Archive | September 2009

Influenza in Japan

While the H1N1 flu has been written off by the average American as a plot by Democrats to scare the public into accepting a totalitarian socialist state, the Japanese have turned their influenza fighting amps to 12. Everywhere you go, there are masks. There were always masks, but now they come in science fiction flavors, with specially designed models that minimize the possibility of particles entering the oral cavity all the while placating you with strawberry or herbal scents. Some go so far as to act as a substitute for a burqa, covering the entire face save enough space to allow the wearer to see where she is going. Note that “she” was no accident. I hardly saw any men under the age of 90 wearing masks. The fact that it’s largely women wearing these masks leads me to suspect that, rather than being used in a large scale public health intervention, the masks are merely an excuse to not have to wear makeup.

Most people I spoke with believed that the hysteria over H1N1 has largely been overblown by the media and that the frantic mask wearing is not only likely useless in preventing the spread of H1N1, but also borders on the pathological. Granted, as in America, the people I associate with in Japan tend to verge on the jaded and cynical. During the height of the scare, people who did not wear masks were looked at with suspicion. A person seen coughing on a train without a mask could quickly see several seats open up around him/her.

When I entered Osaka, I was immediately asked what countries I had visited in the past 6 months. When I offered that I was coming from Malawi, the attendant immediately passed me a health questionnaire where I had to write what symptoms I might have, my name, address in Japan and phone number, in addition to having the attendant take my temperature. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that my in-laws get a phone call asking if I exhibited any symptoms of flu or ebola during my stay.

I managed to purchase a set of “wet masks”, which obliterate germs by passing air through and antiseptic filter before they can reach the mouth. To please the user they introduce a nice smelling herbal aroma. The box claims that through the use of the mask, 99% of all pollen and virus particles can be obliterated. I’m not sure what pollen and flu viruses have to do with each other, but I’m sure there’s some truth in advertising numbers game going on here given that pollen is not only bigger than viruses, but also likely more numerous since viral infections only hit as certain times of the year, unlike pollen and dust, which can be ubiquitous.

Opening the package, one is given a set of three masks and three wet packets and the user has to assemble them before venturing out in the dangerous world. Personally, I find the whole thing too much work to prevent flu, but since the wet packets only last a day, this whole system has to be boon to Kobayashi Pharmaceuticals. At seven bucks for three masks, you can do the math.

Drug stores all have a section out front displaying anti-viral goods, including a variety of masks, from the traditional gauze to the expensive and complicated ones mentioned above, along with a number of throat disinfectants and Lysol type bathroom and house cleaners. Anti-bacterial soaps (uhh flu is a virus?) are also exceedingly popular and people appear to obsessively hand wash.

The most impressive measure I saw was the closure of the schools and intense monitoring of children. All children in schools must take their temperature every morning and write it in their home room notebook. They must then present the notebook to the school every single day and children who report high temperatures are immediately sent to the school nurse and she reports the child’s information directly to the local health department. If the child is found to be positive for flu, the school is closed and children sit out for a week. I simply can’t imagine this kind of strategy working in the US. Parents would never want to report their child’s temperature to the school for privacy reason, and many parents would probably lie if they knew the school would be closed. The Japanese are incredibly cooperative people.

However, for all of these expensive, product based counter-virus measures, one still has to share handles on the train with numerous other possibly infected people. Smokers abound everywhere, coughing and hacking God knows what straight into their hands, which they then use to touch just about everything you touch.

Cycling in Japan

A search on the internet for things to do during my 4 day layover in Japan turned up a 60km cycling road from Arashiyama (near Kyoto) to the edge of Nara Prefecture. Cycling in Japan is difficult due to the complex network of roads and inevitably impassible rail traffic, but the roads along the series of rivers make it much easier to travel through the boonies.You may not get anywhere you want to go in the major cities, but, as I’ve found, it’s a great way to see the countryside.

I don’t have a bike in Japan. However, a train ride to Kyoto and a few phone calls to some bike shops turned up a storehouse of used bikes near the JR Kyoto Station. I picked up a “mamachari” for $30 and I was ready to go. For those of you not in the know, a mamachari is a bike that mothers use to do their grocery shopping. “Mother Chariot” == “mamachari”. I lucked out and got a 3 speeder (most are fixies) without the SCREAMING brakes (mine had disk brakes!) that most residents seem immune to. Japanese bikes have the loudest brakes on the planet. It’s surprising that more Japanese people aren’t deaf.

The first night, I paid $20 to stay in a shared room at a gaijin (foreigner) hostel. It’s no wonder that Japanese people think so poorly of foreigners given the scum that seem to flock here and ruin the party for the rest of us. I awoke at 4:30 to a hand groping my ass trying to find mywallet. Never again. If there is an English sign and people at the desk who speak English, do yourself a favor and call it a day. I still don’t know what I was thinking.

The ride was incredible. Miles and miles of vegetable gardens and solitude. The beginning of the road at Arashiyama sports some fantastic scenery and I wish I would have had more time so that I could have gone to the Matsuo Taisya, but the abundance of tree covered mountains and greenery made the long trip to the cycling road worth it. Of course, I had to pick the hottest day of the year to ride and I stopped counting the number of cycles which passed me along the way, but, 8 hours later, I made it to Nara to see the massive Daibussan at the Toudaiji Temple in Nara Park. Fantastic. A 60 foot tall iron Bhudda house in the largest wooden structure in the world surrounded by flocks of mini-deer who will beg for cookies. Highly recommended. The Buddha is the largest Buddha statue in the world and the temple itself dates back to the 8th century.

When in Japan, one should always spend a day shopping and exploring Japanese consumer culture, but the history and architecture here are not to be missed and can take up several days. This country and its history, for all its problems, should never be underestimated. Tourists who spend days on end in Akihabara at the expense of the gorgeous countryside truly do themselves a disservice. Nara Koen not only sports the Giant Buddha, but also an incredible collection of other structures and temples including several log buildings. I am sure that there are miles of hiking trails that extend into the reaches of the mountains which surround the park.

When I lived here in the late 90’s, I had no appreciation for the immense amount of opportunites for cheap and incredible sightseeing. I remember being bored a lot of the time and now wonder exactly what I was thinking. Maybe it was the drinking. Or the TV. Or the lack of vegetables. Mostly, I think I was just stupid. Either way, next time, I will buy or bring a decent bike and do a longer, more planned journey, but now at least I’ve cracked the egg. Youth is truly wasted on the young.

Readers Digest version: In total, I rode nearly 80km that day and eventually was so tired and beat and covered in sweat and grime that the I dumped the bike at a convenience store in Tomio City and took a train into Osaka. I would have ridden all the way into Osaka, but a giant mountain stood in a the way and 3 speeds wouldn’t have been nearly enough to make it over the top before dark. I found a $15.00 a night hotel in the “bad” part of town that came with a 4.5 tatami room, futon, towels, hot water, tooth brush, internet, coffee and a TV/VCR along with a large selection of Yakuza movies and 4 porn channels. No English, just helpful people and a clean shower. More later.

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