 80% in July. The combination of heat and humidity makes for weather that descends on you like a stifling blanket. In this weather, breathing is enough to make you break out in a sweat. But by far the worst of it, as far as I’m concerned, is what the humidity does to my hair.

Frizzy doesn’t even begin to describe it. No matter what amount of styling products I use, as soon as I leave the air-conditioned sanctuary of our apartment, my hair looks as if several small birds have been nesting in it. Even plastering all my hair to my head and tying it up in a bun is no use. I still look like I have been recently electrocuted.

But hey, if there is nothing to be done about it, I might as well laugh about it, right? That is why I was particularly pleased when I came across this picture of a fluffy animal (possibly a rabbit) that gives a good idea of how I feel about my Japanese summer hair.

Humidity in Nagoya leads to a never-ending bad hair day

It is reassuring to see that things could always be worse (image from 9GAG, click on the picture to go to the original image)