Tag Archives: rainy season

Saudade?

Arisugawa rain 1

It’s the rainy season, and so I am feeling a kind of soggy melancholy , an absence of something, a general dissatisfaction. I am wondering if this is saudade, apparently a longing for someone or something that is absent.

It’s almost the end of term, an in-between time. I’ve finished teaching but still have some paperwork to do. I fly back to the UK next week, but I have a lot to do here before I leave. Sometimes I feel that I’m right here, I am completely where I stand, all of me is concentrated on being where I am, and then other times I feel that I’m not quite here, but not quite there either. Nothing completely connects. This is one of those times.

In London ten years ago, on July 7th, 2005, four suicide bombers blew themselves up and in doing so killed fifty-two people and injured over seven hundred.

In Tokyo ten years ago I spent a lovely evening with a friend; a production of The Producers and dinner, I’m not sure which came first, but I think maybe the theatre. I remember I came home feeling content and relaxed, looking forward to flying back to the UK a few days later.

At home there was a message from my father on the answerphone; a little cryptic, he sounded urgent and was trying to reassure me. He told me that my brother was OK, I wasn’t to worry, everything was fine. Having no idea what he was talking about, I called my parents back, and turned on the TV. I remember perching on the edge of the sofa, rolling my eyes, listening to the phone start to ring, and then absorbing the news from the muted BBC. Four bombs had exploded on London transport.

My father’s message made sense then. My brother was living in London at the time, commuting to work on the Tube every morning. He had been at his desk by the time of the attacks. When I checked my e-mail he had already been in touch, reassuring me that he was OK; he was at work, everything was fine. He had called our parents to tell them the same thing, just as I would do in March 2011; e-mail to him, phone call to parents; it’s OK, it was a big earthquake, the tsunami did terrible damage, but in Tokyo we’re all right. Rattled, but all right.

And then I remember having that feeling, an emotional dislocation, knowing that my country was going through something huge and I was thousands of miles away. I have spent most of my adult life in Asia, and most of that time in Japan. I have consciously removed myself from my own country, I have chosen this distance. And yet, sometimes I feel very far from the mothership. Or rather, I feel the distance between.

I spend my life being British in another country. I routinely get asked random questions about the Royal Family, the correct way to make a cup of tea, the best places to go in London and how to get around, what I think of Stephen Fry, Jeremy Clarkson, the monkey named after the baby princess. Sometimes I have an answer, sometimes I have nothing. Sometimes I want to say, don’t ask me anything after 1990. I don’t know how much a stamp costs, I’ve never watched Downton Abbey, I’m a bit of a fraud, really.

Then I go back to the UK and get all the questions in reverse about Japan. What’s the weather like, is everyone really polite, are your students silent all the time, have you ever been on one of those really crowded trains I’ve seen on YouTube? It all feels like an exercise in time and space, all designed to make me aware of the the distance in between.

I remember calling my brother a few hours later that evening. The trains and buses weren’t running yet, but he was happy to stay at work and go home later. When he had moved to London and decided where to live he had told me that he could walk home from work if he needed to, it was only four or five miles. I asked him to walk home that evening; he declined, and said he’d take a bus or the Tube later. When he got home he sent me another e-mail to tell me he had taken the bus and had seen Tony Blair getting out of a helicopter at Chelsea Barracks. I was annoyed with him for taking a risk, as I saw it, but a month later I was in London myself, and several Tube lines stopped running. I felt almost irrationally determined to get back to his flat on the Tube and when I emerged at Clapham Common I felt victorious in the most deliciously bloody-minded way. Then I understood why he hadn’t walked home that evening.

 

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It’s hot

Japan has four seasons. The rainy season is called a season, but does not impact the fact that Japan Has Four Seasons. A vehement shaking of the head.

In winter we remind each other as often as we can that it’s cold. Yes, it’s cold today. It was cold yesterday. Yes, it’s cold. Is your country this cold in winter? Well . . . probably a little colder, but then, we do have central heating, and that makes getting up in the morning a completely different experience.

The rainy season . . . it’s raining. Yes, I know, it’s the rainy season. Oh, the humidity has started. It’s humid today, isn’t it? Is your country humid? No, not like this. Ah, I thought so.

Now, I know that this is an important part of social interaction; we exchange non-threatening small talk about the weather, we agree, we feel better for having agreed and we go on our way.  But in all this, I am reminded of a scene from years and years ago on Fawlty Towers, when Sybil is badgering Basil about something, and he goes away muttering about Mastermind, and ‘Sybil Fawlty, subject, the bleeding obvious’. I do realise that if you’re not British I may have lost you with that last cultural reference, but anyway, moving swiftly on . . .

It’s hot. It’s humid. And while we may be taking part in the great social interaction and confirming widely-believed facts, part of me wants to say, yes, I know, and talking about it just draws our attention to it, surely? Except, I am feeling so wrung-out in the heat that I don’t have the energy to point that out.

It’s hot and humid, did I mention that?

Just as in winter, there are a number of nifty little ideas that Japanese people have used for many years to try to keep cool. Of course, most people have air conditioning at home, and certainly in shops and on trains the AC is quite ferocious, but there are other ways to try to keep cool too.

Wherever you go you will see people fanning themselves. Many people carry a folding fan in their bag or pocket, shops and other businesses often give out the non-folding type as promotional goods, and where neither are available people will use whatever they have to fan themselves; a book, a newspaper, a small towel or their hand. I first starting using a fan in summer when I lived in China, and remember taking several back to the UK because I liked the designs so much. Once I put one in my bag and on a particularly hot day pulled it out to use it and was met by incredulous looks from the people around me. I put it back in my bag and decided that was behaviour best confined to Asia. These days I have a fan in my school bag, one in my handbag, and at least one more at home. When my students pick up their textbook and employ it as a fan instead of the teaching tool it is meant to be, I don’t bat an eye. Go ahead, student! You keep cool any way you can. It’s hot and humid today, isn’t it?

While almost all of us enjoy sitting around in air-conditioned comfort at home, conventional wisdom dictates that sleeping with the AC on is A Very Bad Thing. No good will come of it, you will catch a cold and we shall all roll our eyes knowingly. The appropriate way to sleep on a hot summer night is to use an electric fan, which is surprisingly effective. There are cooling ice pillows (‘cooling’ seeming to be an understatement, what do you think is going to happen if you sleep with your head on a giant ice-cold gel pack?) and the excellently-named towelket. This is the hybrid offspring of a towel and a blanket (I’m sure you’d already figured that one out for yourself), which you use instead of a duvet in summer. I must admit that I don’t use all these things; I have a fan, but sometimes I wake up around 4:30 when the sun is coming up and switch to the AC. No good will come of it, I’m sure.

Summer in Japan also means insects. In most places you would think that that is obvious; hot weather bringing out all kinds of creepy crawlies which we dispose of in a variety of ways. If you’re thinking of mosquitoes and cockroaches, of course, we do the same in Japan. But there are other insects which are greeted with delight. Children go out looking for these mini beasts and carry them home triumphantly. Failing that, you can buy one in a department store, along with its own plastic box and the strange gel it likes to eat.

Last summer I was in Yamanashi on a school trip. On the last day, the Japanese teacher and I found some kind of stag beetle which we knew her young son would like. Between us we picked it up, carried it back to the cottage we were staying in, put it in a plastic box with a slice of Japanese pear, gerry-rigged a net used to catch organic waste in the sink over the box to contain the beetle but allow it to breathe, secured said net with dental floss, and at some point on the bus journey between Yamanashi and Tokyo even named it. It made it back to Tokyo, where my colleague continued to feed it and tend to its needs for several days. It expired before her son returned from his grandparents’ house, but not before she had put considerable energy into its care.

stagbeetleThe cicadas also are an important part of summer, their incredibly loud noise being part of the soundscape. In the last few days I have heard the first ones start up, and they will continue until some time in September.

cicadaAdding to the soundscape in my neighbourhood, of course, is my neighbour’s fondness for wind chimes. We have already had the great cacophony that is the full-on five-chime experience. Friends on Facebook have suggested a variety of remedies but since I do not possess Spiderman-like skills to scale the front of their house and make it up to the second floor to cut the things down, nor can I legally arm myself and take potshots at them (either the chimes or the neighbours) I can only close my windows, turn the AC on and try to ignore the sounds that I can still hear. How they find it relaxing I just don’t know.

The are other traditional Japanese responses to summer. I was in the supermarket today and saw a lot of people buying giant wedges of watermelon. A mobile phone shop was tempting people to stop and find out about some new service by offering free bottles of ramune, a traditional Japanese soda. I saw variety packs of small fireworks on sale in a local shop, which seems to me to be all wrong, since fireworks to a British person mean November 5th, Guy Fawkes, baked potatoes and bonfires, but I suppose to American and French people do mean summer celebrations. There will be giant firework dispays put on by different wards in Tokyo over the summer and people will buy these variety packs to have fun at home, which again creates alarm in me, a British person raised on public service announcements every autumn about the dangers of fireworks and why you should be very careful with them at home.

I have twice seen people at the station or on the train wearing yukata, lightweight summer kimono made of cotton. A few days ago I saw this teenage girl waiting for a train at my local station

stationyukataand today I sat across from this man as he snoozed gently.

summergarb2Alternatively you could go for this all-pink ensemble I saw this morning:

summergarb1Here I sit in air-conditioned comfort (though I must say I am being ecologically responsible and have it set at 28 degrees). I feel a little hypocritical writing of the long, hot, humid summer stretching ahead of us, no relief until probably the end of September. I fly back to the UK on Tuesday. When I get back in August the heat, humidity, insects, will all still be here, but I will have a break from it all.

But have you heard about the British summer?  Sometimes it rains all the time and it isn’t very warm. Then again, it’s been too hot recently. But in my country? No, there’s no humidity, the insects are smaller and we certainly don’t keep them as pets.

I am looking forward to my summer holiday, but I shall miss Japan too; my life is here. It will be good to have a break, visit family and friends, re-charge my batteries, remind myself again just how lucky I am to be European and be able to hop around to other countries easily. But it will be good to come home again.

Wherever you are, I hope you have a wonderful summer.

Japan has four seasons

If you have never been to Japan, the title of this post probably seems to state the obvious. You may, like me, be dredging up ‘O’ Level geography, and thinking, what’s so surprising about that? Surely Japan has a temperate climate? For anyone who lives, or has lived in Japan, the reaction is more likely to be, oh, that old chestnut. Or, to put a katakana slant on it, that old marron.

Japanese people are very proud of their four seasons, and feel that this makes Japan special in some way. Since it can be a rather frustrating statement, I have, on occasion attempted to point out that this is not something to be filed under ‘Japanese uniqueness’, and have been rewarded with vehement shakes of the head, and the insistence that Japan having four seasons is somehow different from any other country with a temperate climate having the same. I have even, in another attempt to disagree with the statement, pointed out that surely, Japan has five, since there is also the ‘rainy season’ (梅雨) from roughly June 10th to July 10th, but that also is met with incredulity, denial, and repetition of the mantra that ‘Japan has four seasons’.

Clearly, Japanese, like many languages, has four words for the seasons; spring (春), summer (夏), autumn (秋) and winter(冬). So where is this idea coming from, that Japan is somehow different? I would say that Japan is different because Japanese people react differently to the change of seasons. Even in Tokyo, or maybe especially in a huge city like Tokyo, we watch the seasons come and go, we look forward to the cherry blossoms, the autumn colours, we notice the months passing by the fruit and vegetables in the shops, and we take time to enjoy the changes. I remember as a child looking forward to running through the fallen leaves, I remember my grandfather getting roasted chestnuts from somewhere, but as an adult the arrival of autumn meant putting the clocks back, the nights drawing in, and a kind of bracing for the greyness to be endured before the joy of spring.

For a few years, when I first lived in Japan, I found the cherry blossom-viewing season a bit much, I didn’t really understand the eagerness to get out there and look at the blossoms. I don’t remember exactly when I started to feel differently, but these days I feel as if I am almost holding my breath, watching the buds on the trees, just waiting for Tokyo to turn pink. I look forward to buying sakura-flavoured tofu, to meeting friends and wandering around under the trees. I still don’t see the attraction of sitting under the trees with a generator to power a karaoke machine, but maybe that, too, will come with time.

The rainy season, apparently not a season but still called one, is the soggy month we go through before the heat and humidity of the summer really set in. Its Japanese name, 梅雨, is the kanji for ‘plum’ and ‘rain’, but the reality is far less poetic. Some years we have a fairly dry rainy season, but a wet rainy season is an unpleasant experience. The summer that follows it is long and humid and drags on until around the end of September, though by the second half of the month it is noticeably cooler and less humid.

Maybe because it is so long and draining we look forward to the autumn. Almost spookily, the autumn equinox seems to bring a marked drop in temperatures; there’s a chill in the air and anyone still wearing anything short-sleeved will be asked often, aren’t you cold?  In fact, as I was writing this the newspaper man arrived with the bill for this month, and the first thing he said was, it’s got cold, hasn’t it? Yes, it has, but the temperature is still around mid-teens celsius  every day with no need for heating yet, at least in Tokyo. I know the UK is already a lot colder.

The autumn colours can be spectacular, and just as there are places known to be especially good for cherry blossom viewing (お花見) there are also places famous for their ‘red leaves’ (紅葉), but really, you don’t have to go far. This afternoon I walked down to Senzoku Ike (洗足池) or Senzoku Pond and found the early signs of autumn and some leaves already starting to turn. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, slightly breezy, and there were a lot of people out enjoying the park. I found trees laden with pomegranates and persimmons,

     

I saw turtles basking in the sun,

and a gingko tree with bright yellow leaves against the blue sky.

Japan has four seasons. A lot of other countries do too, but Japan is different, not because of the number but because so many people make time to go outside and appreciate them.