11 Apr 2014

Visitors ask us frequently why many people wear a mask even in warm climate of spring. Yes, they wear a white mask over the lower half of their face completely, reminding you of bird-flu which spread throughout Asia a few years ago. Mask is pronounced "masuku" in Japanese.

Are they wearing a flu mask even at the height of spring?

Few people surely wear a flu mask because of cold due to changeable weather of the spring, but most of them wear a mask not for cold but for the purpose to avoid or lessen the symptom of kafun-shou or pollen allergy.

Kafun-shou is an allergy, uniquely seen in Japan, foreign body action triggered mainly through excessive immune reaction to pollens of cedar in the spring or ones of ragweed in the autumn.The symptoms include sneezing, running nose, bloodshot or itching in eyes. They show because pollens in the body will be blown off by sneezes or washed away by tears or running. Therefore, during the periods, it is not uncommon to see a long line of people waiting for diagnosis in eye's doctors or nose, ear and throat clinics. It seems no exaggeration to say that over 20 % of Japanese population suffer from kafun-shou.

For foreknowledge of kafun-shou year-round, the Ministry of the Environment updates the "kafun-shou" site to offer the pollen count information day by day / prefecture by prefecture. Even TV weather report daily covers the information. In addition, the information includes flying time and type of pollens such as pollens of sugi or Japanese cedars from February to April /ones of hinoki or Japanese cypress from April to May / ones of ineka or grass family from June to August, and ones of butakusa or ragweed, which naturalized from North America, from August to October.

Sugi is indigenous to Japan, so "sugi-kafun shou" is, as mentioned above, seen only in Japan. By the way, I am insensible physically and mentally to sugi-kafun, but I wonder how much "a mask" works against kafun-shou. Specialists say that it is expected to reduce the volume of pollen inhaled by a third to a sixth, depending on its material and structure, alleviating the symptoms to some extent.

Taking this opportunity, I would like to brief on Japanese trees.   Japanese archipelago extends from latitude of 45.31 degrees north to the latitude of 20.51 degrees north, approximately 1,900 miles in length, with an area of some 146,000 square miles. The temperate climate with ample rainfalls allows for growth of a wide variety of trees and plants in Japan. Japan is mountainous country because about 75 % of the whole country is mountains and 68 % is forests. Due to the topography, we enjoy a wide variety of seasonal changes of local natural landscapes.

Roughly speaking, trees in Japan are classified into two; broad-leaved trees and conifer trees. Broad-leaved trees have wide and flat leaves with different appearances of the surface and lower surface. Conifer trees have needle-like leaves.

Differently, they are also classified into ever green trees and deciduous trees. Ever green trees do not shed leaves and have new leaves one after another, always keeping green. They can be seen in shrines or temple. Deciduous trees generally fall dead leaves in low temperature period such as autumn, making us enjoy natural colorful tapestries.

Landscapes of a wide variety of trees give our eyes a great enjoyment of seasonal beauty throughout a year. However, the situation has changed, impairing the balance of botany due to increased artificial forests mainly consisting of conifer trees, causing more conifer trees than bread-leaved trees, possibly changing colorful and diversified Japanese natural landscapes into monotonousness.

Picking up on my earlier statement on sugi, Japanese cedar, the most typical conifer tree, is indigenous to Japan and has been the most important tree since the ancient times. The reason is, the timber has straight-grained and scent, being widely used as timbers for materials of building, furniture utensil, construction and shipping. Sugi, an evergreen tree grows over 50m high, with a long life. It has a straight trunk and brown barks which split vertically, which making easy to handle and process.

After the Second World War, the Japanese government encouraged tree planting in order to restore devastated mountains by selecting sugi among many trees. Because sugi is easy to grow and can be used for multi-purposes.  

It has small needle-like leaves crowded on branches which bears enormous amount of female flowers and globe-shaped flowers in spring. The volume of pollens of sugi changes year by year. Recently most of the sugi have fully grown up and have always great potential production ability of pollens. In addition, more and more pollens are said to be produced due to the global warming these days and the current poor forest management along with shortage of manpower. Grown-up sugi has given us not only a lot of benefits, but also by-product, kafun-shou.

Here is a children's favorite song "sugi baby in a mountain".

#1 Long , long, long ago
just near a grove of Japanese chinquapin
a small mountain was there, was there
Totally shaved mountain is always an object for laughter
"Hi! Hi!, wake up, sugi baby!
The sun calls to him smilingly  

#2 One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten days pass 
He is beginning to bud up out of the mountain
The small baby is showing his head,
"Hi! Hi! Hello, the good old sun!
a Japanese chinquapin laughs at him loudly, loudly

The song of six verses goes on, telling his whole life including his growth to a big tree, great services to the country as the widely-used timber. Now, such important trees seem to be ringing an alarm against our poor management of artificial forests.

For a curious watcher like me, it is interesting to watch people wearing a mask.Because it hides half part of their face, just showing their bright pair of eyes. The moment they lower their mask, an appearance of their face turns out as well as I imagine or not ? Are they masked beauty or masked handsome men? Recently, fashionable masks with seals such as anime character or charming marks are on sale, especially marketed for high school girls.

Thus, we are always good in changing troubles into pleasures. Are you trying to wear a mask in Japan?

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