Smog Time in Japan

Smog Time in Japan

Ah, springtime in Japan; there’s nothing like it.  The world is once again alive with color as the ume trees bring forth their red blossoms, sakura bloom with pink, and half the nation is covered in a delicate, yellow smog from China.  It is, as the Japanese say, a breathtaking sight.  And God, nothing makes a man feel more alive than a city full of women in miniskirts, high boots, and white surgical masks.

Yellow Sand from China

I’m not sure what’s happening to the earth, but I’m pretty sure it’s not good.  Between the desertification of Mongolia and the smogification of Beijing, carried on the winds, Japan is turning yellow.  Not like it needs any help in that department.  Every surface is blanketed in smog and dust:  cars, park benches, children.  As a result, the everyone’s either sneezing, coughing, or wearing surgical masks, and usually all three.

The Importance of Daily Routine

So I came home yesterday wearing my white mask carrying a plastic bag full of malt liquor and tempura shrimp.  You know, Ken Seeroi is a great believer in keeping a daily routine to maximize personal effectiveness.  This week, the routine includes opening a beer, microwaving as many snacks as possible, and finding the channel changer.  I’m still working out the kinks, but it’s been mighty effective so far.  Only my pants seem to be shrinking, but I assume that’s a laundry issue.  Is it my fault that Japan has so many delicious snacks?  No, it’s not.  I checked.  And then, just as I settled onto a nice, soft floor with my fried shrimp and booze, I remembered, Damn, I forgot the laundry outside.  For about half a week.

Doing Laundry in Japan

There’s not much that’s good about doing laundry in Japan, starting with the fact that the washers use only cold water.  How am I supposed to get my whites their whitest?  And then for some reason unexplainable using the Japanese language, instead of just throwing everything in the dryer and being done with it, the entire nation hangs its wash outdoors.  Balconies and railings stretching from here to the horizon are draped with everyone’s long johns and futon covers.  Unless it rains, and then everything gets hung indoors.  On stormy days, my apartment is like a rainforest of wet clothes, with shirts pinned up on curtain rods, pants thrown over the bathroom door, and a row of socks warming on the TV.  It’s damp, is what I’m saying.

So I went out on my balcony and brought everything in, then started folding and neatly putting things away.  So much trouble, wearing clothes, really.  Well, maybe “folding” is too precise a term.  But somehow “cramming stuff in drawers” sounds way worse.  Maybe let’s just say, um, “compacting.”  I mean, I’ve got a tremendous number of shirts and there’s not a lot of space in a Japanese apartment, even if one’s clothes were folded.  Whatever, I’d managed to get about sixteen white shirts wadded up and jammed into a drawer when I noticed, Hmmm, isn’t everything—what’s the word I’m looking for?—Yellow?  Not quite.  Orange?  Yeah, that’ll do.  I held a shirt up to the light, and turned it from side to side.  You know how if you look at something one way, it looks messed up, but if you look at it another way, it looks okay?  Yeah, well, this wasn’t like that.  No matter how I looked at the shirt, it had a faint orange glow.  I guess that’s an improvement, kind of.  I mean, orange shirt, what’s not to like?  But then there was the dust.  My apartment smelled like a mini Chinese factory.  I stopped the compacting process, sat there on the floor, and realized God was trying to tell me something.  Japanese God.  He said, Ken Seeroi, nature is vanishing, the planet is screwed; it’s up to you to do something.  Remember your training and trust your instincts.   And at that moment, I realized He was right.  So I opened a malt liquor, nuked up some shrimp, and turned on the TV.  Gotta stick with the plan.  Thanks, Japanese God.

Sakura Season in Japan

Three cans of malt liquor later, I doused everything with bleach and stuffed it into the washing machine.  It cost me 600 yen to get my shirts back to their original state, after which the inside of my apartment once again became a three-day showroom for wet laundry.  But I felt good, because I knew that winter was finally over.  That, and I’d had three malt liquors.  Ah, soon it’ll be time to relax outdoors, take in the wonders of nature on giant blue plastic sheets spread under the sakura trees, and remove our surgical masks to drink sake.  Yes, spring is in the air.  That, and just a bit more.



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22 Comments

  1. First of all THANK YOU for mentioning how stupid washing laundry in Japan can be. I’m so sick of people who say “but the washing powder is strong enough”. Sometimes you just NEED boiling hot water to get your stuff clean! GROAR!

    I suddenly got hay fever for the first time in my life last year. Like millions of Japanese people I’m allergic to “sugi” (Japanese cedar trees).
    However, THIS year it’s really almost killing me!
    They said that last weekend alone the pollen amount was higher than all of 2012 together!!!
    That together with all that other shit (excuse me) in the air is really getting to me.

    I’m wearing a mask even in my apartment at the moment, because … I like breathing, you know? *sigh*

    • I didn’t really notice it that much. I was just happy to not have to separate my clothes when washing, but once back home I noticed that all my clothes were kinda grayish. So much for washing with cold water. There are hot water washing machines, I assume they are just much more expensive?

      • Sure, maybe you could find hot water washing machines in some upscale Roppongi Hills laundromat where they serve you cappuccino and give you a pedicure while you wait, but I’ve never seen a residence that was rigged for it. Hell, given the cost of utilities here, I’m afraid to take a long shower.

        But you know, gray, it goes with everything. Eventually, all your clothes just magically match.

        • I have a hot water washing machine. It fills up with cold water then adds heat, or so it claims (I can’t open it to verify).

          BTW, Nice blog. I’ve been reading for a year now. It’s nice to relate to someone else’s experiences.

          • “I have a hot water washing machine.”

            What is this witchcraft? So it’s like a giant hot pot? And if so, can you make nabe in it? Because that would be awesome.

            Thanks for reading and commenting—I really appreciate it.

            Ken

    • Yeah, the allergy thing is not great. Japan’s like a cross between living in a florist shop and the Oklahoma dust bowl. I worked with a guy for a year and never saw his face because he always wore a mask. One day he took it off to eat something and I was like, Who the hell is that? The crazy thing is that Japan has fewer trees than any country I’ve ever seen. And in Autumn, near my station, they don’t just rake up the leaves—they cut off the tree limbs before the leaves fall. It’s a wonder there’s any pollen left in this country. Must be something to do with wind, I guess. But take heart, I’m sure there’s a Japanese scientist trying to figure out how to stop that too.

  2. My car is still covered in that orange shit, just like everybody else’s. As to laundry in Japan, isn’t this supposed to be the land of technology? No central heat, no driers, no proper ovens, I can’t find a coffee maker with a God-damned timer, and four-slot toasters? Forget about it. I’ve checked every electronics store in my prefecture–they simply don’t exist. Unless you’re willing to spend 3万 for a “professional” model.

    Anyway, my kotatsu blanket cover thing has been outside for like a week. I can literally see it from where I’m typing this. And yet somehow it never quite makes it inside. Just like half my balcony is now a miniature recycling center because Japan has like fifteen categories of trash and the girlfriend takes her civic duties very seriously. Me? I wait until she’s gone and throw everything in the burnable bin. Then I take it down to the drop-off in my house slippers. I’m a rebel. (But I am pretty sure my neighbors just think I’m retarded.)

    Also, I’m heading your way in about 10 minutes. I got a ‘new’ car (and by got I mean it was given to me by a friend of a friend). It’s a nice little thing, except that the power-steering doesn’t work. making any sort of turn is like wrestling with a small bear. Driving in Tokyo ought to be a good time. If you don’t hear from me after a couple blog posts I was either involved in a fatal accident, deported, or both.

    • Yeah, the myth of Japanese technology is one of life’s great mysteries. I’m pretty sure some guy from the Lonely Planet travel guide went to Akihabara in 1978 and was like, Wow, digital watches and Sony Walkmans! You can listen to your cassette tapes while you walk—Japan rules! It’s hard to imagine anyone’s impressed with Japanese technology today. Akihabara’s has come to resemble a disorganized Circuit City. I did get an awfully cool alarm clock there though.

      I mean, would it be that difficult to create a magical machine to separate glass, metal and burnable garbage? Apparently so. And maybe I’m a stickler for details, but how are we supposed to deal with things like wire-rimmed glasses and metal spoons with wooden handles? Jeez, I just wrap everything in lettuce and hide it in the burnable garbage. Just checked the back of my alarm clock too. Made in China. And now I like it just a little bit less.

      Anyway, I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this, that you’re not dead. If so, congratulations on that, and on your newish car. That’s a sweet get.

  3. What is it with Japan, Korea, and dryers? Is there some sort of multi-national treaty that bans the manufacture and/or importation of clothes drying mechanisms? Of all things to agree on, why does it have to be this?

    Also sorry about your future mesothelioma.

    • What are you, a thesaurus? You know we don’t allow words over three syllables on this site.

      Yeah, I don’t know about Koreans, but Japanese people, they actually like doing things the hard way. Like you go to a bar and the bartender’s standing there chipping ice from a giant block. I’m like, have you tried an ice cube tray? What is this, the 1800’s? This country, some times, I swear.

  4. I’m living in China right now, and although it’s not my fault for the sandstorm I still apologize. China should keep its dirty, nasty pollution to itself, not take a yellow crap all over Japan. So sorry!

    Anyway, the dryer thing. That was also one of my first ‘culture shock’ type things when I went to Japan, but I just shrugged my shoulders and learned to hang up my laundry like everyone else. Pretty soon it become second nature and I wasn’t really missing the dryer so much (except when I needed to wear my purdy dress and it’s still up drying–dammit!).

    In China, dryers also don’t exist (or are very scarce) so on sunny days the world becomes a colorful wonderland of underwear, socks, futons, pants, dresses, etc..

    But anyway, I met a few European friends here that also said that no one in Europe really uses a dryer. Even my British friends said that they hang up their laundry to dry. One friend form Czech even said to me, “when I first went to the USA I was so shocked to see this dryer machine–you Americans, so lazy! Waste energy!”

    Sometimes I forget that just because we’re all foreigners over here in Asia doesn’t mean that all western countries have the same habits (not sure if they actually hang their stuff outside though..)

    But on the upside, my landlord here in Shanghai had lived in the USA before and, having me as a foreign tenant, provided a dryer for me out of pure kindness. I was probably the only person in all of Shanghai to have a dryer.

    And strangely, even with the dryer, I still hung up my clothes. I think I’ve lived in Asia way too long.

    • Yes, if you could relay a message to the people of China, would you please tell them that we would like them to stop sending us orange sand? That’d be great.

      You know, I’m actually on board with the idea of hanging out clothes to dry. Conceptually, it sounds good—save energy and get some of that springtime fresh. Only problem is, Japan has like three months of winter, two months of orange smog, and two months of rain. Sometimes technology is our friend. But I guess we could just go to bed when the sun sets too, and not use all those darned light bulbs. Good thing I’ve got a hand-cranked PC that doubles as a flashlight and a shortwave radio.

  5. OMG, just as I was deciding to move to Japan, I hear about no dryers and 4 slot toasters…. well that’s it for me! Actually, all joking aside, that is very puzzling to me. Is this just a cost of energy consumption on the power grid? There are houses here that are designed to provide all their power thru the use of solar panels and some people actually sell electricity back to the power companies in some cases, but doing without dryers and hot water washing sounds more like a cultural thing and not something just for energy consumption. Are solar panels not an option in Japan?

    • It is puzzling, I agree with you. Actually, it’s baffling.

      There are some solar panels on homes here, but not many. This is definitely a matter of culture, however, not technology, or even money. Although in some small apartments, there may not be space for both a washer and dryer, in which case it’s understandable.

      On the other hand, in the U.S., it actually would make sense to hang out your laundry on a sunny day. But it’s hard to imagine an upscale apartment building in New York City with the tenants’ wash draped all over the outside. In some areas, I’m pretty sure it would even violate the neighborhood ordinance. That seems crazy to me, that hanging laundry outside would be illegal.

      The reality is that Japan is far behind the West (or at least the U.S.) in everyday technology, and people often enjoy doing things the hard way. A lot of homes don’t have a PC, and central heating is virtually unheard of, except perhaps in the far North.

      • Ken’s right in a lot of ways, but there’s certainly some exceptions to Japan’s lagging pace of technology.

        It might not be common in Tokyo because there aren’t all that many family homes, but out here in the country solar tech is incredibly common. You see it on almost one house in ten which is far more than in any city back home (however this has largely to do with a big government credit on solar panels). Solar water heating is also relatively common here. However, as Ken said, zero out of ten homes have central heating or dryers. And it’s not because the homes are well-insulated that there isn’t any central heat, either. Japanese homes are built to last about 20 years and the walls are literally two inches thick. While a house is an investment in the West, in Japan they usually lose their value (many homes actually end up with negative value because they have to be torn down). Over eighty percent of Japanese home sales are for brand new homes–it’s insane.

        Cars are another big exception, with Japan adopting GPS and on-board entertainment much faster than the West (observe the Japanese drivers casually watching TV as they commute to work…). While GPS/entertainment units are usually an option on luxury cars at home, in Japan most basic models come with touch-screen multi-function GPS as standard equipment. Lots of car-related stuff is much more advanced than we’re used to as well, with mind-boggling parking contraptions and light-up parking lots that display which rows have empty parking spots.

        But then, just like homes, Japanese throw their cars away (“recycle”) after ten years. It doesn’t really matter if it runs well or not, the general wisdom is that it’s best to get rid of them before something goes wrong than wait for that day and fix it. When we got one of our vehicles inspected just this past month the mechanic, my girlfriend, and her family all nodded solemnly and said that our 8 year old car was just too tired to continue. I, the only foreigner in the situation, was the only one to interject. I mean I just drove the damned thing up into the mountains through snow and rain and hoards of terrible Japanese drivers–there was literally nothing wrong with it. Finally a small-town mechanic agreed to “fix” it for around $500 so it could pass the inspection. Evidently every part that could conceivably fail in the next two years (the period between inspections) had to be replaced.

        Then of course there’s cell phones, with Japan being much more on top of the smartphone revolution than most other countries. Smartphones are integrated into daily life here in a way that they really aren’t at home.

        Of course these are the stand-out exceptions, and for every area in which Japan excels there’s half a dozen more that leave you flabbergasted. It’s super common where I live to see old people out “mowing” their lawn with a pair of scissors. I actually don’t know if I’ve seen a proper lawn mower, ever. My school’s groundskeeper / child-wrangler / etc is outside driving screws by hand as I type this. I mean, who does that?! Everybody rides around single-gear bicycles straight out of a 1950s movie, and they all pay like $200-500 for the damned things. That’s another thing: not only do Japanese people enjoy doing things the hard way, they like to pay more money to do it the hard way, too.

        Why did I type an entire book here? I think I need more English-language outlets than Ken’s blog.

  6. Thanks Randy,

    I really enjoyed the read! I do have GPS standard on my Acura and Honda vehicles with on board entertainment and even have a plug up frig inside the car for travel fun (been driving Honda/Acura vehicles since 1978 and Honda motorcycles since 1968), but I don’t use GPS much anymore; I don’t travel a lot.

    Did you say 2″ walls? You’re kidding right, hmmm maybe that’s why Japanese subbed TV and anime always show people coming down with colds and getting sick all the time. We have building codes here that require certain wall thickness and insulation to retain energy and I know my outer walls are at least 8″ thick here (some are 12″), so it’s easy to keep it 22.2 degrees Celsius indoors all year around. I use power tools for everything too, so it’s hard for me to imagine so much manual labor. I got rid of my smart phone, though all my relatives have them.

  7. The earth is fine. It’s just for us living on it it is getting worse

  8. I was in Japan last month. I rented an apartment with a very weird setup where the whole bathroom was a dryer. By pressing a button on the controls you could set up how many hours drying time you wanted and the whole shower/bathtub area became a sort of a dryer with hot air circulating. Worked very well and I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else

    • Yeah, I’ve seen that in some “nicer” apartments. It’s useful for keeping black mold to a minimum, which can be a real problem in more humid parts of Japan. Or for drying your clothes on a rainy day.

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