Thursday, September 22, 2011

Are you cyclonesome tonight?

People often say that Japan is a safe place to live, and in my experience, it seems to be true. Folks around here routinely leave their homes and vehicles unlocked, secure in the knowledge that they are unlikely to be invaded by crack-addled yoots. In fact, the only people in the world who enjoy a lower homicide rate are the chewing-gum-hating death penalty enthusiasts of Singapore.

But while we have little to fear from our fellow man here, it seems that Mother Nature really has it in for Nippon. We have seen how devastating earthquakes and tsunamis can be. Mountain-dwellers like myself may not be at much risk from tsunamis, but we would do well to bear volcanoes in mind. In 1888, Mt Bandai (which is just 50km south of me) erupted, killing 477 people in eleven villages.

On top of all the seismic activity, we have dangerous fauna to watch out for too. Though I am still yet to spot one, bears are the number one concern around these parts. One managed to get into a school last year, but was thankfully taken down by marksmen before it hurt anyone. When hiking, one should really wear something like a radio or (more) cowbell. The rationale behind this is that bears typically only attack when startled, so by making plenty of noise you reduce your chances of inadvertently sneaking up on one. Wild boar also roam the forests, and of course there's always the vicious Japanese hornets to keep you on your toes.

But today I want to talk about a different natural peril: tropical cyclones, or typhoons (or taifuu in Japanese - I think maybe both languages pinched the word from Chinese). The end of summer is typhoon season, and typically at least a couple will make landfall somewhere along Japan's southern coast and do some damage. Earlier this month, a particularly nasty one hit Wakayama prefecture. This coincided with yet more hiking on my part, with Amber, myself and a couple of friends taking on Mt Chokai.

Though there was the best part of a megametre between us and the eye of the storm, it was still enough to ruin our day. In the morning it was sunny but very windy, and as the day progressed and our altitude and exposure increased, things deteriorated steadily. At times we were struggling to stay on our feet as the 100km/h gales whipped at our clothes and the drizzle stung our faces. It was the buffeting of a lifetime, even worse than the time I had an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord with the Sage of Omaha. But we made it. Or rather, I made it. Amber took the sensible / softcore option of hunkering down in the summit hut, but as with Fuji, I felt it was important to stand on the actual highest point. Those final 40 vertical metres were a punishing and frankly dangerous scramble over rain-slick rocks in the fog and gales. Incidentally, that particular peak didn't exist prior to a volcanic eruption in 1801.

But the reason that typhoons are on my mind is that another one - the fifteenth of the 2011 season, in fact - just passed close to Yamagata. By the time they reach our latitude they have usually lost much of their fury, but can still dump several shitloads of precipitation. It has been wazzing it down more-or-less solidly for three days, and the river that I cross every day on my way to school has been transformed from its usual feeble trickle to a raging torrent. As I write this, the typhoon is running out of steam somewhere in the Pacific east of Hokkaido, but last night we were braced for impact. As I watched NHK's rolling coverage (ok, I had it on in the background while I played Foldit - if 'play' is indeed the appropriate word), with its ever-updating weather maps and solemn speculation about what a typhoon might do to the still-troubled Daiichi plant, my house was shaken by an aftershock. Good times.

I have not escaped from typhoon 11-15 unscathed. As of yesterday morning, my car refuses to start. This is a real blow, as it means I have to cycle in the rain. For now I'm working on the assumption that some water has got in somewhere it shouldn't have, and maybe everything will be ok once it dries out? But since I know less about cars than your mum knows about computers, this is really just a statement of blind faith in my Wagon-R's engineering.

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