Sakura season is waning

In our part of Japan, the cherry blossom season is waning—many trees are still a shimmering pink, but green is starting to show through and the petals are fluttering down.

We live on a beautiful sakura-lined street, and you can feel everyone’s happy spirit as they walk a bit slower than usual to gaze up at the blossoms.

Winter in Japan

“Winter in Japan” is diverse, actually, as there are several climatic regions. Northern Japan has some of the snowiest large cities on earth, while Okinawa in the south is tropical.

My experience is of the Kanto region (that is, central eastern Japan), where it gets cold, but not too cold, and snow is fairly rare in recent years. Lately the overnight temperature has been getting down to 0 C (32 F), which is very chilly when you don’t have central heating or proper insulation. I don’t know about northern locales, but around here, people generally have wall-mounted air conditioner / heaters, and frequently kerosene or electric space heaters, and drafty windows and doors.

For readers in warmer climes who romanticize the idea of a cold winter, let me remind you of the following: drippy noses, never-ending colds, everyone coughing on the bus, numb fingers and toes, steamed up glasses when you come inside, being simultaneously hot and cold when you’re bundled up but walking around a lot, mold danger from window condensation, slipping on ice, feeling dried out from heaters, painfully cold water from the taps, etc. etc. etc. So yeah, not that romantic.

Anyway, the point of this blog post was to share a nifty list from the Gaijinpot blog, with ‘top 10 tips‘ for winter comfort in Japan. In summary:

  1. Thick curtains and window-sealing plastic
  2. Socks and slippers
  3. Nabe (hot-pot) dinners
  4. Kotatsu (yay!)
  5. Electric carpets
  6. Hot baths
  7. Electric kettles
  8. Walk around in the mall
  9. Stick-on warmers
  10. Travel somewhere else!

(Click through to the blog post to read more.)

Wasabi

Wasabi is probably one of the most famous Japanese condiments (for lack of a better word). On the off chance that any readers haven’t tried it: eating this bright green horseradish-like paste is like getting punched in the nasal cavity. In a good way. In addition to eating with sushi, I like to use it in stir fries (especially with cabbage), or mix it with soy sauce and dip avocado in, or with soba.

However, most of what is sold and served as wasabi is not real wasabi. The plant is quite difficult to cultivate and thus rare. Also, the spicy kick only lasts 15 minutes after grating the root, so it’s not really practical for mass production and distribution.

There lots of articles out there about wasabi cultivation, but I learned a lot from this one from the BBC.

We recently visited the Shizuoka prefecture, one of the few places where wasabi can be grown. It was amazing indeed to see the plants in situ…and of course to eat it! As you might guess, real, fresh wasabi tastes a bit different from the usual bright green tube kind. The essence of the pungency is there, but it’s more subtle and soft.

One of the reasons that wasabi is difficult to cultivate is that it grows best in flowing water, but without being completely submerged. Also, the water has to be very pure and the weather can’t be too hot or too cold. It’s finicky. We saw many small wasabi patches in the clear mountain streams in the mountains of the Izu peninsula, where water was diverted over the plants before continuing on its way down the mountain.

Among the interesting products on offer, we saw (and tasted) wasabi beer, ice cream, and salad dressing. Photos below!

 

The Shindo scale

Screenshot_2016-07-20-07-42-11

I’ve felt three earthquakes over the last few days, as shown on the alerts on my phone. They were minor occurrences for Japan, but even though I know how common quakes are here, my heart always starts pounding like crazy and my only thought is instinctive panic when I feel a tremor.

But for those who are interested in earthquakes more objectively and scientifically, you might be interested to know about the Japan Meteorological Agency seismic intensity scale, which uses a unit called shindo to measure the intensity of an earthquake. It’s different from the Richter scale, because it represents what an earthquake feels like to people on the ground, which, let’s be honest, is what we really care about.

A table from the meteorological agency explains the experience of an earthquake with examples from a human perspective as well as for structures (and I admit that it’s pretty scary). The shindo 4 earthquakes this week (which fortunately were not that close to me and therefore felt less intense) had the following effect indoors: “Hanging objects such as lamps swing significantly, and dishes in cupboards rattle. Unstable ornaments may fall.”

The screenshot below shows alerts I received after the terrifying succession of earthquakes in Kumamoto a few months back. From bottom to top, my phone shows an alert for a low shindo 6, a tsunami warning, two high shindo 5s, a high shindo 6, and then a low shindo 5. To paraphrase, people have trouble standing during a high shindo 6, buildings can collapse, and everything falls over.  The Great East Japan earthquake in 2011 was a shindo 7 at the epicentre. Um, in case you were wondering.

Screenshot_2016-04-18-20-51-32

Weather warnings

Recent warnings received on the alerts and emergencies app on my phone. I took the screenshot before today’s earthquake (a very minor one).

Have a guess as to what they mean! (Answers below)

warnings

The place name appears underneath, i.e., the prefecture, city, and ward if applicable.

Approximate meanings

  1. Evacuate because of flood danger
  2. Landslide danger
  3. Severe weather warning (heavy rain)
  4. Rain advisory (less severe than warning)

Temperature complaints

Having lived in a few different climates, I can’t help but roll my eyes, just a tiny bit, whenever I hear weather complaints. Here’s a bit of myth-busting and clarification to consider next time you want to complain about the weather.

Quick myth busting:

To the Canadians: yes, it gets uncomfortably coldish in Australia in winter.

To the Australians: yes, it gets uncomfortably hotish in Canada in summer.

To the Coloradans (of the Front Range): yes, it’s totally true that you have the most freakishly changeable weather, but this also means that you have the best weather. Only occasionally too hot, only occasionally too cold, loads of sun, and rarely humid. So no complaining allowed.

It’s all relative:

It’s so adorable when Perth residents freak out when it’s 0 degrees (32 F). To be fair, when you don’t have proper winter clothes nor central heating (or any heating, in many cases), 0 degrees is pretty darn chilly. I definitely felt very uncomfortable during winter there. BUT after my time in Montreal, I don’t consider it “cold” unless it’s under -15, and even then, I know that’s not cold by northern or prairie standards.

Poor Quebecois start moaning and cranking up the air conditioning when it’s 25 degrees (77 F). True, Montreal summers are pretty humid and hot, but the warmth only lasts for like 2 weeks max. Of the places I’ve lived, Montreal gets the worst marks for blatant air conditioner abuse. You won’t melt, people, I promise. If you want to experience real heat, go almost anywhere else, such as Western Australia when the sun sears down on you mercilessly as the temperature makes it’s way upwards of 40.

Japan:

My very limited anecdotal observation is that North Americans often tend to think of Japan as a hot place (I guess they think of tropical Okinawa?), and Australians think of it as a cold place (they think of skiing). In fact, Japan goes full out with all four seasons. Of course it also covers several climate zones for such a small country, ranging from the three snowiest cities in the world (i.e., among those with over 100,000 people) to the aforementioned tropics.

I’m crazy, I know, but I’m enjoying my first Japanese summer so far. The temperature itself looks pleasant, for example 30 degrees today (86 F). But the humidity is 90%. So that makes it feel like 41 degrees (105 F). Tomorrow’s forecast is 32 with 80% humidity, so it will feel like 45 (113 F). Nice.

For reference:

noaa

Summer in the city

13580388_10153764849705878_1138776399624063229_o

I’ve just returned from visiting my family for a couple of weeks, and I found it rather difficult to answer the oft-asked questions “what’s it like to live in Japan” and “what do you like about living in Japan”? I didn’t have a concise answer prepared, but I will try to write more here to get to the heart of it.

In the last two weeks, the weather has progressed much deeper into summer, and now I finally get to experience the sticky season that everyone has been warning me about. I visited a dry climate, so the contrast is stark returning to 30 degrees (mid-80s F) with 80-90% humidity. I know it’s weird, but I like to feel warm and slightly sweaty; that probably has to do with my bad circulation which makes my hands, feet, and nose turn strange colours when I’m cold.

Being away from a place for a little while is great for enhancing your perceptions when you return, and I’ve been enjoying the discovery or rediscovery of various sights and sounds, such as the iconic cicadas in one of the parks where I often walk:

(Depending on the quality of your speakers and/or hearing abilities, this may just sound like static, or nothing, but trust me, I captured the relentless chirpy hum of cicadas!)

The sense of place that I notice the most is smells, but alas (or perhaps fortunately) I haven’t invented scent-blogging yet, so I’ll have to resort to words. I visited a land of mostly clear air with lightly scented pines, but in contrast, in the parks in Yokohama, there are so many smells of wet earth and every shade of green and flowers and ocean. The different scents stand out in turn as the slight breeze shifts or the rain starts to fall, but they all speak of warmth and life.

Long story short, I love summer: in dry climates and so far, in humid ones, too.

Sakura

Everyone knows about cherry blossoms in Japan, right? I can testify that the beauty of the season goes beyond words. It’s like being in another world when the streets are lined with shivering iridescent white-pink blossoms.

Cherry blossoms, or sakura, are a core part of Japanese culture. Ohanami, or literally, viewing flowers, is definitely the thing to do when the cherry blossoms are blooming. News media broadcast sakura forecasts as they start to bloom from south to north in Japan. People go to particularly beautiful spots to watch the flowers and admire the ephemeral beauty that lasts so briefly before it’s gone (like life).

Oh yes, and there is a lot of hoopla regarding equipment for ohanami, including sakura-themed everything so that you can eat, drink, and be merry while watching the flowers.

There are some lovely words specific to sakura, such as:

  • shidarezukura (cherry tree with the branches hanging down, like a weeping willow)
  • yaezakura (8-petaled flowers)
  • yozakura (night viewing of sakura)
  • sakura fubuki (falling cherry blossom petals)

Some of my photos of this year’s sakura are below.