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.

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

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)

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)

Winter flowers

When returning to Japan after our two-week holiday in Belgium, we got our first taste of winter in Japan. It has gotten cold (maximum 5° C at midday) and it even snows occasionally. But I was very surprised to see flowers blooming even in this weather.

While I normally associate autumn and winter with barren trees and the withering of nature, I have encountered blooming flowers in Japan all throughout autumn and now also during wintertime. How wonderful to see those specks of colour in an otherwise gray winterworld.

Hedge blooming in December, Toyota City, Japan

Hedge blooming in December in Toyota City (December 26th)

Autumn cherry blossoms, Takayama, Japan

Autumn cherry blossoms in Takayama (November 14th)

Autumn cherry blossoms, Kōshō-ji temple, Nagoya, Japan

Autumn cherry blossoms at Kozoji Temple, Nagoya (November 11th)

Flower at Kojakuji Temple, Asuke, Toyota City, Japan

Flower at Kojakuji Temple, Asuke, Toyota City (November 13th)

Iris blooming in November in Toyota City, Japan

Iris blooming in November in Toyota City (November 17th)

Autumn leaves

Autumn has arrived in Toyota City. It has for quite some time actually. Every since the beginning of October, there has been a drastic drop in temperature and humidity. The scorching heat has subsided to make way for a very pleasant climate with a humidity level that leaves my hair allmost frizz-free.

We are now happily awaiting ‘Kōyō’, the red autumn leaves. When we visited the popular Kōyō viewing spot Korankei Gorge in the town of Asuke (part of Toyota City) last weekend, they weren’t quite there yet.

Autumn leaves, Asuke in Toyota City

Asuke in Toyota City - just a little longer until the autumn leaves

But in Takayama, in the mountains where it’s colder, the leaves were already beautiful.

Red maple leaves in a temple in Takayama

Red maple leaves in a temple in Takayama

Ginkgo tree

Ginkgo tree at a temple in Takayama

The changing of the leaves is an event that is followed with close attention troughout Japan. When the red leaves are at their prime, the queues to the popular viewing spots are endless. I’ve heard stories of people who tried to enter Kyoto in the most popular Kōyō weekend but instead were stuck in traffic for 7 hours only to return without having seen the leaves.

Red leaves in Takayama

Red leaves in Takayama

 

 

 

 

 

Forces of nature

Today typhoon nr. 15, a.k.a. Roke, passed through Japan. It’s the first typhoon since we’ve been here that passed directly over Nagoya and Toyota-City, and the first one that really had me worried.

Typhoon nr. 15, Roke

You can see the typhoon passing almost directly over the area where we live, indicated by the red cross. The typhoon is now over Tokyo. Click on the image to go to the Weathernews website and see an animation of the typhoon's trajectory.

Yesterday on the news we watched images of Nagoya being flooded. And that was before the typhoon even arrived. The flooding was caused by a rain front preceding the typhoon. Now that the typhoon has passed, it seems like in Toyota City it was relatively mild. But the news constantly shows images from all over Japan with fallen trees, cancelled trains and people almost being blown over by the strong wind. Several areas around us, like Nagoya and Okazaki, experienced flooding.

This is the typhoon at its worst in Toyota City, around 3 p.m.

By 6 p.m. everything seemed fine again.

clear skies after typhoon over Toyota City

The view from our balcony around 6 p.m.

While I was preparing for the typhoon and feeling anxious about what was going to happen, it struck me how strong the forces of nature are in Japan. Earthquakes, tsunami, typhoons, landslides, flooding, volcanic eruptions, … In Japan you never know what nature has in store for you. I feel I should be prepared for anything, with an emergency kit standing by at the front door. I’ve started memorizing emergency numbers and found out where to evacuate to in case of a disaster. To experience the forces of nature in all their might is a new experience for me. In Belgium nature is usually very mild.

I wonder how this ‘constant threat’ has influenced Japanese culture. This topic is broached in one of my favourite books: James Clavell’s ‘Shogun’. It is suggested there that because of the regular confrontation with the fact that anything can happen at any time, Japanese people live more in the moment. I indeed find this confrontation with the elements humbling. It makes me grateful for every beautiful day. I can imagine that experiences like this might lead one to appreciate the transient beauty of for example cherry blossoms even more.

Summer in Japan

The summer in Japan is drawing to an end. Yesterday school started again and typhoon number 12 is making for gloomy and rainy weather. Time for a retrospective on summer in Japan.

Weather – Before coming here, everyone had warned me about the ‘crazy Japanese summer’ and the especially the crazy weather. I thought people were exaggerating, as is usually the case with all things concerning Japan. It turns out I was wrong. The Japanese summer weather is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. The heath and humidity are so strong that even just breathing makes you break into a sweat. And apparently this was a fairly cool summer. I can’t wait for next year.

Super Cool Biz – Because of the power shortage due to the Tohoku quake aftermath, the government launched the ‘Super Coolbiz’ campaign. The idea was that businesses should set the air conditioning no lower than 28°C. In order to cope with the summer heath, office workers were encouraged to wear outfits that are still appropriate for the office yet cooler than normal. This style is termed Coolbiz. Things like polo’s, shirts without a tie, and even the occasional sandal were allowed. This not only led to energy savings but also to an increase in menswear sales, with stores launching special coolbiz offers.

The Uniqlo Super Coolbiz Collection. Uniqlo is a well-known clothes store with decent clothing at affordable prices

Fireworks – Many cities organise firework displays during summer. Toyota City has a yearly firework display at the end of July that lasts for two whole hours. People also buy smaller fireworks to set off themselves in a park or at the beach.

Yukata – Wearing a yukata, especially at the aforementioned firework displays, is typical for summer. Click here to read about my first time wearing a yukata.

Bonodori dancing – Another occasion for wearing a yukata is at the Bonodori dances in August (although in the Tokyo region it’s mostly in July). People form a circle around a stage that houses the musicians and perform the dances in unison. Young and old join together to enjoy this typical summer pass time. Read more about Obon dancing.

Bonodori dancing at Nagoya Castle Festival, August 5th 2011

Bonodori dancing at Nagoya Castle Festival, August 5th 2011

A man doing a Bonodori dance while holding a baby

It really is young and old together

Festivals – Summer is the time for festivals. Festivals are often combined with yukata wearing, Bonodori dancing, and enjoying typical festival food.

Shaved ice – A cone of shaved ice with sweet syrup is a refreshing summer treat. Stores selling this treat are marked with the kanji for ice.

Ice kanji flag

Flag indicating that this store sells shaved ice treats

Shaved ice treat

Shaved ice treat

Climbing Mount Fuji – There is a saying in Japan: ‘He who climbs Mount Fuji once is a wise man, he who climbs it twice is a fool’.  The official climbing season for Mount Fuji is during July and August (mostly because of the weather). During these two months, people from all over Japan flock to Mount Fuji to try themselves against the mountain and to see the sunrise from the top of Mount Fuji. There is usually a cue to reach the top. Can you imagine a cue on top of a 3776 meter high, barren volcano?

Wind catchers Little bells that produce a delicate sound as the wind catches them are hung in front of open windows or doors. The sound is supposed to refresh you and make every breath of wind more noticeable during the summer heat. The sound of wind catchers is typical for summer in Japan and often invokes a nostalig feeling, reminding one of summers past.

Glass windcatcher in Japan

Glass wind catcher

Cicada’s – Around mid July the cicada’s start to chirp. They are huge flying insects that gave me quite a scare the first them I saw them. They produce their typical sound at an incredible volume.

A cicada, definitely over 5 cm

A cicada, definitely over 5 cm