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.

Advertisements

Hot ‘n tasty man

One of the things that surprised me while living in Japan, was the fact that there are so many seasonal foods in Japan. Coming from a country where it is considered completely normal to eat tomatoes all through winter and where young people think pineapple is a local produce (it’s not!), I was charmed by the way Japanese people look forward to their seasonal foods.

As a first world nation, the Japanese are of course perfectly capable of importing anything they might want at any time of the year. My personal interpretation is that they deliberately choose not to. I had the impression that people relish the anticipation associated with seasonal treats, and that the food is enjoyed all the more intensely because it is only available for a limited amount of time.

A good example of such a seasonal food is the wintery snack called ‘man’ (まん). Starting november, convenience stores all over Japan put heated display cases on the counter, displaying an assortment of stuffed buns (could this post get any more suggestive? I swear I’m not even trying).

Display cases with hot snacks in the convenience store

Display cases with hot snacks in the convenience store

There are different kinds according to the stuffing, like for example meat man (nikuman 肉まん), cheese curry man (chiizukareman チーズカレーまん) and my favourite, pizza man (pizaman ピザまん), which is filled with tomato sauce and melted mozzarella cheese. The ‘man’ is wrapped in a paper wrapper, much like a hamburger, and is of course meant to be eaten within minutes after purchasing it. Perfect for a quick snack on the go!

display with hot stuffed buns in japan

Different kinds of ‘man’ on display

pizzaman

Pizza man. Yummy!

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

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)

The birds

The rainy season has started in Japan and with it, huge flocks of birds have arrived in Toyota City. These birds gather in groups that easily count several hundreds of birds and make a noise like you wouldn’t believe. Every night around dusk they gather on the power lines or in the trees next to the station. It makes for an impressive sight.

Muku birds

The birds, lined up on the power lines

Birds as far as the eye can see

Birds as far as the eye can see

They never seem to sit still. Individual birds constantly come and go, while whole flocks move through the air at an amazing speed, twisting and turning as if they were one.

Muku birds coming and going

Birds coming and going

In this video you can see them moving about and you can even get an idea of the sound they make (if you manage to mentally filter out the poor sound quality of the video).

The birds have arrived in Toyota City about one or two weeks ago and they stay here all through summer. When the weather gets colder again, around October or November, they disappear. I wonder where they go.

I was told that these birds are called ‘muku’ but I was unable to find any information about such birds on the internet. Does anyone know what their English or their scientific name is? The one thing that I did discover, is that ‘mukubird’ (ムクバード in Japanese) is a Pokemon.

A pokemon

This pokemon is called ‘mukubird’ in Japanese. His English name is Staravia.

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