In keeping with the Japanese fondness for giving apartment blocks trendy, western-style names, our two-floor block of four flats is called Champs Logis B (Champs Logis, I found out from an online French dictionary, means something like ‘home fields’). Its sister block next door, Champs Logis A, consists of eight smaller-scale apartments, and the rent for these must be miniscule, as we’re only paying 45,000 yen a month (about £350) for what’s called a 2LDK: two ‘living’ rooms – one Japanese-style with a tatami floor, the other western-style with a wooden floor – and a dining room / kitchen, plus a bathroom and toilet. The Japanese-style room serves as our bedroom, and because both tatami and bedding can become infested with bugs – particularly during the hot, humid summer months – rather than leaving our futons, duvets and pillows in place, Mrs M stashes them in a cupboard during the day, or whenever the weather is dry enough, hangs them out to air (not that I’m sensitive enough to notice these things, but Mrs M claims that as well as keeping them bug-free, this this also makes them lighter and fluffier). The western-style room is our sitting room, with a TV, bookcase, kotatsu, a couple of clothes rails for when Mrs M can’t hang the washing out, and two zaisu (座椅子 / floor chairs, which are a compromise between sitting on a cushion and buying a proper sofa). The kitchen / dining room has a fridge-freezer, sideboard, microwave, rice cooker, toaster, a hi-tech urn instead of a standard kettle, and a two-ring gas hob with a tiny grill for cooking fish, or if you don’t mind improvising, very small pizzas. Because people tend to shower before they get in the bath, the bathroom is a wet room with a plastic floor, plastic walls and a plastic ceiling in regulation beige, and as well as a heated toilet seat with bidet facility (which we have decided not to use in an effort to save electricity), the toilet has an ingenious design whereby there is a spout and mini-sink on top, so that you can wash your hands in the water that fills the cistern after you have pulled the flush.

The one mistake we made was to choose an apartment with no windows in the back wall, so that when the temperature starts to rise, as it has been doing since the middle of June, there is no through-draft, and particularly if you have been out all day and left the living room and bedroom windows closed, the place can feel like a sauna when you arrive home. Still, the guy who runs the estate agents is an old friend of Ken-san (Mrs M’s uncle), so we were given one or two concessions on the usual raft of deposits, and the big advantage of being on the ‘second’ (ie. first) floor is that we are much less likely to be invaded by mosquitoes, which tend to keep close to the ground (my first-floor apartment when I lived in Tokyo was impossible to leave or enter without getting bitten, and there would always be one sly mossie that somehow managed to follow me in through the front door and conceal itself in a darkened corner, ready to pounce at a later date).

Next door to us on the second floor are a middle-aged couple called Mr and Mrs Nakamura, who can often be heard having screaming rows. Mr Nakamura is in the Japanese ‘Self-Defence Force’ (ie. army), so I assume he’s been helping out in the aftermath of the tsunami, and that the shouting and door-slamming are a result of post-traumatic stress, although some of Mrs Nakamura’s more unusual housekeeping habits may not be helping matters. For a start, she leaves the extractor fan in their kitchen running twenty-four hours a day, every day (the extractor fan in our kitchen is noisy at the best of times, and if it was on all day and night, my mental state might take a turn for the worse), and even when the weather forecast is for rain, she leaves the washing out, their futons draped unsecured over the balcony, and the French windows wide open (we know this because Mrs M likes to have a sneaky peak around the balcony divider when they have left for work).

Downstairs and to one side is an empty apartment, and when we arrived at the beginning of April, the tenant directly beneath us appeared to be a young, single man with very poor taste in music. After being kept awake by his mix of techno / dance beats for several weeks, I complained to the estate agents and the problem went away almost immediately. Then something unexpected happened: the tenant in question suddenly acquired a wife / girlfriend and child, so instead of techno / dance beats, we are now being kept awake in the middle of the night by the sound of a baby crying. Mrs M’s theory is that the wife / girlfriend went home to stay with her parents for a few months around the time the baby was born – not an uncommon practice in Japan – and has now reappeared. This would explain why the husband / boyfriend was living it up, as it would have been the last chance he had to let his hair down before parental responsibility took over. Having moved (back?) in, the wife / girlfriend now spends the entire time indoors with the air conditioning on: partly, we suppose, because if this isn’t her hometown then she may not have many friends here, and partly because another Japanese custom is to keep one’s baby indoors for the first month of its life, no matter how nice the weather may be.

Parenthetically, the whole noisy neighbour incident illustrates how the Japanese deal with disputes, namely by going through an intermediary rather than confronting the object of their wrath face-to-face. I once had an unendurably noisy neighbour at the aforementioned Tokyo apartment, but rather than contacting my landlord, every time he began jumping up and down on the bed or dropping what sounded like a fire extinguisher onto the floor from head height, I would go upstairs, bang on his door and tell him to shut up, which didn’t solve the problem at all. In fact, the more times I banged on his door, the angrier I got, so that in the end, he would have been entirely justified in telling the landlord that rather than him being a noisy neighbour, I was a psychotic one.

But anyway, as well as sorting out the noise problem, our landlord has made various improvements to the apartment since we moved in, including fitting the heated toilet seat with bidet facility, getting the central TV aerial converted from analogue to digital (since we are trying to dodge our TV licence, two of the three non-commercial channels have now been cut off, which I suppose wouldn’t have been possible with an analogue signal), and paving the way for us to get high-speed, fibre-optic broadband, although because the engineers have been busy with post-earthquake repairs, we’re still waiting for them to come and install whatever socket it is you need for high-speed, fibre-optic broadband.

The only blot on our landlord’s record so far – well, more of an eccentricity than a blot – is that he turned up with a job lot of broken plasterboard the other week and spread it along the border of a neighbouring field.

‘I hope you don’t mind me asking,’ I said when I bumped into him outside the apartment a few days later, ‘but I’ve been wondering what all that plasterboard is for.’
‘Oh, that’s to keep the weeds from growing next to the neighbour’s field,’ he said. ‘I used the plasterboard because it would have cost a lot of money to throw it away.’

Not exactly the prettiest or most ergonomic solution to the problem, but it’s true that rubbish disposal can be something of a headache in Japan. Since March there has been an amnesty on anything that might be considered ‘earthquake damaged’ – slates and breeze blocks, for example, but also electrical goods, furniture and so on – with temporary rubbish tips springing up on vacant lots and in disused car parks. Normally, though, when you go to the municipal tip your vehicle will be weighed on the way in and on the way out, and you will be charged accordingly. Also, collections of recyclables are as hit-and-miss as they are in the UK, and so complex as to deter many people from recycling at all. While everyday rubbish is collected twice a week, paper and cardboard is collected once a month (you’re supposed to divide it up into newspaper, cardboard and so on, and then tie it up with string), cans and bottles have to be left in a special crate that you buy from the council, polystyrene is collected from a separate site about half a mile away, the location of which we only discovered by asking at the relevant department in the town hall, and plastic food trays have to be taken to the nearest supermarket.

Having said that, many aspects of domestic life are far more convenient than in the UK. Most Japanese homes now have water meters, which along with those for gas and electricity are outside rather than inside your home. This means that instead of receiving an almost certainly over-estimated bill once every three months, and instead of meter reading being sub-contracted out to a company whose employees arrive at completely random times and don’t even bother to leave a note telling you that they called when you were out, in Japan, someone from the water / gas / electricity company will come to your house and give you an up-to-the-minute and completely accurate bill every month.

Next on our list of chores is deciding whether or not to join the local residents’ association, which on the plus side would mean getting to know our other neighbours a little better, but on the minus side would mean having to join in with various volunteer activities, like clearing rubbish and delivering newsletters, which to be honest, Mrs M and I are a little too lazy to bother with…

Earthquake prediction?

While there tends to be some kind of prior warning that a large-scale volcanic eruption is on the cards, earthquakes are a lot more difficult to pin down, so I was interested to read this news item in the Asahi Newspaper (Saturday 28th May 2011), which suggests that prediction – of major earthquakes, at least – is now a possibility.

I assume this story has been reproduced in English language news sources, but anyway, I thought it would be an interesting one to translate – any scientific inaccuracies are entirely my responsibility:

Electrons increased 40 minutes before earthquake

Forty minutes before the magnitude 9 Great East Japan Earthquake, levels of electrons in the ionosphere about three hundred kilometres above the Tohoku region of Japan showed an abnormal increase. The data was ascertained by Hokkaido University Professor Kohsuké Heki using signals from GPS equipment, and presented at a conference of the Japan Earth Satellite Association on 27th May. The same phenomenon has been observed at other large earthquakes, and has given rise to the valuable possibility of predicting earthquakes.

GPS satellite signals are influenced by electrons in the ionosphere – the larger the number of electrons, the greater the influence – and Professor Heki has checked National Geographic Society members’ GPS records from around the time of the earthquake.

As a result of this research, Heki has found that before the 11th March earthquake, electrons in the atmosphere began to increase by as much as ten per cent, at a distance of between three and four hundred kilometres from the epicentre. As soon as the earthquake began, electron levels returned to normal, although the exact mechanism of the increase is not yet clear.

It has been confirmed that just before the Chile earthquake of 2010 (magnitude 8.8), the Sumatra earthquake of 2004 (magnitude 9.1) and the Hokkaido Eastern Sea earthquake of 1994 (magnitude 8.2), increased levels of electrons were also observed in GPS records. The bigger the earthquake, the greater the breadth of the increase, although increases have not been seen for earthquakes of a magnitude below 8.

‘We hope to be able to predict earthquakes of magnitude 9 and above,’ said Professor Heki. ‘and because GPS records can be analysed using simple software, anyone can view the data.’ It is expected to be confirmed during the coming year whether or not such increases occur on occasions other than when there is an earthquake.