Thursday, 20 June 2019

Fearful for their Financial Future: Young People, Pensioners, and Don Quijote

One of the surprising things that comes out of survey data on young people in Japan is that they have much lower 'hope for the future' (shōrai e no kibō =将来への希望) than their peers in other countries. For example, 2014 data showed only 66.2% of Japanese youth thought they would be happy when they were 40; in contrast, the figures for the other countries in the survey were all in the eighties. When talking to my students about this anxiety for the future, the key reasons seem to centre on work - low salaries, long working hours - and whether they will be able to receive a pension in the future.

A recent FSA report on pensions merely fuelled this anxiety. Based on estimates of average living costs, the report highlighted that the public pension would be insufficient and estimated that an elderly couple living until 95 - 30 years after retirement - would need savings of some ¥20 million (£150,000/$185,000) to make up the shortfall. The ¥20 million figure caused a sensation in the media and was quickly disowned by the government: Aso, the finance minister infamous for fine dining and drinking in luxury hotels, said he would "not accept" the report and argued that the pension system "will never collapse." But burying the report doesn't change the fact that the figures were entirely valid: today, the rate of poverty amongst the elderly - currently estimated at around 19.4% - is even higher than the overall figure of 1 in 6 Japanese living below the poverty line (poverty and food banks were discussed in this earlier post).

So how do Japanese save money (setsuyaku =節約)? ¥1000 haircuts and "one coin" (¥500) lunches are one way, but thrifty shopping is surely the most common strategy. The growth of 100-yen (hyaku-en) shops in particular has been dramatic in the last twenty years, and at the same time as department stores have been struggling, thrift-chains like Daiso have been thriving selling cheap - but nevertheless reasonable quality and hugely diverse - products. Cosmetics in particular are hugely popular both among both Japanese and tourists, who buy bucket-loads as souvenirs! It's not only cosmetics either - there's loads of other products perfect for souvenirs, such as origami, toys, study materials, and snacks (see here). The picture below shows some other unique products: special decorative envelopes Japanese use for giving money at weddings and funerals; chopsticks, including special ones to teach children how to hold them properly; and a massive selection of bento boxes!
Talk of discount shopping wouldn't be complete without mentioning Don Quijote (ドン・キホーテ) usually abbreviated to Donki. Donki is a discount chain store which came into its own following the bursting of the economic bubble at the beginning of the 1990s: today there are over 160 stores in Japan, with others in Singapore, Thailand, and Hawaii. The stores are usually massive, open late, and full of all sorts of weird and wacky products, including anime goods and cosplay-style costumes. As you walk into the store, there is a sign that says kyōyasu no dendō (驚安の殿堂). This literally means "surprisingly cheap palace", though the kyōyasu is a made-up word: the Donki homepage explains that in contrast to the usual word for dirt-cheap, gekiyasu (激安), kyōyasu is supposed to capture the thrill/excitement/overflowing surprise at the cheap prices. I suspect, though, that for the millions of pensioners struggling to get by - and the youngsters fearful of never receiving a pension at all - the feeling is probably more akin to relief at somehow just being able to get by.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Moss: The Miracle Plant Perfectly at Home in Humid Japan

Friday saw the official start of the rainy season (tsuyu =梅雨) in Tokyo which means 4 or 5 weeks of high humidity (over 90% this morning!) - and clothes that never seem to dry. As someone who cycles to work I headed to Mont Bell in Shibuya to get some decent rainwear. Whereas rain and humidity are both pretty unwelcome for cyclists like me, for one of Japan's signature plants - moss or koke (苔) - it is a boon.

The Japanese climate is particularly well-suited to moss, though it is more the humidity than the rain. Moss is apparently able to absorb water and nutrients directly from the air if humidity is 80% or more; it also releases moisture if the humidity drops too low, meaning it is both a humidifier and a de-humidifier (see here for more)! To top it all, it also purifies the air, absorbing pollutants. This may explain its growing popularity, both outside - Japanese gardens are abundant in moss and the air there does always seems fresher - and inside. Kokedama (苔玉)- a ball of soil wrapped in moss and held together with string or wire, from which an ornamental bonsai-style plant grows - can be seen all over the place these days and kokedama workshops are a real craze.
 Japan's moss obsession has been a popular topic in the media. This article links it back to a best-selling 2011 book by Hisako Fuji which triggered a wave of moss-viewing parties and tours, particularly popular amongst women. The forest at the base of Mount Kita-Yatsugatake surrounding Lake Shirakoma (白駒の池) in Nagano Prefecture is often mentioned as the perfect spot. But one does not need to go far to find beautiful moss; any local temple or shrine Japanese garden will have it. Saiho-ji (西芳寺) in Kyoto, otherwise known as Koke-dera (moss temple), is probably the most famous example. The interesting thing is that moss is prized here and left to naturally cover ancient statues rather than be removed like it might be in the West: in other words, in Japan, grass will be pulled out from moss, the very opposite of what happens in the UK! The very length of time it takes to cover stone is considered something magical - as the lyrics in the national anthem highlight; indeed, a key element of the Zen garden is the concept of wabi-sabi or "transient imperfection." The pictures above, taken in the 17,000㎡ Japanese garden behind the Nezu Museum in Tokyo, show this well.

But this post wouldn't be complete without mention of my favourite fast-food shop in Japan - Mos Burger. The "Mos" actually has nothing to do with the green stuff - it means Mountain Ocean Sun apparently - but it does proudly promote the healthy nature of its meat and veggies, with pictures of where and who grew the particular products. Most stores will also have a little noticeboard which changes daily, with friendly comments and observations from the staff giving a very warm neighbourhood feel to the stores. It's no surprise that it's the second biggest fast-food franchise in Japan - I would rate the taste better than McDonald's which is miles ahead in first place. As you can see from the menu here, there are a lot of unique Japanese style burgers on offer - including teriyaki and rice burgers - though my absolute favourite has to be Mos Chicken: amazing rain or shine!

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Extended Golden Week: Zushi, Enoshima, and Kamakura (Part 2)

In the last post, I introduced Zushi, a small sea-side city a couple of hours from Tokyo just to the east of Kamakura. While it is widely known that Kyoto, where the emperor resided, was the old capital of Japan until it moved to Tokyo in 1868, fewer people know that Kamakura was the other 'old capital', one that was home to Japan's first military government or shogunate (bakufu =幕府) which ruled from 1192 to 1333. Friction between Kyoto (where the emperor resided) and Kamakura (home to the shogunate) saw frequent conflict - effectively civil war - until the overthrow of the shogunate in 1333 though conflict continued between two competitors to the imperial throne until 1392.

Today, Kamakura is a bustling tourist-packed city full of shrines and temples reflecting its historical importance. The city may be smaller than either Kyoto or Nara but it has a long history that goes back to even before the shogunate; Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in the center of the city was built in the year 1063. This "shrine" has both Buddhist and Shinto features reflecting the fact that until the Shinto and Buddhism Separation Order (神仏判然令) of 1868 the two religions were mixed. Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shows plenty of traces of its shrine-temple (jingū-ji =神宮寺) history in its layout and architecture. Starting from the coast, there is a long straight 1.8km road that climbs up to the Shrine at the top of the hill. When I was there I was lucky enough to see a Shinto wedding taking place: in the video at the bottom you can see the bride with her tsuno-kakushi headwear (introduced here) serenaded by traditional court musicians playing gagaku (雅楽) classical music on flutes and pipes (the vertical panpipes-like instrument is called shō or ).

Walking back from Tsurugaoka Hachimangu you can take the famous  Komachi-dori Street a narrow street packed with souvenir shops and some 60,000 visitors a day. It has become so crowded with foreign tourists that authorities have had to crack-down on eating while walking - seen as bad manners in Japan - following complaints from businesses (somewhat ironic given that these businesses are the ones selling the food in the first place!). One of the best-selling snacks is the Buddha soft cream (pictured) which is presumably acceptable to eat while heading towards the famous Big Buddha. There are actually quite a few Big Buddhas (daibutsu =大仏) in Japan, with the most famous being the one in Nara. The Big Buddha here is neither the oldest nor the tallest (13m) but the fact that it sits in the open air and can be viewed inside is pretty unique - not to mention that it is also the subject of a poem by Rudyard Kipling!

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Extended Golden Week: Zushi, Enoshima, and Kamakura (Part 1)

Zushi Marina, Kanagawa
Japan recently enjoyed an extended "Golden Week" holiday to mark the abdication of the old emperor and the succession of the new (discussed in an earlier post). May 1st, the first day of the new emperor's reign known as the Reiwa era, became the additional holiday which worked out as ten consecutive days off (April 27th to May 6th) for many - but not all - people. Golden Week is probably the longest vacation period of the year for many Japanese and with the extra day many did take advantage of this to travel inside and outside Japan (despite the crowds and higher prices). I enjoyed a trip to nearby Zushi, Kanagawa, a small sea-side city sandwiched between Kamakura and Yokosuka (home to the US naval base) only a couple of hours from the capital.
The weather wasn't especially kind during our stay, but we did have some blue skies (as the picture shows) and the beach was rather lovely (our dog, Jaz, especially enjoyed digging holes!). The beach was actually the setting for former Tokyo mayor's debut novel Taiyō no Kisetsu (太陽の季節)which translates as Season of the Sun but became Season of Violence in the English translation, better reflecting the content which was about the rebellious post-war taiyōzoku youth culture. Interestingly, the Sunshine Party was also the name of Ishihara's short-lived nationalist political party.
In the evenings, the Zushi Beach Film Festival was in full swing and despite the rain quite a few people turned up to enjoy the huge screen and state of the art sound system. The booming speakers are a rarity on the beach - in 2014 the city banned loud music, tattoos, drinking, and barbecues after complaints by local residents. The crackdown on rowdy party goers and yakuza (two gangsters were  stabbed to death on the beach in 2013) saw a 50% drop in the number of visitors in 2015.

In the next post, I'll introduce Kamakura, the old capital of Japan and its wonderful temples and shrines. But for now I'll finish with a picture of Enoshima, a small offshore island a little further on from Kamakura introduced in an earlier post. Driving towards Enoshima along the coastal road the rolling storm clouds - completely hiding any view of Mount Fuji - contrasted vividly with the blue sky and crashing white foam. Breathtaking.

Monday, 29 April 2019

Japan as a Country of Surveillance: Crime, Cameras, and Cards

One thing I have noticed recently is the proliferation of surveillance cameras which have begun to pop up all over the place. Whereas in the past these were typically found only at places like stations, public buildings, shops, and convenience stores, today they are in the most innocuous locations, stuck to the top of lamp-posts on quiet streets with a sign at the base warning passersby that 'crime-prevention cameras' (bōhan kamera =防犯カメラ) are in operation. In the UK, one 2013 survey put the number of CCTV (closed circuit television) cameras at between 4 and 6 million, an average of one for every 13 people. In Japan, however, there are no official statistics, though one article in the Nikkei Shimbun in 2012 put the number at around 3 million. Today the number is surely much higher.

Of course, Japan has a famously low crime rate and recorded crimes have been at record lows in recent years, falling below 1 million after a peak of 2.85 million in 2002. A boost in police numbers has certainly contributed but the spread of security cameras is undoubtedly another key factor (in 2016 more than half of all criminal charges were apparently based on surveillance camera footage!). With the rugby world cup this year and the Olympics in 2020 efforts to up surveillance, such as the introduction of cameras on trains, are even more noticeable. The Tokyo Metro site here details the new poster campaign to give foreign visitors 'international level peace of mind' (世界トップレベルの安心).
The price to be paid a safe society is a great deal more surveillance and less privacy than one might experience in the UK. I have previously written about Japan's 'friendly authoritarianism' characterised by groups such as local neighbourhood associations and citizen patrol groups who are encouraged to keep an eye on comings and goings in the community. We are also encouraged to register our name and address at the local police box (kōban). And, the Big Brother Kabuki-style 'moving eyes' (ugoku bōhan no me) sticker warning that crime will not be overlooked (minogasanai =見逃さない) is fairly ubiquitous - including on the back of 100,000 vehicles, such as soft-drink delivery trucks, in the Tokyo area. An alternative slogan is frequently seen on the back of mama-chari bicycles warning potential kidnappers that their children are being watched over attentively (mimamotteiru =見守っている). See here for an interesting article about when they were created and by who.
Foreigners in particular - there is a strong 'foreign crime' discourse in Japan - may find such an environment disconcerting, especially when it means getting stopped by a 'friendly' officer for police questioning. But it is not only non-Japanese who have become shaken by Japan's intensified surveillance regime. The Secrets Protection Law (Himitsu Hogo Hō=秘密保護法) which came into effect in 2014 to guard 'specially designated state secrets' was controversial enough to mobilise Japan's usually sleepy civil society. Then, in 2016 Japan's Supreme Court ruled that blanket surveillance of Muslims in the country was not unconstitutional. The following year, in a Japan Times interview, Edward Snowden warned that the new conspiracy law of the same year moved Japan a step closer to achieving sweeping surveillance of ordinary citizens while in June of this year the scope of crimes that can be investigated using wiretaps was expanded. Finally, the 12-digit Social Security and Tax Number system know as 'My Number' (マイナンバー) which was introduced at the end of 2015 to streamline tax, pension, and welfare raised a number of privacy concerns; to date, more than half of the Japanese have still not obtained a card (which, in theory, remains voluntary). Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Reception at the British Embassy: Cherry Blossoms, Chandeliers, and Bilateral Relations

With the cherry blossom peak over, the petals (hanabira =花びら) are falling which makes for a lovely sight on the waterways (such as Meguro Rover) in Tokyo as they blanket the water, with "flower-rafts" (hana-ikada =花筏) as they are called in Japanese. I got the chance to see the blossoms at their peak though last week when I visited the British Embassy for a reception for alumni from Durham University in the UK living in Japan. It was my first visit to the embassy, located across from the Imperial Palace moat or Hanzo-Hori lined with beautifully illuminated cherry trees (though the direction signs at the station - "Embassy of British" - could have done with a native-speaker check, like many instances of English on signs in Japan!). The cherry blossoms in the ambassador's garden were stunning; Japanese readers may be surprised to know that people in the UK also enjoy the blossoms at this time of year (though it is usually to cold to eat and drink under the trees...).
Most of the guests were Japanese who had come from all over Japan - from Hokkaido to Kyushu - for the chance to take a peak inside the luxurious Ambassador's Residence. The Ambassador's garden (pictured) was of course wonderful but the living room, decked out with antique furniture, chandeliers, and pictures of royalty was something else. The invitation was also written in very formal English, with "lounge-suit" for the dress code and "carriages" denoting the end of the reception (translated rather blandly as heikai=閉会 on the Japanese version). It was also interesting to see that the Japanese invitation added the explanation that there was to be a stand-up buffet, written as risshoku (立食). This is not to be confused with tachi-gui (立ち食い) which, though using the same kanji, denotes cheap and quick stand-up noodle shops and other street stalls!

Official Japan-British relations only began in 1854 with the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty (日英和親条約) signed after the end of the "closed-country" (sakoku=鎖国) period though relations deteriorated rapidly during the 1930s (see here for a full time line). Today, relations are remarkably close: during Abe's visit to the UK in January, Prime Minister May described the two countries as "natural partners. Thriving, innovative, island nations – committed to defending the global rules." Brexit appears to have throw a bit of a spanner in the works though, and Honda's announcement in February that it was withdrawing from the UK shocked many Brits. Japanese, though, remain pretty unfazed; an internal embassy poll apparently found that only about 40% of Japanese even know Brexit is happening! Certainly, there is a lot of love for the UK - especially tradition and pomp and ceremony - in Japan; September will see the launch of a new 'UK in Japan' campaign, beginning with the Rugby World Cup and continuing through to the Tokyo Olympics.

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For those want to learn a little more about early diplomatic relations between Britain (and other European nations) and Japan, I would recommend British author David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet which is set on the man-made island of Dejima between 1799 and 1817. While the story of a Dutch clerk on an isolated trading post is a lot more exciting than it sounds (!), for those of you wanting a more modern neon-Tokyo-yakuza-filled adventure, number9dream is probably more your cup of tea (the bowling alley scene still sticks in my mind...). The detail in both books makes it clear that the author knows Japan well (indeed, he lived in Hiroshima for eight years) - he is also married to a Japanese.

Saturday, 30 March 2019

End of an Era at Meiji Shrine: Giant Torii, Sacred Sake, and Horns of Jealousy

Blossom for soon-to-be-empress Princess Masako

Here in Japan, as the sakura bloom, many are eagerly awaiting the announcement of the new era name as the current emperor prepares to abdicate (Just announced - the new name is Reiwa=令和). As well as the Western calendar, Japan also has its own calendar known as the nengō (年号) system; in modern times this has corresponded with the name of an imperial era. So the Heisei era (as the current period is known) started with the accession of the current emperor Akihito in January 1989 and will end on April 30 2019 - the 31st year of Heisei - when he abdicates in favour of Crown Prince Naruhito. Interestingly, during his reign the emperor is never called by his name but only as emperor (ten'nō=天皇); after his reign he will be referred to as Emperor Heisei (平成天皇). Thus, if you ask a Japanese the real name of a current or former emperor most will not know.

The custom of posthumously naming an Emperor after the era during which they ruled began after the death of the Emperor Meiji in 1912 (film buffs may remember the very young emperor portrayed in The Last Samurai). The Emperor Meiji is enshrined - but not buried - in Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingū=明治神宮) which boasts 100,000 trees right in the centre of Tokyo, just a stone's throw from Harajuku Station. The shrine was finished in 1920, burnt down during World War II, and rebuilt in 1958. The giant torii gate at the entrance to the shrine complex must be one of the most photographed places in Tokyo. As you walk into the shrine, there are more of these imposing gates, including the Ōtorii (大鳥居) Grand Shrine Gate which at 12m tall is the biggest wooden torii in Japan. It is made of 1500 year old Japanese cypress (hinoki) and if you look carefully, you will also see branches with sakaki leaves tied to the bottom of the gates, a species of evergreen sacred to Shinto.


Talking of things sacred to Shinto, sake (rice wine) is high on the list. Walking through the shrine precinct you will come across a giant wall of refined sake (seishu=清酒) barrels wrapped in straw which are given as offerings every year by the Sake Brewers Association. A little further on you will come to the Meiji Memorial Hall where the Meiji Constitution was signed; Shinto weddings (shinzen kekkon =神前結婚) are also performed here (if you have enough money!). (Ceremonial) sake drinking is a key part of the ceremony, specifically the drinking of three cups three times (nan-nan-san-ku-do). The evergreen mentioned earlier also features, with the priest offering some to the altar near the end of the ceremony.
These two giant 'husband and wife' camphor trees planted in 1920 at the time of the enshrinement of the emperor have become a symbol of happy marriage and harmonious life within the family
The day I visited I was lucky enough to see a wedding procession headed by the Shinto priests (note the amagutsu footwear) followed by two shrine maidens (miko) and the bride and groom. Note the bride's white paper headwear, known as a tsuno-kakushi (角隠し) or "horn hider". The meaning of this is rather unclear, but in Japan if someone is angry people often gesture with index fingers making horns on the head. Thus, the "horn hider" seems to mean that wives should suppress any anger/jealousy and be obedient to their husband! For those of you who assume this is the 'traditional' gender role, be careful: the Shinto marriage ceremony and indeed many of the social norms relating to how wives and mothers 'should' act are recent inventions, created after the beginning of the Meiji era.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Yoyogi Park: Cherry Trees, Rockabilly Dancing, and Counting Crows

There's still a slight chill in the air in the mornings and evenings - northern Japan had blizzards last week - but the cherry trees are coming into bloom right now. The next week or two will be the best time for holding a blossom viewing 'hanami' party and one of the most convenient places to have your picnic in Tokyo is Yoyogi Park which has over 600 trees plus food and drink stalls.

Yoyogi Park is just a short walk from Harajuku Station, next to Meiji Shrine (to be featured in the next post!). It is one of the largest, most spacious parks in Tokyo (134 acres), with ponds, forested areas, fountains, gardens, statues, a dog run, a bird sanctuary, and bike paths: expect to see joggers, dog walkers, yoga circles, dance groups, cyclists, musicians, jugglers, kite flyers, frisbee throwers, tai-chi classes, and much more! Another thing you'll definitely see are crows - hundreds of them. There's seven in the picture below: according to the superstition of counting crows that means either a secret, a mystery, or a curse!
Yoyogi only officially became a park in 1967: before that it was a military parade ground (pre-war), US military barracks (post-war), and then main athletes village for the 1964 Olympics. A legacy of its military past is the marvellous 'Pine Tree of Imperial Troop Review' (えっぺいしき=閲兵式). The sign below the 12m tree tells us that this was the spot where the emperor would stand when reviewing the troops and giving the imperial salute. There is certainly a special regality to the tree, especially when the trunk is wrapped in a rice-straw mat in winter as the Japanese do to protect trees not from the cold but from harmful insects (the practice is known as komo-maki =菰巻き). The mat is burnt - full of insects - typically at the end of February.

Finally, a post on Yoyogi Park wouldn't be complete without mentioning the rockabilly dancers (ロックンローラー族) who gather outside the Harajuku Gate on (some) Sundays to drink, dance, and listen to 50s rock 'n' roll music. Both young and old, dressed in leather and denim, wearing sunglasses, and sporting quiffs and slicked back hair (men) and pony tails (women), it's fascinating to see a thriving sub-culture in the heart of the capital. One of Australia's best known bands, 5SOS, was so inspired that they wrote a multi-platinum song, Youngblood, accompanied by a fantastic video shot in Tokyo featuring some of the Japanese twisters. Performances are unscheduled but if you're unlucky enough to miss them, check out the video below for a taste of what you missed!

Friday, 1 March 2019

A Mask Wearing Culture: Hay Fever Fashion

In England I never wore a mask, never really saw others wearing masks, and didn't notice any masks on sale. Japan is very different: masks are everywhere from commuters on the Yamanote Line to hikers in the countryside, from students to the elderly. There are multiple reasons Japanese wear masks. Among young women, it is often a sign that they got up too late to apply make-up! However, in general the reasons often depend on the season. 

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During winter they are used to prevent catching a cold or the flu or to stop it spreading to others if you have been unlucky to catch one. Coughing or sneezing on a crowded commuter train without a mask will result in a quick social death. The air is also very dry at this time of year so wearing a mask is a good way to prevent a sore throat (especially so if you keep the heater on while you sleep at night). In the spring, Asian dust or yellow sand (kōsa =黄砂) carrying pollutants and particulates like PM 2.5 blows over from China and other countries (Kyushu is especially affected), so masks are used to filter this out. At this time of the year, though, probably the most common reason for wearing a mask is hay fever (known as kafunshō=花粉症).

As the cold snap switched abruptly into unseasonably warm weather, the start of hay fever season was officially announced on February 18th (when cedar pollen started to fully diffuse into the air). The media has been full of dire warnings that this year will be especially miserable for the one in four Japanese who suffer from hay fever, with the amount of cedar pollen in the air even in Tokyo forecast to be as much as four times higher than last year. Part of the reason cedar (sugi=杉) pollen is such a problem can be traced back to after World War II which saw mass planting of the fast-growing trees to aid the post-war construction boom. Cedar pollen is expected to continue until mid-March in eastern and western Japan and that is followed by hinoki or Japanese cypress pollen: the trees produce huge amounts of of tiny, super-light pollen grains which when inhaled can cause severe allergic reactions. While cedar and cypress are the main culprits, as the chart below shows the pollen (kafun=花粉)calendar runs through to October and includes multiple kinds of allergens, even including rice plants (ine =稲). See here for a more detailed regional calendar with pictures.
Comparing with the UK, we can see a similar patten with tree pollen in the spring (red in the chart), and grass and weed from summer to autumn (green in the chart). The main culprit in the UK though is grass which peaks in June: cedar and cypress are no-where to be found.

Magazines and TV have been full of cleaning tips for reducing pollen in the home: wipe rather than vacuum floors, dry futons and clothes inside (or outside early in the morning), brush (harai=払い) clothes after coming home, and use air purifiers. Allergies are big business in Japan. As well as masks, products on sale include anti-pollen glasses that also claim to prevent lenses from fogging up, nose plugs, nasal sprays, and portable air purifiers small enough to be worn around the neck. But it is the masks that are the big-sellers and in recent years these have become something of a fashion item too, with different styles (black or flower-printed masks anyone?) to fruit-scented ones and even masks taped directly to the cheeks. The other day I visited a "pop-up shop" in Ometesando Hills by Pitta Mask which has been promoting masks as a fashion accessory; the shop had a section offering advice on how to coordinate masks by colour and size with your clothes!

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Staying Poka-Poka in the Japanese Winter: The Wonder of Hand Warmers


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Traditional hot-water bottle
Tokyo experienced its first proper snow last week, but it didn't stick and was pretty much gone by the next day. Nevertheless, it's been pretty cold though nothing  compared to Hokkaido which is experiencing a record cold spell with temperatures dropping below minus 20 (the cold front even spread to Hawaii where it was responsible for an unheard of snow fall in the low lying areas!). At least people in Hokkaido enjoy central heating though - the rest of Japan lacks this luxury. In the absence of central heating, Japanese typically heat only the living room in winter; this can make a trip to the toilet extremely chilly! For heating, as discussed before, kerosene/paraffin remains common and a kotatsu low-heated table highly recommended. At night, as in the UK, Japanese will often sleep with a hot water bottle in the winter - in Japan this is called a yutanpo (湯たんぽ) and is traditionally made from galvanised steel or hard plastic (pictured), though recently the Western style soft rubber type has become more common.

But venturing outside usually means walking: Japan, at least in the populated areas, is a public transport not a car based society and Japanese have been shown to be one of the most active people in terms of daily steps taken (something also linked to low levels of obesity). Now this means a lot of time spent in those cold spaces between home, station, and workplace - which is where the fabulous disposable hand-warmer comes in. Usually written in katakana as カイロ (kairo), these thin pocket heaters are commonly used not only during commuting and shopping but also in various outdoor activities such as skiing and hiking. Depending on the size, once in contact with the air they can last anywhere from 7 to (incredibly) over 18 hours at relatively high temperatures as the table below shows:
Table showing different types of and stats for kairo or hand warmers produced by the Co-op (生協)
As the table indicates, there are two basic kinds of kairo: sticky (haru=貼る)and non-sticky (haranai=貼らない) which are written prominently on the front of the packet (pictured). The former can be stuck over inner-clothing, like T-shirts and vests, or inside jackets while the latter are more for pockets and holding directly. As the table also shows there are special kinds of sticky kairo especially for socks (pictured). These packets will often contain the onomatopoeic word for pleasantly warm or comfortably hot, pokapoka or hokahoka, though the latter is more closely associated with steaming or piping hot food (indeed, Hokka-Hokka Tei is the name of a popular take-out bento chain).

Like the yutanpo traditional hot-water bottle above, kairo were originally metal vessels with hot stones, sand, or charcoal inside: see here for a little history and some nice pictures. Finally, this wouldn't be Japan is there wasn't a long list of chūi (warnings) about how to use kairo safely. These include not putting them directly on the skin, sleeping with them, or attaching them to pets! You have been warned...