I never had hay fever while I lived in the UK. I had family members who did: come springtime they’d be dropped across the sofa like scatter cushions, surrounded by a mountain of scrunched up tissues. And it looked terrible: the puffy eyes, the streaming nose, the endless chorus of sneezing. But it didn’t affect me. Back then I couldn’t see what the big deal was about. Was it like a cold? If so, well suck it up! How bad could a bit of pollen tickling your nostrils be?
But then I moved to Japan. And hay fever does affect me here. Big time. And I can agree absolutely that hayfever is The Worst Thing Ever. The way it sucks your eyes dry so you long to claw them out. The way you sneeze so much it hurts your nose. The way it fills your head with a thick fug that makes even basic thought a painful effort. Hey, don’t laugh at me! I have walked the road of the unsympathetic onlooker, Sir/Madam. Karma’s a bitch. An itchy, icky bitch.
But hold up: how did moving to Japan result in my sudden development of hayfever (known locally as ‘kafunshou’)? Well, it turns out that I have an allergic reaction to a certain type of tree, the Japanese Cedar, to be precise. A tree that doesn’t even exist in UK, apparently. I mean, how does that even work, having an allergy to something that wasn’t even in my environment as a child? For all I know I might have an allergic reaction to moonrock as well.
Well, it doesn’t help that the Japanese Cedar (‘sugi’) is so prevalent across Japan. It lines practically every slope of every mountain up and down the land. It annoys the hell out of me when I’m hiking, I can tell you: one of the rewards of scaling a mountain is the view up top. You get no such view if the mountain is below the tree line. You just get the same view you’ve been treated to on the long hike up there: trees, trees and more trees.
It never used to be that way, mind. It was only after the Second World War that the Cedar sprung up everywhere. As Japan entered a phase of rapid rebuilding, there was a sharp rise in demand for lumber. So the Cedar was planted all over the place, as it grew rapidly and yielded plenty of wood for building purposes. All good so far, until – well, people didn’t want to live in wooden houses anymore. Concrete became the new norm for building, and suddenly found itself covered in trees it no longer needed, like the guy who turns up to a barbecue with a load of sausages and burgers but then everyone suddenly declares themselves vegetarian.
And boy, does the Cedar produce a lot of pollen. There’s a reason why the kanji for sugi (杉) looks like a tree with streams flying off of it. In the springtime the branches of a sugi like a heavy metal headbanger, except imagine that hair filled with yellow powder. Now imagine those yellow-powder headbangers in their millions, whipping their powdery goodness into the air and turning the spring sky into a hay fever nightmare soup. Yes, this is a bizarre image, I know. Cut me some slack, I feel like I’m thinking through syrup. If that syrup was laced with landmines.
The good news is that the Japanese authorities are currently ‘neutering’ all of the Cedar so they don’t produce pollen. The even better news is that they don’t need to cut the trees down to do that. The bad news is that it’s expected to take 80 years to complete this project. One way or another, I won’t have hayfever in 80 years. So for now, myself and the millions of other hayfever sufferers in Japan have to make do with medicines, over the counter or subscription, or other homemade methods of alleviating the hayfever blues (or should I say yellows?)
The best method is, of course, to get yourself down to a clinic that specializes in matters of the Ear, Throat and Nose (a ‘Jibiinkouka’). You get a lot of these clinics that bunch those three things together into one Megazord clinic, for some reason. No idea why. Maybe it’s the Japanese version of our ‘keys cut and shoes fixed’ shop. Seriously, why are those two…argh, head hurting. OK, never mind. You win this time, strange keys and shoe shop.
The one I go to, near my office, is excellent. Quick and no-nonsense, if a little too quick and no-nonsense at times. While I sit into the waiting room, I go into a hayfever induced daydream. I let the syrup building up in my brain ooze through me so I feel like I’ve just walked into a Van Gogh painting. Then, when I’m called to see the doctor, it’s all 100 miles per hour: I sit down, things are shoved into my nose, something is slathered onto the roof of my throat, all while she chatters endlessly in medical terms I don’t have a hope of understanding at the best of times, let alone with my head feeling like pancake batter and with Marmite smeared across my tonsils. Then I’m frog-marched into the back room to have another thing shoved up my nose. Now this one I like: it’s like a small medicine ball, with two tubes to shove up your nose and inhale this acrid gas. If I was in a Van Gogh painting before, now I’d hallucinting something like the brainchild of an MC Escher and Salvador Dali. The doctor was still spilling words in my direction but at that point I could only manage a thumbs up. Drugs may be strictly illegal in Japan but who needs that when the legit stuff sends you as high as the Sky Tree!
It did the job though: half an hour later my airways had cleared up and I could at least think and act like a human being again without leaking mucus everywhere. I had a bag full of pills to help me keep it that way as well, including eye drops. Which I am USELESS at. Seriously, eye drops are up there with swimming on the list of ‘Activities Other People Can Just Do Which I Think Are Witchcraft’. So after soaking every other inch of my face I finally get some eye drops on my actual eyeballs.
That’s the sensible way to do it. If for some reason you’re insane or a masochist, there are the remedies born from old wive’s tales. The most famous one in Japan is wearing a surgical mask, which actually does little to deter pollen from filtering in. If anything it holds hot breath to your face which makes your nose nice and streamy – so you then genuinely need a mask to hide you booger shame. You can buy more expensive masks that do stop pollen from getting in, though.
One other remedy that does seem to have real weight to it is the eating of ‘renkon’, the root of a lotus plant. From the outside it looks like a potato, put cut it open and you get this delightful snowflake-like design of holes inside. And renkon is not only a delicious and flexible ingredient, it seems to help boost immunity to pollen-inducing hayfever. Which is a refreshing change: usually these kind of home remedies involve something unsavory like smearing mustard on your chest while singing the national anthem. But no, renkon has the distinction of being properly tasty.
Hayfever in Japan is a big deal for many when March and April roll around. It’s both fascinating and strangely reassuring to see a country so different from my own suffer with the same common ailments as us. Sorry I mocked you Mum, I get it now!