Sunday, December 6, 2009

Four Season Fallout

I have never exactly popped a cork and toasted the bubbly to the Vernal or Autumnal Equinox, but I do appreciate those bonus national holidays. The official markers for the change of seasons to me growing up were what I knew simply as, "spring ahead, fall back." But there is more that goes with the ritual in Japan. In fact, the Japanese treasure their 4 seasons in the same deep rooted way that Small Town America "roots roots roots" for the home team. Japan seems to revolve around the axis of the seasons. From literature, small talk, cuisine, travel destinations, festivals, holidays, and weather reports to practically every aspect of marketing (down to the design of a simple beer) focus on one of the four.

It's a cultural, national heritage that practically drives the people here. I so often hear, "Japan has 4 seasons," as if, from Ohio, where our meteorological agencies also clock in 4 seasons a year, can't relate to the concept. But I can admit that to them, the change of seasons is more than a concept, it's a feeling, a way of life. In Ohio, we experience the seasons change from the drivers seat -- we control the gears all the way and watch it pass us by like scenery. And it is nice scenery. The fall colors ring in Halloween beautifully, and sometimes even before Turkey Day, we get our first snowfall. By then, we've turned back the clocks to manipulate not only an extra hour of sleep for a night, but more daylight for our mental comfort during the cold months. We can crank up our central heat, and venture out long enough to engage in the sport of driving through the suburbs to view elaborate Christmas light displays at private estates. We hibernate in cozy thermostat-powered homes until things start blooming. Then we are safe to venture out again and enjoy nature's warming up phase, without the dependency on the defrost button. We have the freedom to pull into a 24 hour grocery store where foods from any season and any part of the country, or world for that matter, are readily available. We have the control to dive back in to central air in summer to shift the gears one last time on our book of seasons.

Yet, in Japan, the people are the passengers in the weather-driven 4 wheeler, and they find themselves without any wheel, break, or acceleration pedals to control it. What's more, they seem to embrace being strapped into the child seat and led by the forces of change. Even the weather people serve as life assistants. Their reports on the daily news gently inform me if I should do laundry based on how long it will take a white shirt (standard men's undershirt) to dry on the clothes line. They advise me on whether I should carry a collapsible or a full-sized umbrella, and even suggest how many layers I would be "safe" wearing that day. I used to think these were personal choices that really could be left up to my own independent American common sense, but my supply of common sense got lost in baggage claim during that first landing in Japan a decade and a half ago. I, too, have resolved to be guided by and dependent on Nature's force. Thus I have come to live by the assistance of the virtual cheat sheet in the form of cute little dancing icons on the weather map broadcast into my living room.

Any conversation with Americans on Japan will no doubt come back to the lack of central heat or air conditioning, the lack of insulation, the absence of (or weakness of) clothes dryers -- basically the void of comfort zone that surrounded us growing up. It's hard to cut the apron strings from those creature comforts, but some of us do our best to embrace, or more like, conquer the challenges by dipping into the billion dollar market of survival substitutes available in Japan. I should note that the billion dollar market could take a one time investment in central air and insulate buildings and move on, but one little ol' plan from this Buckeye State import from the would hardly stand a chance at trumping the popularity of the aforementioned weather map icons. In my state-side days, I would view a sunny day as the perfect opportunity to leave the housework behind and escape outdoors. It took me three years to nod along with the weather forecast when they would announce, "a perfect sunny day today - it's laundry day!" Hanging laundry and beating out futons becomes the morning agenda. By 8AM, a colorful display of clothing and bedding aligns residential areas nation-wide. The unwritten rule (that is, we don't get the daily reminder from the news) is to pull it all in by 3PM to maintain its "freshness" peak as well as ensure you are keeping up with the Tanakas by following the neighborly good housekeeper guidelines.

There is a season, turn, turn. I wonder how the Byrds could have harmonized if they changed their tune to match Japan's reality of seasons: There is a season, turn turn turn turn turn turn. Even though the Japanese see 4 seasons in the textbook sense, I count 6: spring, rainy, summer, typhoon, fall and winter. Spring is the start of everything in Japan, kicked off by a week-long celebration of cherry blossom viewing. Sometime between late March and early April, the cherry blossoms will peak. The white or pink cherry blossom front blankets the country in stunning fashion. Travel agencies will push fliers for package tours to follow the flow of the blooms cross country. Grocery and convenient stores hang fake blossom strips to get consumers in the mood, and beer companies even work a pink blossom or two onto their label that week. It does in fact put pep in the consumer step and everyone suddenly likes each other. Lunches will be packed, portable karaoke machines toted, tarps laid and the low men on the totem pole from the office even sleep out to claim their group's prime picnicking spot under the trees on any given blossom lined riverbank. It's a national tailgate without the car, stadium or football game. One unpredictable rain or sudden wind can send the delicate blossoms trickling away, so for that instant, people live like there's no (cherry blossom) tomorrow. In April, schools kick off the new year, companies do their transferring and personnel shifts, new hires start, uniforms are crisp, everything is fresh and the hearts and souls of the people are blooming along with the flowers.

One whopper of a wind and rain wipe out the cherry blossoms: The pedals trickle to the ground and puddle on the earth, which although still pretty even as the clog the gutters, carry the harsh reminder that spring will wind down too and open the gates for rainy season. The seasonal rain front. It sounds so harmless, almost academic, but it can reek havoc on the emotions if you're not used to a six week steady drizzle. I am accustomed to and have accepted that "April showers bring May flowers." It's the way you make it through when outdoor recess in elementary school is moved indoors. It's the promise that it's only temporary and we're taught that a little rain is actually good in the long run. If only I could rediscover some of that wisdom in patience I had in the 5th grade and put up with even an ounce better.

Rainy season in Japan is a month and a half straight of a monotone forecast of either an "80% or 100% chance of rain and humidity again today." Rainy season does not come without its own consumer goods as well. After all, it hangs around long enough that I suppose it deserves its own product line. Unfortunately, rainy season items aren't as fun as the more uplifting seasons. Kirin Lager doesn't add a cute umbrella or raindrop to the label this season. Yet, amidst the lack of designer beer cans, there can be a creative and colorful twist to the specialized waterproof clothing line. If you consider the commuting habits of the nation, there is no escape. All ages, sizes and levels of society are out combating the rain, walking or biking under the loose clouds on a daily basis. Rain boots, rain suits, and even raincoats designed to cover your briefcase, or bag, coverings for the basket of your bike, and umbrellas for every mood, which for me during this time, is dark, dark, dark.

Every store and business is equipped with umbrella lockers. It's more than the ceramic umbrella stand that you'd find in a coffee shop back home - that lonely stand just in case that usually hosts a few umbrellas left by customers up to a year before. These are stands that have individual holes housing up to 100 umbrellas, all with numbered locks. For buildings that don't have umbrella lockers, there is a stand in the entrance way providing umbrella covers for your wet umbrella, so you don't drip, create puddles, a safety hazard or damage the building's interior. On the way out, there is a specific disposal for your used "umbrella umbrella." It would be nice just to avoid the hassles and hibernate at home, but you really have to get out to the shops and buy a disposable de-molder device for every room, every closet in all shapes and sizes. (The closest equivalent in my upbringing to the oddity would be the distinct moth ball smell I whiffed in my Grandma's closet.) There are even de-molding inserts for shoes, and de-molding powered hangers for your dress clothes. It seems silly to revamp your wardrobe to cater to the nasty front, as if you're letting it win, but it's a bigger loss when the season ends and you find haunting little blue spots on the colorful silk blouse you had put aside as a post-rain-pick-me-up.

Rain out steam in. Yes, the rain finally subsides, and we are awarded with the hottest, steamiest season of all: summer. I grew up running cross country and track in Ohio, where we have our share of hot, hot summer days. We had morning and afternoon practices during summer break consisting of long distance or hard interval runs -- pounding the pavement in the outdoor, unshaded heat, and I out barely broke a sweat in all those years. In Japan, I sit can still inside next to a fan while sipping iced tea and sweat through my clothes in seconds. People are armed with hankies as sweat rags, constantly wiping their brows, as they go from vending machine to vending machine on the commute in search of some relief. There is none. Again (and I can say it again and again and again), there is no central air condition in homes, so we count on the seasonal marketing tactics to teach us some tricks. Restaurant menus offer a wide variety of chilled noodle dishes, iced coffee sales peak, and beer promos heighten. I think of the beer commercials during the Super Bowl - they are clever bits that usually highlight a camping adventure, a dream of a great escape to the mountains, fast cars or socializing at sports bars. The beer commercials here can focus on one man in his kitchen, with a towel wrapped around his brow to catch the sweat, grabbing a cold beer just to survive the discomforts of his own home. I get thirsty thinking about it. Businesses try to provide some relief and thus support the national "Cool Biz" campaign. It's short for "Cool Business," and there really is nothing cool about it if you figure that it is simply a 2 month lift in stiff rules. During peak heat, there is a no jacket, no tie trend for the office. It's the same unbearable humidity, but with lower dry cleaning bills. At least the wallet has some relief there, allowing the workforce to put those extra yen toward survival Kirin Lagers.

The heat hangs on into September, and we open our doors and the sky to the typhoon season. In Ohio as kids growing up, we had our handful of snow days. A heavy snowfall would lead to a list of school closings on the local morning shows, and we'd grab our sleds and head to the hill on the golf course. During fall term at the university this year, I had a Thursday off from teaching thanks to a typhoon day. Winds and rains harsh enough to cripple public transportation. Violent weather patterns that shake the non insulated homes and send us running to close our "typhoon doors," which are built in to protect all the windows in the house. Unlike rainy season, there is no use for cutsie umbrellas or clever umbrella lockers. Anyone seen with an umbrella during a typhoon is most likely a foreigner. The rain is more like a tidal wave that hits sideways, and with a winded assist, would rip an umbrella upwards on impact. It's an image straight from the Sunday funnies - a young girl with a bright yellow rain coat rain boot set being holding on to an umbrella that gets torn up in a surprise wind. It's just that it's not so comical if you are caught in a typhoon. Furthermore, the golf course would remain empty until it blows over, with no sleds or other outdoor escapism to celebrate the legally playing hooky from school.

The tropical cyclones exit, leaving (I can't resist a pun, but I need a break after 2 bad weather paragraphs) behind Fall. The population changes from their summer distributed short sleeve uniforms, so everyone from students, bureaucrats, custodians to train station attendants don their long sleeve varieties to welcome the long anticipated cool breezes and blues skies of autumn. Marketers don't miss a beat, and the supermarkets decorate with strings of brilliantly colored leaves throughout the store, and alas, the beer can labels sprout leaves. Not far behind, those travel brochures and come-ons from the cherry blossom filled spring change turn to the fall editions just in time for "shokuyoku no aki," literally, "fall's appetite." They advertise bus tours to view the foliage, while sampling seasonal dishes from region to region along the way. Stays at Japanese inns feature outdoor baths with mountain views of the leaves, and seasonal local delicacies between every dip. Sweet potatoes, persimmons, pumpkins, as well as leaves dipped and deep fried in tempura batter - the foods of fall seem to adopt the maple hue of the trees.

The crunch of the leaves underfoot hints that Cold Man Winter is looming above. Even though Tokyo winters are much more mild than Ohio's harsh, bitter cold, I have never been in touch with the true bone chilling cold emotion until I moved here. It boils down to central heat. It can be 9 degrees below zero with a windchill of 20 below in Columbus, but I could boldly move from room to room in the house and function normally. Yes, central heat takes center stage of this passage. Japan is remarkably advanced. They have mind boggling technology. They can take any invention and make it smaller, faster and more efficient. Why don't they adopt central heat for households or at least add a layer of insulation to the walls? I ask myself, through my clattering teeth, every year. I should note that their inventiveness does not slack off in these winter months. In fact, they have hundreds of tricks to survive the cold - it's just that nothing with the word central or furnace came close to making the cut. Winters are extremely dry, inviting the unforgiving wind to whip through to your core. There is no break for commuters. They bundle up on foot or on their bikes, and those beverage vending machines that got them through summer have changed from cold to hot, and all the coffee and tea varieties are dispensed in cans that require a glove to retrieve to prevent burning. There is more motivation to pick up the pace to the station in the morning to try to get a seat on the train. Since the train seats are heated, if you are left standing in the train car, you are left shivering.

Once at the office, Cool Biz's counterpart kicks in and you join in Warm Biz. Office thermostats are set low to conserve energy, and thus employees are encouraged to layer up for work, and standard shirt and tie looks take a back seat to the turtle neck and sweater fashions. Students don't have such luck. Most public schools are equipped with much to heat the classrooms, and they are stuck in scant uniforms, which even though have switched to long sleeves from the summer variety, are not enough to fight the blasting drafts that cut through the classroom. The Japanese claim that it is also part of their virtuous education -- to build strength and endure the extremes -- somewhat of preparing for a lifetime of Mother Nature's seasonal curses. Yet students literally have tricks up their sleeves too. No pupil is without a hokairo or two during their school day, palm sized disposable heating pads that you tuck into the back of your clothes, or desperately clutch in the palms of your end when you don't have to use a pencil.

Back at home, families use the remaining 97 items from the bag of 100 tricks to withstand the cold. With the switch of a button on the remote control, air conditioning units change to the heating function. You can heat individual rooms, but without central heat, the dash through the hall from room to room, or that midnight potty break, can be brutal. I tried for years just to eliminate liquids after 6PM, but it doesn't really work. Besides needing a warm cup of tea at night to warm the bones, age just makes that midnight dash necessary. Luckily the toilet is actually the most comfortable place to be in a home in winter. The seat is heated, and you can control the heat settings from low, medium to high. I like to read the setting options as December, January and February, respectively. And boy do I respect my heated toilet seat.

Homes will also be furnished with carpets and kotatsu. Hot carpets are similar to electric blankets. Picture a throw rug that has a heating element underneath. Again, it has 5 levels of settings, and you can turn on half the carpet, or all, depending on how many family members are huddling in. A kotatsu is a low table which has a heating element on the underside, and furnished with a blanket that keeps the heat in as you sit on the floor. Imagine, if you sit under a kotatsu, on top of a hot carpet, you can match the warmth and comfort of a trip to the toilet. Upstaging the electric wall unit, the quickest route to a warm blast in your home in winter is the gas fan heater. It requires kerosene, and handily has a built-in fan to set off the danger and smell. Like an ice cream truck (which is too cold to think about as I write this), a kerosene truck drives through the neighborhood twice a week, blasting its friendly tune. The neighborhood pop their orange kerosene tanks out front, and we line up for refills. There's a camaraderie in the ritual which, for a split second, you think you wouldn't feel this warmth of community if you were simply locked up in central heat. That fleeting second subsides, I recall my first winter in Japan when I went on vacation for 2 weeks and came back to a frozen shampoo bottle, I come to my senses and long for the comfort of central heat in the middle of the bitter cold of Ohio once again.

The kerosene trucks wraps up its rounds on the first of March, and we hear the Byrds sing for another turn turn turn turn turn turn of seasons. The birds sing too, and we're headed back into spring. We take for granted what comes easily to us. I took for granted the change of season when I lived in the States. The flowers, the leaves, the fresh snow covered lawns are beautiful on the outside, while I was always comfortable in the inside. I could get any fresh produce or menu item 24 hours a day, year round. Now I wait for winter for fresh tangerines to huddle around the cozy kotatsu with family, or I wait for summer to gulp down an iced coffee from the vending machine. I savor the unique feel behind the taste of a fauna or floral designed can of beer. I finally get it - the special pride the Japanese carry with their claim to the 4 seasons (which with all due respect, I still say it's six). They embrace not being able to control Nature's force, and along with that take heightened pleasure in the foods that come to the table based on the season, the past-times that are only possible "weather permitting," and the satisfaction of employing all the tricks at hand to beat the elements. It's human, not Mother, nature to value things that are hard to come by. I see that now. At the same time, having experienced the seasons in Japan, human and Mother nature are fighting it out, and my American side comes out on top, also valuing what is rare and hard to come by: cenral air and central heat.

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