The roads from Sado – Day 11

Even after leaving Nikko I was still going downhill, and the road to Utsunomiya was an unexpected treat. Route 119 is known as Nikko Suginamiki (日光杉並木 / Nikko Cedar Avenue), and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest tree-lined thoroughfare in the world. Way back in 1625, a local bigwig called Masatsuna Matsudaira began planting cedar here, and there are now more than 12,000 over the course of thirty-five kilometres.

The only downside to its 400-year heritage is that Route 119 is no wider than it was in the early 1600s, and with no pavement and a steady stream of rush-hour traffic, I had to be careful not get barged off the road and straight into the trunk of the nearest cedar.

As I was pondering the best way to get to the other side of Utsunomiya, a middle-aged man in a baseball cap and tracksuit ambled up and asked me where I was going.
‘Ibaraki,’ I said.
‘Ibaraki? You should take the bypass, then.’ He pointed towards a busy dual carriageway that appeared to be a lot more dangerous than Cedar Avenue, and as he spoke there was a whiff of cheap shochu in the air – either he was on his way home from a big night out, or he had started drinking very early in the day (it was about 8am).
‘I’m not sure. I might head towards the city centre instead.’
‘Oh well, suit yourself,’ he said, before ambling off again in a not entirely straight line.

I made it back to our apartment just as Mrs M was about to leave for work at one o’clock, and waiting for me in the fridge was one of two homemade fruit cakes I had posted to the in-laws from a gift shop in Sawata. I cut a generous slice for myself, made an extra-strong, extra-large mug of tea, and sat down with the Rock Spring’s Cat Eye trip computer to collate my stats:

Total distance: 847km
Average distance per day (not including the two rest days on Sado): 90km
Shortest distance in a day: 55km (Mikawa to Sawata)
Longest distance in a day: 116km (Sanjoh to Shiozawa)
Top speed: 56kmh
Average speed: 14kmh

Quite frankly, Sado Island was further away than I had envisaged, and this, along with the enforced detour through Nikko, had turned the trip into something of an epic. The next day, Otoh-san described me as looking gessori, which means ‘gaunt’ or ‘disheartened’, and implies that one’s face has taken on the appearance of geso (squid tentacles), although bizarrely, I had actually managed to put on weight since 21st August. This could have been an improvement in my body’s muscle-to-fat ratio due to strenuous physical exercise, although I get the feeling it was more to do with the large amount of stodgy convenience store food and sugary convenience store drinks I had consumed along the way…

Obon お盆

The obon festival happens in mid-August, when most people take two or three days off work to return to their hometown and – more importantly – to pay homage to their ancestors at the family grave. Practically speaking, this usually means many hours stuck in an expressway traffic jam, followed by a day or two of over-eating and allowing the grandparents to spoil the grandchildren rotten, followed by many more hours stuck in an expressway traffic jam (some of this year’s were up to 70km long). Fortunately, Mrs M’s parents live just 12km away along a quiet country road, and they don’t as yet have any grandchildren to spoil rotten, so our obon was a pretty relaxed affair.

On Saturday evening we went to the local obon festival, which included food, drink and amusement stalls (hoopla, catch the goldfish and so on), a music stage, a taiko (太鼓 / Japanese drumming) contest and a procession of omikoshi (お神輿), which are the sometimes large and sometimes heavy portable shrines that groups of people in traditional costume carry through the streets, chanting as they go.

‘Occasionally,’ otoh-san told me, ‘the omikoshi get dropped. A few years ago one of them landed on that shop over there.’
‘I suppose it must be difficult to keep it upright if you’ve been carrying it for a long time,’ I said.
‘Ah, but that wasn’t an accident. The guy who owned the shop wasn’t very popular. He was always complaining about his neighbours, so they got together before the festival and planned the whole thing!’

When I asked if otoh-san had ever done any omikoshi carrying himself, he said that no, he wasn’t really interested in that kind of thing – in fact, this was his first visit to the festival since Mrs M was in kindergarten, and once we had jostled our way through the crowds for half an hour, he was keen to get away. With no fireworks either – many local councils have been trying to save money after the earthquake – this meant that much to Mrs M’s disappointment, instead of sticking around for some festival food (the whale meat shish kebabs were sold out, I noticed), we had a sit-down meal in a nearby restaurant, before rounding off the evening with a spot of karaoké.

The local karaoké box is under new management, and otoh-san complained that on their newly installed machines, the enka (演歌 / traditional ballad) recordings were all slightly flat, although you can of course adjust the key and speed of any song, and the volume and reverb of both the vocal and music tracks. There is also a new feature – or rather, a souped-up version of an old feature – that monitors your voice and gives a percentage score based on factors like timing, vibrato and whether or not you’ve managed to stay in tune: the aim while you’re singing is to keep the undulating line of your voice as close as possible to a scrolling graphic of the song, which looks like a cross between Wii Guitar Hero and proper musical notation. Okah-san was either too shy or too tired to join in, so I had the chance to murder several Beatles and Sinatra numbers, and when I attempted to sing my favourite stirring Japanese rock ballad, to realise that my ability to read Japanese subtitles is still a little too slow to enable an error-free karaoké performance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mrs M – who used to be the lead singer in her high school chorus club – got the highest score of the evening for her rendition of Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven Is A Place On Earth.

The next morning we headed over to the local temple, whose earthquake-damaged ceramic tiles are in the process of being replaced with a less fragile – although probably even more expensive – copper-clad roof, which is still gleaming now, but which after a few years of oxidisation will apparently turn a dull dark green. A black granite tablet about two metres wide by one metre high, on which the names of everyone who contributed money to the building of the temple are carved (including otoh-san), had toppled over in the quake and smashed into pieces, and in the cemetery behind the temple, many of the gravestones have yet to be re-erected.

‘The one next door fell over and hit ours,’ said otoh-san, pointing to a large chip in the pedestal of the family grave.
‘The top part didn’t fall over, though,’ said onii-san. ‘It just rotated slightly until it was pointing north instead of east.’
This black granite obelisk, which is about a metre high and must weigh several hundred kilos, shifted even further during the aftershocks, although it has now been repaired to supposedly more earthquake-resistant standards.

The grave used to be a lot more basic, but when his barber shop was at its busiest in the early nineties, otoh-san shelled out a large sum of money to have it upgraded. There are now three or four steps leading up to the obelisk, which is flanked by two stone lanterns, and surrounded by a bed of gravel and a low stone wall. To the right is a black granite tablet that lists the names of those whose ashes have been interned there: in this case, otoh-san’s mother and father, the baby that okah-san lost to a miscarriage between giving birth to onii-san and Mrs M, and the beloved family pet Nana-chan, a fluffy-haired shitsu who died about four years ago. On the top step is an ornamental stone box in which to place incense sticks, although a small family of bees had recently taken up residence there, so we had to chase them off and prise their nest from the box before we could put our hands together in prayer.

On the way out, and before pausing to lay the remainder of our incense sticks in front of what is effectively a pauper’s grave – a corner of the cemetery for those people with no relatives to pay for a permanent memorial – otoh-san pointed out an inscription on one of the more ostentatious gravestones that read kuinashi (悔い無し).
‘No regrets,’ I translated.
‘Me too! No regrets!’ said otoh-san, and chuckled to himself as we made our way back to the car.

As they do every obon and new year, the following evening a car-full of relatives stopped off for dinner, which for okah-san’s sake consisted of several large platters of takeaway sushi and agémono (揚げ物 / deep fried chicken, prawns and the like). Noriko oba-san is otoh-san’s younger sister, Nobuaki oji-san is his younger brother, Nobuaki’s wife is Yoko oba-san, and Gen-chan is Noriko’s grandson, who is now eight years old, but was the only guest under the age of about eighteen at our wedding, where he sported a particularly endearing combination of jacket, shirt and tie, shorts and Mohican haircut.

The four of them had driven from Tokyo that morning, all the way to Iwaki in the north of Ibaraki, where another of otoh-san’s brothers owns a fish restaurant and sandwich shop on the coast road. The first floor of the restaurant was inundated in the tsunami, and while it has now re-opened, the road itself is still under repair.
‘The customers have to use a car park nearby and walk all the way round to the front of the shop,’ said Yoko as she passed round a box of sandwiches freshly made that morning.

While Genji watched TV and played his Nintendo DS, we worked our way through most of the food, several large cans of Asahi and a couple of bottles of saké, and once otoh-san and Noriko set about putting the world to rights, it was pretty hard to stop them. Noriko became particularly passionate about the merits of British English over American English, although this was, I suspect, mostly for my benefit, and while I tried to join in with the conversation as much as possible, Nobuaki played the role of diplomat, and Yoko chatted to okah-san about less controversial topics than the economy and race relations.

Gen-chan, who had been too shy to talk to anyone for most of the evening, suddenly came to life when they were about to leave, wolfing down some leftovers, shaking my hand and saying ‘Goodbye!’ before he ran outside to get in the car. As the only adult left sober, it was Yoko’s turn to take the wheel for the drive back to Tokyo, and the four of them headed off into the night with two large watermelons from okah-san’s allotment as a parting gift.

Hay fever 花粉症

It may seem a little strange given the fact that it was snowing the other day, but a lot of people are already suffering from hay fever, a condition that until a few decades ago was practically unheard of in Japan. Rather than summer grass pollen – which turns my nose into the physical equivalent of a bath tap with a broken washer when I’m in the UK – the problem here is spring tree pollen, specifically sugi (杉 / cedar) and hinoki (檜 / cypress), although until I read this centre-page spread from the Tokyo Newspaper, I hadn’t realised exactly why.
Thanks to an abundance of diagrams, graphs, pie charts and so on, and a writing style that is more Newsround than Newsnight, these encyclopaedia-like articles – which appear ever Sunday, and cover such esoteric topics as the history of coal mining and the Japanese space programme – have become essential reading, and okah-san makes a point of saving them for me. I haven’t bothered to translate the entire hay fever piece (published on 5th February), but hopefully those sufferers amongst you will find some of the information useful and / or interesting, and those non-sufferers amongst you will be able to sit back and relax, safe in the knowledge that the next few months of your life will be both sneeze- and snot-free:

The number of people concerned about hay fever is on the increase. The season for hay fever caused by cedar pollen – a condition that is often referred to as the “citizens’ illness” – is drawing near. Here we describe the hay fever mechanism and how to deal with it – measures which may be difficult to find out about at crowded ear, nose and throat clinics.

The reasons for hay fever manifesting itself are threefold: ‘genetic predisposition’, ‘environmental factors’ and ‘pollen’. Most hay fever sufferers are sensitive to cedar pollen and the number of those sufferers is on the increase. Cedar was planted all over the country as a national policy in the years after WWII, and once a cedar tree exceeds 30 years of age, it is likely to produce large amounts of pollen.

(The fact that there was an enormous increase in the number of cedar trees being planted after the war – the original intention was to use the timber to help rebuild Japan’s devastated urban areas – is common knowledge, but the ‘thirty-year rule’ explains why the hay fever epidemic occurred more recently.)

If genetic predisposition and environmental factors are both present, symptoms become apparent in the sufferer once a certain amount of pollen is released. Not only do environmental factors make it more likely for the allergy to occur, they also exacerbate it. For example:

Eating habits – high-protein and high-fat diet
Living environment – airtight living spaces
Movement towards urban living – asphalt roads and pavements (pollen tends not to settle on road surfaces and is re-dispersed)
Atmospheric pollution – exhaust fumes

In this sense, hay fever is also called an ‘illness of civillisation’. The first public warning about pollen levels – relating to ragweed – was issued in 1961, and changes in the environment brought about by modernisation cannot be overlooked as a reason for this.

Pie chart – proportion of natural to man-made forestation in Japan:

Total forested area – 25,100,000 hectares
Natural forestation – 53% (13,380,000 hectares)
Man-made forestation – 41% (10,350,000 hectares)
Of which: 18% cedar (4,500,000 hectares), 10% cypress (2,600,000 hectares) and 13% other tree varieties (3,250,000 hectares)
Others – 6% (1,370,000 hectares)

The area covered by artificial cedar and cypress forests takes up around 19% of the total Japanese land mass – approximately 7,100,000 hectares. Six prefectures in Kanto (Tokyo, Saitama, Kanagawa, Chiba, Gunma, Tochigi and Ibaraki) and four prefectures in central Japan (Aichi, Gifu, Shizuoka and Nagano) have particularly extensive cedar and cypress forestation.

(Japan’s population is highly concentrated in urban areas, and it’s estimated that between 80 and 90% of the total land mass is mountainous, with most of that being forested. That more than 40% of that area was replaced with man-made forestation in the space of a few decades is an extraordinary statistic.)

Graph – Age of trees in artificial forests

Between 700,000 and 800,000 hectares of man-made forests are occupied by cedar between 41 and 45 years old, while fewer than 100,000 hectares of cedar are between 76 and 80 years old, and fewer than 50,000 hectares of cedar are between 1 and 5 years old.
Between 3 and 400,000 hectares of cypress are between 36 and 40 years old, with similar proportions to cedar for 76-80 and 1-to-5-year-old cypress.

(In other words, there’s a big spike in the graph for trees that hit their pollen-releasing prime in the past couple of decades.)

Over the past fifteen years, there has been a large increase in cedar pollen in years when the previous summer was extremely hot. In metropolitan Tokyo, the longest sunshine hours during that period – 300-plus in 2004 – were followed by the highest pollen count – 10,000 parts per cm² in 2005. Because of this, indications show that global warming is also influencing pollen levels, and therefore hay fever.

(These are statistics that I can vouch for through personal experience – ie. summer 2004 in Tokyo was stiflingly hot, and my hay fever in the spring of 2005 was even worse than usual.)

According to the results of a survey carried out with patients at ear, nose and throat clinics, the estimated number of sufferers countrywide stood at 29.8% in 2008. Of those, 26.5% were allergic to cedar pollen – around one in four people.
The estimated number of hay fever sufferers among Tokyo residents is currently at 28.2%, or around one in every 3.5 people. This is about three times greater than it was 20 years ago, and 1.5 times greater than it was 10 years ago
Depending on the influence of wind direction and topography, in areas where pollen is easily dispersed there is a tendency for the number of suffers to increase.
The rate is highest in Kanto (Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama, Ibaraki, Tochigi and Gunma prefectures) and Tokai (Aichi, Gifu, Mie and Shizuoka prefectures)

Highest percentage of sufferers – Yamanashi 48.7%
Lowest percentage of sufferers – Kagoshima 12.7%
Percentage of sufferers in Ibaraki – 28.2%

Spreading from east to west, the hay fever season starts at the beginning of February in the west of Kyushu, in the middle of February in Tokyo, and at the end of March in Hokkaido.
It is currently popular to go on ‘pollen avoidance tours’ to places like Hokkaido and Okinawa.

(This isn’t as ludicrous an idea as it might sound – when my hay fever was at its worst in my mid-twenties, I spent a couple of summers in North America for the same reason.)

Regarding radioactive cesium in cedar pollen after the nuclear accident in Fukushima, in January this year, university researchers began a factual investigation at 11 locations in Kanto and Tohoku, and the Forestry Agency has said, ‘there is no effect on the human body’.

(In Ibaraki at least, fallen leaves have registered the highest levels of radioactivity, although as yet I haven’t seen any statistics for radiation levels in pollen – presumably because the season has only just started. Make of the Agency’s statement what you will!)

Cedar registers the largest amounts of pollen, from mid-February until mid-April, with the cedar pollen season in Hokkaido having the shortest duration.
Cypress has a shorter season with smaller amounts of pollen – mostly between mid-March and the end of April.
Pollen from alder, hazelnut and birch trees is negligible by comparison.
Grass pollen is prevalent from the beginning of April until the beginning of September, mainly in Kanto, although in comparatively small amounts.

(Not only is there less grass – and therefore less grass pollen – in Japan than there is in the UK, but according to the article, ‘the scope of grass pollen is much narrower’ – ie. it isn’t carried as far on the wind as tree pollen.)

Hay fever occurs when the immune system tries to eliminate germs or viruses from the body. Essentially, the body recognises harmless pollen for an allergen and tries to expel it.

1 – Pollen enters the body
2 – Pollen allergen dissolves and attaches itself to the membrane of the nose and eyes
3 – Allergen is recognised as a ‘foreign body’ and antibodies are produced
4 – Antibodies merge with mast cells (sensitisation)

(NB: for some reason the Japanese word for ‘mast cells’ is himan-saiboh – 肥満細胞 / obese cells – and there is a note in the article explaining that there ‘is no connection between mast cells and bodily obsesity’.)

5 – When pollen is inhaled again, chemicals are emitted to combat the allergen
6 – When sensory nerves stimulate sensory nerves and blood vessels, symptoms appear: itchy nose and eyes, runny nose, teary eyes, sneezing, blocked nose, bloodshot eyes

By sneezing and therefore cleaning out the nose, the body expels the allergen, and by blocking the nose, it makes it difficult for the allergen to enter the body.

The middle of the day and early evening are the peak times for dispersal of pollen. Wear a surgical mask when you go out. It is important to find a mask that feels comfortable and matches the size of our face.

(As the nice people at Quirky Japan pointed out in out this blog post, surgical masks have been popular here for the best part of a century, although frankly, I’m dubious as to their effectiveness in keeping out pollen. Blowing your nose is considered to be bad manners in Japan, and if you absolutely have to, it’s customary to use a paper hankie and dispose of it straight away. As I discovered from years of trial and error, however, paper hankies make your hay fever worse, as their abrasiveness irritates the skin and the fibres act like sneezing powder, thus making your nose even runnier. So while it may not do a lot for me in terms of cultural integration, I stick to cotton hankies and try to blow my nose as discreetly as possible.)

The most important thing is to prevent pollen from entering the body. Understand the dispersal pattern and the pollen count information, and as much as possible refrain from going outside.
On average, pollen levels peak at over 80 parts per cm²  at midday, with a second peak at over 60 parts per cm² at 6pm.
The symptoms begin directly after waking up, a phenomenon that is known as ‘morning attack’. When the temperature drops in the evening, pollen which has been suspended in the air descends.

The most appropriate treatment differs depending on one’s lifestyle and the severity of the condition. You should choose a treatment that fits you after discussing the matter with your doctor.
Medicine – Preventative treatment is effective. If you begin taking medicine before symptoms appear, they can be reduced.
Operation – An operation to scorch the nasal membrane can be completed as an out-patient. But its effectiveness is limited and symptoms may reappear. Recommended for pregnant women and students taking exams.
Immunotherapy – A treatment by which an antigen extract is injected into the body at fixed intervals. Injections take place over the course of about 3 years, and in 70 to 80% of cases are effective on sufferers. Medicine that can be taken orally is currently being clinically tested.

It is hoped that [allergen immunotherapy] could provide a complete cure. Symptoms can be abated by repeatedly injecting pollen extract in gradually increasing doses. The treatment requires patience but symptoms are fundamentally reduced, and to a great extent the use of medicine becomes unnecessary. However, as very rare side effects include breathing difficulties and low blood pressure leading to anaphylactic shock, caution is necessary.

At present, instead of being administered hypodermically, a new technique of administering immunotherapy as a medicine is under scrutiny. Since 2000, at the Japan University Of Medicine, with clinical research as a starting point, more than 400 cases have already been investigated, and serious side effects have not arisen. Apart from going to hospital about once a month, the medicine method can for the most part be carried out at home.

(An even newer treatment – called phototherapy – made an appearance on a recent TV show, and involves shining ultraviolet light into the nose. The machine that administers this is currently prohibitively expensive, but the boffin who introduced it said that a cheaper and more portable version should be available soon. Another TV programme introduced the fascinating possibility that asthma triggered by allergies – and presumably allergies of all kinds – can be cured by spending time 250m below ground in a salt mine: a quick Google search unearthed these two articles from The Telegraph – – and The Guardian – For the moment, though, it looks as if I’ll have to stick to anti-histamines, nasal spray and my trusty cotton hankies…)