What does Japan sound like?


What does Japan (or at least Osaka) sound like?

Well, in July anywhere in close proximity to trees it sounds like this (short video below).



The cricket-y sound you hear on the video is created by cicada, which in Japan are known as semi. You may agree with me that the noise is so loud that you can barely hear your own thoughts! It’s not only the noise that semi makes that can disturb your day but my Japanese friends have warned me not to walk under trees in which semi are chirping – you’ll get peed on!


This is not the best photo of a semi, given that the insect in my photo is dead but it’s the only photo I’ve got. Sorry.




Is this really Japan?

One thing that is wonderful about Japan is the fact that it has so many different types of places to visit. What I mean is that you go on a domestic holiday within Japan but it feels like you have gone abroad, and you sometimes forget that you are actually still in Japan. A beach holiday on a small Okinawan island feels like you have gone somewhere like the Seychelles (you can find some of our Okinawa photos here). You go to Hiroshima and the scenery you are greeted with at the Inland sea makes you think that you are not in Japan but somewhere in South Asia (you can find some of our Hiroshima photos here). Tokyo looks like a metropolis smilar to New York or London, but it’s clean, people are typically extremely polite and the infrastructure functions exceptionally well (recall that there are frequent earthquakes and typhoons in Tokyo and it deals with these better than London deals with three flakes of snow) (you can find some of our Tokyo photos here). And maybe you could say that Kyoto looks like ‘real’ Japan with its temples, shrines and kimono-wearing ladies heading to the closest tea ceremony or Ikebana class (you can find some of our Kyoto photos here).

Last weekend, with some Japanese friends, me and the kids headed to what I think is the ‘Switzerland’ of Japan, namely to Shirokawago in the Gifu prefecture.

Early Saturday morning our friends in their 8-seater rental car pulled outside our apartment to pick us up for this ‘Alpine’ adventure. Our kids and their kids are good friends so I assumed the 4-hour journey would be a piece of cake with ‘I spy with my little eye’, Top Trumps, joint book reading and a carefully controlled iPad quota, but it actually turned out to be pieces of cake, everywhere. Not only were the kids monkeying around with food, they were also making a mess with nose bleeds, vomiting, dirty shoes on the seats, and the usual stuff most parents would expect on a 4-hour car journey. But even though the car’s interior was having a road trip from hell – in between vomits and nose bleeds, us passengers were having a great time.

We had reserved Sunday for Shirakawago, so when we got to Gifu on Saturday, we first went mountain biking in the town called Hida. Actually, when I say ‘mountain biking’, I don’t quite mean your typical mountain biking. We had the mountain and the bikes but instead of revving across unbeaten peak paths, we jumped on bikes that were attached to a frame, which in turn was attached to an old train track. The younger kids sat in between the two bikes like royalty and enjoyed chauffeuring service provided by us adults and a 12-year old (to make up numbers).



Somewhat typically for Japan where most cyclists’ seats have been adjusted so that the cyclist’s knees seem to hit their chin when pedalling, when I sat on the bike, the seat was uncomfortably low. No self-respecting Finnish outdoor shop owners’ daughter would accept knee-to-chin style inefficient pedalling. So, I asked a staff member to adjust the seat. He explained that it was in its highest setting. There we were again, in a situation where Japan ever so effortlessly makes a normal size Western woman feel like an Amazonian. My 150 cm, 40kg female friend and her only slightly bigger husband found it hilarious that their Finnish pal’s long legs (hardly!!!) were not compatible with (what I would call a child’s) mountain bike. Luckily us Westerners as well as the Japanese looked equally unflattering in our crash helmets.


Two-by-two us and the other 15 cyclist pairs leisurely cruised 3 km down the hill. It was awesome. The sun was shining but there was a slight breeze (which you would appreciate if you knew how painfully hot Japanese summer days can be) and the view was amazing. Little did I know (due to slight translation problems) that once we were down the hill, we would have to cycle that 3km back up! Yikes! Maybe it was for the best I didn’t know what was coming, or I wouldn’t have enjoyed the ride down through the old train tunnels and lovely mountain forests as much as I did. Anyway, when we got down to the resting spot at the 3 km mark and the staff swiftly turned the bikes round towards the direction we had come from, it hit me that we would have to cycle back up the hill, which now, thinking about it, kind of makes sense. Luckily, the bikes were installed with battery operated pedalling aids. However, when I was huffing and puffing up the hill (regardless of the pedalling aid) worrying that the cyclists behind us would start ringing their bells at us crawling up the hill like an overweight turtle after a too ambitious CrossFit class, I would have paid good money for the exchange of my bike for one of the staffs’ mopeds at the front and the back of the line of us mountain cyclists.



Apart from my unacceptably poor physical performance, the ‘mountain biking’ experience was good fun. All of us adults, and the kids loved it.

After mountain biking, we drove to Takayama, a town known for its historical old town.







In addition to the beautiful old buildings, Takayama had several sake shops.





Since my husband missed the trip due to having been in England at the time, I thought I’d buy him some sake, his favourite drink. Entertainingly, I got a bit tipsy sampling some delicious local sake in the search for very dry sake for my husband (I’m more of a sweet plum sake person while my husband prefers nail varnish remover). As you can see in the picture below, I eventually found a ‘little’ something for him.



We also noticed many bird nests around. I was told that the Japanese believe that swallow nests bring good luck and thus, people are very creative in coming up with workable ways to share their habitat with the nests. In the photo below the umbrella hangs underneath a nest to protect the taxi from anything that might drop down from the nest.



Our hotel in Takayama was great. The hotel had indoor and outdoor onsens (hot springs) and it served one of the best buffet dinners I’ve ever had (which included for instance sushi and sashimi made to order, pizzas baked to order in a proper stone oven and personal table-top BBQs). After the buffet we headed for a relaxing session in the hot springs.

A word of advice to anyone else slightly self-conscious about the circumference of their waist: Don’t go to an onsen after a buffet dinner. After all, similarly to Finnish saunas you go to onsens naked, and thus, you can’t hide the earlier overdose of sushi, tempura or Chinese dumplings. The post-buffet-look really isn’t flattering even for the petit Japanese ladies let alone someone who carries around her waist a 10kg ‘lifebuoy’.

The following morning we drove to Shirakawago in the mountains of Gifu.


Due to its location, Shirakawago gets lots of snow in the winter and thus, similar to many houses in the Alps, the angle of roofs of houses in Shirakawago is relatively steep.











Not only are the roofs unusually steep, but the material of the roofs in Shirakawago is predominantly thatch (presumably to insulate the cold in the winter). And Shirakawago did not leave a fan of old British thatched houses cold. The village was beautiful with the old thatched houses, lovely forests around it and a river running through it. No wonder it is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centres.





We had a great weekend experiencing a new side of Japan (to us). Now the only thing to do is to start thinking where to go next.


The cat


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A couple of days ago my husband, our children and I were leaving our flat to go to the park. On our way out, as one would, we took the rubbish to the communal recycling and bin store on the ground floor of our building.

My husband and I were chatting when we opened the bin store door and the motion sensor turned the lights on. Out of the corner of my eye I can see something dark and furry on the floor, just next to my husband’s feet. My husband is in full swing telling some ‘interesting’ story and does not notice the fur ball on the floor. Just as he is about to step on it, I grab his arm and pull him back.

We turn to whatever it is on the floor but can’t at first make out what it is. It looks like a piece of furry clothing that has fallen out of someone’s rubbish bin, or a dead rat the size of a cat. After having a closer look, we finally managed to figure out that it wasn’t a rat the size of a cat but that it was a cat – a cat in pretty awful condition.

It was breathing – just about, but it was very skinny, its back legs had some bruising and the eyes were badly infected – so badly that its eyes were buried under a thick layer of grey gunk, or maybe the eyes were not even there. In either case, the poor thing couldn’t see anything, and maybe because of that she wasn’t aware that she had been nearly stepped on or that we were there standing next to it. Or maybe it was aware that we were there, but it was too tired/unwell to care.

We felt we couldn’t leave the cat in the rubbish room even though we didn’t quite know what to do. You see, we don’t speak Japanese beyond the very basics, we didn’t know if there are any animal welfare organisations in Osaka and we were not sure if it would be acceptable just to take the cat to the vets (if we could find a veterinary surgery somewhere).

So, I called a Japanese friend for advice. She says that under no circumstances should we take the cat to the vets, because it’s not our cat. She continues by saying that there is very little we can do and the best thing would be just to leave the cat and let other people deal with it. I take a photo of the cat and email it to her to make her realize that we couldn’t possibly leave the cat in the rubbish room.

The photo did the trick and she offered to contact animal welfare officials. While she is searching the Internet for information, a young Japanese woman walks into the rubbish room and to our surprise she doesn’t seem to be stunned by the ill cat lying there next to the communal bin.

I ask my friend on the phone to talk to the woman in Japanese and ask if she knows whose cat it is.

In an indifferent manner, the lady explains that the cat has been in the room since the day before and that the janitor knows about it. Apparently, the janitor is trying to find out whether the cat’s owner lives in the building and has put some water and tuna in the corner of the room to keep the cat fed and watered until the owner is found.

Since the janitor and hence also our corporate landlord were aware of the cat, my friend on the phone says that we cannot help the cat. We just have to leave it in the room and let the janitor deal with it.

We go and try to talk to the janitor, but he is not in his booth by the main entrance of the building. There is a sign saying that he will return in an hour. So, reluctantly we start walking out and decide that we’ll return in an hour to talk to the janitor.

As we are walking out, we can see a woman going in the bin store with some bin bags. Before we can go and warn her about the cat, we hear a loud scream. My husband runs to the room to check if the cat (and the woman) are ok. Luckily the woman hadn’t stepped on the cat, instead she’s sitting on the floor of the room, out of breath, holding her chest. The cat had obviously scared the hell out of her. To minimise the risk of anyone stepping on the cat, my husband moves the cat to the corner of the room.

In the meanwhile, my son is in tears in the foyer of the building. He thinks that the cat had attacked the lady and is now petrified that the cat is coming after us too. He doesn’t realize that the cat is in no position to attack anyone and that the woman had screamed probably because she had nearly stepped on something she wasn’t expecting to be there.

But I understand how my son felt. When I was about 6 years old, some older children asked me and my twin sister if we wanted to see something scary. We followed them into the woods and found a dead cat which had some awful injuries. I was traumatized by the sight, and I still now, 35 years later, remember the cat’s disfigured face and the fact that every time I closed my eyes in the evenings for several weeks that followed that expedition into the woods, I could see the upsetting sight of the dead cat in my head. Naively, me, like my son, were scared of the cat whereas perhaps we should have really been scared of the people that had caused the injuries.

We leave our building, walk past a veterinary surgery that we seemed to recall having seen to check it is open and decide that when we go back an hour later, if the cat is still in the bin store, we will (against all advice) take it to the vets, but when we return, the cat is gone. There is no cat, no water or tuna in the room. The room smells like bleach. The janitor must have disinfected it. We can’t find the janitor in his booth or elsewhere, so eventually we go home.

The following day, with my poor Japanese, I go and speak to the janitor and ask about the cat.

I manage to understand the words ‘cat’ and ‘hospital’, and the janitor’s gives a thumbs up to indicate that the cat is ok.

Beyond the hospital, I don’t know what happened to the cat, but since the janitor seemed to be so upbeat, I assume that the cat had been reunited with its loving owner, who had taken the cat to the vets to get an antibiotic prescription strong enough to sort out the monster conjunctivitis it had. I don’t want to think that there are any other, less happy endings. So I will just stop here and say:

The End




The Japanese love their cats and dogs and according to some stats, there are more pets in Japan than children (over 21 million!). Many pets in Japan have loving owners who pamper them excessively. But similarly to many other countries, Japan also has its pet industry related problems. The biggest problems seem to be that

(a) because of huge sums of money that changes hands in the pet industry, there are many irresponsible and cruel puppy/kitten farmers who not only produce a surplus of pets (who are euthanized) but also keep the puppies/kittens and their adult dogs/cats in disgusting conditions

(b) there are many Japanese pet owners that treat their pets like (fashion) accessories and when the pet gets slightly older it’s dumped at an animal shelter to be put down

(c) animal shelters have a short window (I believe in most shelters it is 7 days) for rehoming unwanted pets. This combined with the fact that the Japanese culture focuses on buying new (instead of secondhand) items means that unwanted pets are put down at the rate of 550 pets per day.

(d) and in relation to the cat in the bin store, one of things that suprised me was that none of the Japanese appeared to want to get involved.  Instead, me and my husband (i.e. foreigners who can’t speak Japanese and don’t know how animal welfare issues are dealt with in Japan) were the only ones to feel that we should do something to help.



Some links to information about animal welfare issues in Japan:



Still a ways to go, but animal welfare in Japan is improving by leaps and bounds


Cherry blossom, day and night




The end of March and the beginning of April is the cherry blossom (i.e. sakura) season in Osaka. It’s the time of the year when it’s easy to have a chat with strangers (or awkward acquaintances), namely about the voluptuous cherry trees – a topic that is on everyone’s lips, and which can be covered with very limited vocabulary. Perfect for a sluggish Japanese learner, like me.

During this season, tourists from all over the world flock to Japan to see the sakura. They infiltrate all the main touristy sakura spots in Osaka (and elsewhere in Japan) for a period of a couple of weeks.

But cherry trees are everywhere in Osaka (and Japan), not just in well-known parks and big Castle grounds. Cherry trees decorate train lines, school yards, supermarket car parks, industrial sites and flyovers, i.e. hardly the most picturesque of places, although one week a year, cherry blossom adds some glamour to these places (see photos below).


Underneath a flyover



Baseball field



School yard


If you don’t want to compete with thousands of other cherry blossom fans and their tripods or iPhones, the above locations would be a safe bet for a non-crowded sakura viewing spot.

I don’t usually choose to share our cherry blossom viewing experience with 10,000 other people at Sakuranomiya (one of the most famous cherry blossom places in Osaka). Then again, I wouldn’t really settle with admiring the trees at a supermarket car park either.

But yesterday morning I felt brave and thought that I would take the kids and go for a quick walk around Osaka Castle, which is one of the most popular places in Osaka for cherry blossom viewing. But when we got to the tube station and saw the huge groups of tourists, we returned home, got our picnic blanket, board games, books, toys and some little snacks like chocolate, mandarins, and nuts to take with us to a nearby Kouzo Gu shrine, which is slightly off the beaten track, but beautiful nevertheless.

When we got there, we took some photos of the sakura (see below) and thought we’d sit down for half an hour to admire the trees, have our snacks, play a game or two of top trumps and/or read a book.









But we struggled to find a space to sit in, partly because it was quite busy and partly because I didn’t know what the etiquette was. For instance, can one just go and sit down anywhere or are some areas off limits. And the blue plastic sheets on the ground? – are they there for one to go and sit on them, or are they the Japanese equivalent to a German’s towel on a poolside sun lounger in Rhodes?


We played it safe and eventually sat down in a small gap between a big group of people and a small plastic Micky Mouse patterned sheet, on which there was a piece of paper that said something in Japanese.

We got our picnic quilt and our snacks out and sat down, but annoyingly, every so often we got a waft of something unpleasant. Hold on!! Was it some drunken cherry blossom viewers earlier smelly deposit that was covered by the Micky Mouse sheet and the note was warning cherry blossom viewers not to sit there unless they wanted to experience the sakura with an aroma somewhat less attractive than the cherry blossoms!? No wonder no-one had chosen to sit in that spot. I felt like everyone was looking at us because us foreign idiots had chosen to sit next to a pile of poo.

Because I didn’t want to come across as not knowing what I was doing, I thought we should just sit there for 15 minutes, eat our snacks and then escape the stench and unfamiliar cultural conventions by heading home.

But while we were sitting there, one person from the big group next to us walked over and gave us a plastic container with 10 chicken wings, two jumbo rice crackers in between which was a fried egg, barbeque sauce and mayonnaise (typical Japanese outdoor food), bags of sweets for the kids and a can of beer for me. They probably thought that our cherry blossom viewing grub of mandarins and chocolate was embarrassingly puny and they  wanted to correct the situation. I tried to protest and explain that we’ve already eaten, but the group wouldn’t have it. We sheepishly returned the favour and gave them a half eaten (Finnish) chocolate bar as a token of our appreciation.

Having unwittingly acquired all that food meant that we couldn’t escape the stinky situation quite as quickly as I wanted.

But then an elderly couple walked over and removed the Micky Mouse sheet to reveal…well, nothing but the ground. There was no poo on the ground next to us (the stench must have been dog poo in the green area behind us) and it dawned on me that the old couple had reserved a picnic spot with their sheet like Germans would do in Rhodes. The reason why no-one sat where we were sitting was not because of poo, but because no-one else had dared to park their picnic blanket on the Micky Mouse sheet’s owners’ turf! And the reason why we got some funny looks was because the people around us where shocked by the cheek of us calmly taking over some poor elderly couple’s cherry viewing spot.

Of course, being Japanese, no-one said anything but they probably came up with a few carefully selected names in their mind for the foreigners who didn’t respect the picnic sheet tactic. At that point, we could but pretend that we were oblivious to the cultural faux pas that we had just committed and carry on eating our chicken wings.

The elderly couple squeezed their picnic blanket next to ours. It was so close that it appeared as if we were part of their group. Even some of their friends who arrived and saw us exclaimed something along the lines of ‘Hey, international cherry blossom viewing!’ only to realize that yes, we were ‘international’ but not viewing the blossoms with them.

Anyway, we stayed for another hour or so nibbling on the food, having a little chat with the big group and a few other cherry blossom viewers and then headed home with contact details of some new friends. I assume had we stayed for a little longer, we would have made friends even with the, eventually merry, Micky Mouse group.

In cherry viewing style, many of the groups probably stayed under the cherry trees until the evening or even until the night, drinking, eating, chatting and enjoying the cherry blossoms in the moonlight.

Before we left, I took some photos of the sakura in the night-time. The quality is poor but I hope you nevertheless manage to get a feel for the absolutely amazing beauty cherry trees create, day and night.




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photo 2