It’s Summer: Are you prepared?

Version 2By Akilah Bel

In the recent Disney film ‘Frozen’, a snowman called Olaf waxes lyrically about summer.  Its beauty, its warmth, and the simple joy of just going outside and sitting in the sun.  Yet, despite all  of the joy and wonder that comes from having picnics with friends whilst frolicking at the beach, rolling around in fields playing Frisbee, or watching fireworks, there are some important aspects of the summer season here in Japan that we should prepare for.

First of all, it starts off with one thing — 雨 (rain).  As our homes heat up, water slowly rises, and this combination of water and heat leads to an abundance of one thing — INSECTS.  That’s right folks, our friendly (or not so friendly) neighbourhood mosquitoes, sand flies, mukade, spiders, cockroaches, and all their other little friends like to make an appearance, especially in the early summer months.  Therefore, it’s really important to make sure that you have de-cluttered the area around your apartment or home as much as possible.  Clutter is not your friend at any time of the year, but especially in summer, it becomes a health risk.  Even more dangerous than clutter is the presence of any object that allows stagnant water to accumulate.  Yes, yes, I know that in Japan many of us are surrounded by rice paddies, which by definition of being a  ‘paddy’ means that they are festering pools of stagnant water, but even more literally, they are the breeding ground for swarms of mosquitoes.

Although it’s true that many farmers use chemical or organic means (if you happen to see ducks waddling through rice paddies, it isn’t by accident — according to one of my JTEs who is a farmer, ducks are released to eat the insects that fly around their fields) to try and combat the mosquito problem, personally I have discovered that mosquitoes seem to be pretty resilient for such tiny creatures.  Regardless of how many ducks or chemicals are used, some mosquitoes will still come knocking at your door.  That’s why implementing a few precautionary measures will be helpful.

On entering any supermarket, you will notice that Japan has a large assortment of bug sprays, liquids, and traps that you can use to fumigate your apartment.  I’ve noticed that in the weeks preceding summer (and even more so now), these products seem to be placed in the entrance-ways of many of the stores that carry them, or in some kind of prominent position to allow you easy access to them. If you’re not sure what to buy, they often carry pictures of the insects and bugs that they are meant to eradicate.  Depending on what level of Japanese you have, you can simply ask a member of staff if the products are safe to use together, or you can use my method of using terrible Japanese, and approach an unsuspecting staff member while holding the two chemicals in either hand and say  “これとこれいしょにだいじょうぶですか” (kore to kore, issho ni, daijoubu desu ka?)。Somehow, it gets the point across — I either get a yes or a no.  When it’s a no, they are usually kind enough to show me which ones I can use together.

To give a rough idea of the products out there, here is a quick list of the ones I’ve found that seem to work.  Please note that these products might vary from city to city, but that there should be similar ones throughout all cities.

Mosquitoes (か)

Plug-in electronic vapour repellents:

There are a large assortment of these.  I can’t attest to the effectiveness of the other brands, but I use アースノーマット.  This comes in a scented or an unscented version.  While the unscented versions work just as well, I actually prefer the scented version since it reminds me to ventilate my apartment.  You are supposed to use these in ventilated areas, but with the unscented version, I found myself forgetting to open the screen door, and I also discovered I had headaches and couldn’t pinpoint why.  Effectively, I was slowly poisoning myself, so be careful. They usually offer 60 day or 90 day protection time frames, but they tend to come in packets of 2 or 3, so you can be well protected for the entire summer.

Hanging insect repellents:

I’ve only seen one kind of these in my store which are the hanging kind, but other websites suggest that they come in a barrier type as well as a plate type.  They have varying lengths of active life, ranging from 120 to 250 days.  They also come in scented and unscented versions.  I’ve used one of these on my door when a swarm of pesky mosquitoes made an appearance, and it seemed to work at keeping them away from my entrance-way.

Insecticide spray:

I’m not much of a spray person, but I have seen an abundance of these insecticides lining the supermarket shelves.  Before I got my vapour repellent, I used this version of the spray.  It did work, but I found its effectiveness was quite limited.  Maybe it was just my imagination, but it felt like an hour or two later the mosquitoes were back, and I needed to spray again, which I didn’t like.

Coils:

Personally, this isn’t my number one choice because the smell is overwhelming, and although I can’t read the kanji for the active chemicals, I don’t think they do the body any good.  I’ve seen them throughout most stores, but I haven’t used any of them, so I can’t attest to their effectiveness.

The natural alternative:

My go-to natural mosquito repellent was always Citronella.  Mosquitoes can’t stand the smell (although I don’t really like it myself), and it keeps them away.  Alas, I’ve been having a hard time finding the 100 percent natural version here in Japan.  It has to be 100 percent, otherwise it’s useless.  As a result, I’ve turned to lavender.  I hate spraying those bug repellents on my skin, so that’s why I’ve found these alternatives.  Keeping a lavender plant in your apartment will help to keep the mosquitoes at bay, but using lavender oil on your skin also has the same result.  As an added bonus, it also smells quite nice! I’ve also read that eucalyptus oil works well as a mosquito repellent, but I haven’t been able to try this method myself.

Centipedes (ムカデ

Liquids:

I like to refer to this as “Mukade Away'”.  This liquid is placed outside of the apartment, and is meant to repel the unwanted creatures from entering your home.  This brand, スーパー, was the one I found in my apartment left by my predecessor, but I have seen several others available in the store.  Although admittedly, the word “super” kind of makes me partial to using this one.

Sprays:

If a centipede still happens to enter your apartment (which is likely, regardless of how many steps you take to keep them away), these sprays are meant to kill them immediately.  I haven’t used them myself, but friends have told me that they are effective.  I personally just grab the nearest heavy object and beat the crap out of the centipede, but that is my Caribbean training, and not suitable for everyone.

Traps:

This device seems to be very similar to a ‘roach motel’.  It’s placed at the corners of doors and any little openings into your house, and it’s then apparently meant to attract the centipede and prevent it from entering your home.  I haven’t used these because I don’t want anything that “encourages” centipedes to come anywhere near my apartment.  I’d rather use items that keep them away.  If any of my fellow JETs have tried them, please do share your experience with us!

Stay tidy:

Of course, if fumigation isn’t your thing and you prefer natural methods of pest eradication, those exist as well.  For protection against mukade, simply be sure to limit piles of anything in your apartment, whether it be laundry, paper, books, or even the PET bottles and cans that you are saving to take out on recycling day.  Mukade LOVE to curl up and hide in cool, dark places.  This also means shaking out bedding and pillows before resting, as well as clothes and shoes.

Treatment:

In terms of treatment, while heading to a hospital immediately after a bite is obviously best, also try placing a slice of onion directly onto the sting site. This will help to relieve some of the pain. A heated spoon on the sting site also has the same effect.  This could make life a little more bearable if your hospital is especially far away, or if a 24-hour hospital is not in your vicinity.

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Okay, now that you are protected against insects and bugs, it’s time to find ways to deal with the HEAT. Let’s face it, we all know that Japan’s humidity is no joke, and staying hydrated and cool becomes a must as soon as June hits.  Your body expends an enormous amount of water trying to keep cool, which means that staying hydrated becomes essential.  I remember arriving at the Tokyo orientation in August last year and finding the heat very unpleasant (and this is coming from a girl whose country’s average temperature is 33 degrees Celsius!).  Perhaps it was the fact that I spent most of the summer in business suits, but it was really uncomfortable for the first few weeks.  The humidity made me irritable — I felt sticky and gross all the time, and I just wanted it all to end.  Then, I had a radical shift.  How?  Well, I simply welcomed the heat.

I’m sure several of you are giving me weird looks right now, but the first and best way to handle the humidity of the Japanese summer is to accept that it’s that way, and then work around it. For me, this meant transferring some of the techniques I use to stay cool in Barbados to life here in Japan.  The most important of which are keeping my best friends with me — they are water bottle and hand towel. These two never leave my side. Since I love colour coordination, I invested in an assortment of hand towels in various shades and hues, and they go with me anywhere and any time I step outside.  I should also add sun block to the list!

For most of us, our offices are not air-conditioned, and windows are far and few between.  This means that our offices become giant ovens waiting to slowly roast us.  I don’t know about you, but I have no desire to be a roasted turkey, so to avoid heatstroke and physical exhaustion, drinking water continuously helps to combat these possible effects.  It doesn’t hurt to takes a few doses of Pocari sweat too, since you also need to replenish the electrolytes and minerals in your body.

Another little trick I like to implement is ‘copy the JTE’.  For example, when my staff start bringing their portable fans to work, I bring one to work as well.  I also follow them and learn which rooms always have the AC running, so if and when the heat gets truly unbearable, I go and ‘visit’ one of these areas.  It works out well in several ways — not only do I get to be cooler, but I also get to interact with other members of staff outside of the English department.  Since in August our students are on summer break and we don’t have classes, it’s a great time to get to know the rest of your staff better, at a time when they are less stressed.  Furthermore, you get to practice your Japanese.

Lastly, get out of the office.  For my fellow high school JETs, most of our schools have club activities, and as we know, Japanese club activities are at their peak in summer.  Go join your students in their club activities.  It’s a great way to interact with the students in a non-classroom setting, it’s great for your health, and it stops you from going insane at the monotony of an office. But it’s out in the boiling sun right? Don’t worry — after those winter months, we could all use some more Vitamin D, so go out there and enjoy it.  Just as long as you have your trusty friends water bottle, hand towel, and sun block by your side, you are ready to handle that sun.  Okay?

Let’s enjoy summer!

2 comments

  • Thanks for the nice article.

    Regarding the mosquito coils, the 蚊取り線香, they’re actually considered one of the safest insecticides. The substance they contain is derived from a flower. When it burns, a colorless, odorless substance fills the air which disrupts the nervous systems of insects but which is easily broken down by mammals. The smoke is a byproduct of burning the sticks. It’s about the same as the smoke and aroma from burning an incense stick in your room.

    Wikipedia has a nice snippet about their safety as an insecticide:
    “The United States Department of Agriculture, as of 1972, has stated that synergized pyrethrum is “probably the safest of all insecticides for use in a food plant” and that ” a pyrethrum formulation is approved for use around foodstuffs.” All pyrethrins are easily hydrolyzed and degraded by stomach acids in mammals, so toxicity following ingestion by pets is very low. However, pyrethrins are dangerous for cats and fish. Toxicity is usually associated with applying much more of the product than directed. Care should be taken to observe direction labels when using this substance around humans and animals. ”

    However, in an area with poor ventilation, the smell is a little overwhelming, as stated in the article. If I’m trying to get rid of one lone mosquito that found its way into my apartment, I usually break off a small piece of the coil and burn just that. There are also low-smoke varieties of the coils. In outdoor use, the smoke adds to the effect by discouraging insects from coming near.

  • Thank you so much for this! I’ll be moving to Nara in 2.5 weeks, and practical and specific advice to combat both heat and bugs is exactly what I needed. This is perfect, and I’ve taken some notes of insect-repellant brands so I can get some as soon as I’m settled in.

    Thanks again! (: