Of Weather and Bamboo

Kamiozawa on Route 38
Keeping out the weather…
On our first trip to Japan in the summer of 1974 Lou and I had to deal with high humidity and high temperatures for the first time as well as lashing rain relieved by some days of amazing sunshine and brilliant light, the like of which we had never encountered in the UK.  That was a mere impression of the meteorological conditions of the country.  It was not until we went to live there in 1976, however, that we were to experience the idiosyncrasies of the climate, its muses, delights and physical realities as well as the perennial changing of the seasons.  In a sense it was the beginning of a 24-year experience of monitoring the weather and climate.

With every passing year we began to know what kind of weather to expect and to feel as upset as the locals when an assumed pattern of weather did not transpire.

Of course, living on the outskirts of Tokyo and close to the Pacific coast of Japan had a significant influence on the kind of weather we became acquainted with.  Spring, for example, occasionally brought a flurry of snow but more importantly we enjoyed the glories of the cherry blossom, all be it for such a short time.  Balmy evenings on the other hand were a bonus.  As the air temperature and humidity rose so we actually became aware of the apartment we were living in because we could smell it.  Not an unpleasant smell at all but a mixture of aromas originating in the tatami matting and the fabric of the timber framed apartment building that was our home.

After drizzle...

The rainy season followed with heavy downpours or constant drizzle, high humidity and leaden skies.  It would occasionally feel chilly despite what the thermometer might say.  Then suddenly summer burst on to the scene around the middle of July and Tokyo then regularly had temperatures, which never fell below 25 degrees centigrade, even at night.  Although summer could be wonderful it was energy sapping, too.  September was the month when typhoons periodically raced across the main islands of Japan but after that threat had passed it was autumn.  The draining heat and humidity of summer were gone.  A lack of appetite was replaced by a healthy desire to eat seasonal dishes and to savour drinks that were no longer simply consumed to assuage a thirst.

Autumn is not only about the colour of the trees.
Autumn in Tokyo was wonderful.  The cold mornings and evenings were refreshing and the sunshine during the day lifted the spirit and warmed the body.  The humidity levels had dropped.  In Tokyo at least this was a growing trend as we moved into winter.

The average winter temperature in the capital is five degrees centigrade and therefore similar to that of the UK.  The level of humidity, however, is low, really low.  This in particular brought with it a problem.  With so many timber buildings fire has always been a threat even in modern times.

A heavily plastered store house style shop was a 
way to combat fire.
The traditions of winter in Tokyo were still strong when we were first there.  Loaded with a small wood-fired oven, the hot sweet potato man would come round in a small truck as the glow in the west was reaching its zenith and was often followed by a small fire truck.  We were all urged via a loudspeaker to make sure the gas stove was safe and any fires were properly extinguished.

In Edo—the former name of Tokyo—conflagrations were a constant threat especially in winter.  Some effort was made to stem the ease with which fires started and spread as far back as 1609, when an administrative edict outlawed the use of thatched roofs in favour of wooden shingles.

With so many timber built houses, inns, shrines and temples in close proximity to each other coupled with an endemic use of candles for light and wood-fires for cooking and heating baths, the capital was often ravaged by fire for much of its history.

Strong winter winds would fan the flames just when the humidity was at its lowest and large swaths of the city would be laid waste with considerable loss of life in some cases.  As a result of the Great Fire of London in 1666 that raged for three nights, it is said that only six people perished.  This low number was probably because working class people were not registered and many of those who died were incinerated in the intense heat.  It did, however, result in stricter building laws.

The inter-locking doors kept the flames out.
What is recognised as the worst fire in Edo, broke out on 18th January 1657 and resulted in the death of more than 107,000 souls.  Timber, nevertheless, continued to be the main building material until the introduction of brick and stone toward the end of the nineteenth century and steel and concrete in the twentieth century.  Even now, however, it is not unusual for winter winds to whip up flames and destroy several traditional timber built properties.

Historically fires have broken out in many urban locations in Japan with devastating results, including in Wajima.  A fire there in April 1910 wiped out 1200 buildings, highlighting just how easily the wind and dense building patterns can lead to the spread of fire.  In this case the wind was the result of the Foehn effect, when air crossing a high mountain range warms up quickly as it descends at speed. 

Unlike the Pacific coast of Japan, the winter wind off the Japan Sea brings snow, rain and generally unpleasant conditions to the Noto Peninsula.  Some of the fishing communities facing the sea have for sometime striven to ward off the cold, buffeting blast which makes its way across the Japan Sea using nothing more than densely packed culms of a freely available thin variety of bamboo, or in some cases more sturdy culms closely arranged to form a fence.

Their effectiveness is sufficient and enduring enough to have become an architectural feature that has attracted the interest of many a tourist to the peninsula.  They look good and function well.  They at least keep some of the weather out.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

The bamboo screens can be seen at Kamiozawa and Ozawa along Route 38, which leaves Wajima and hugs the coast westward.

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