It’s hay fever season in Japan again.
Does this concern you?
If you’re a tourist, yeah, maybe.
If you’ve lived in Japan for a few years and think you’re safe, don’t be too sure!
Be Aware of the Pollen! Always!!
These pollen causing hay fever are unique to Japan.
So, even if you’ve never had any allergies before, you suddenly might have symptoms in Japan as a first-time visitor.
In my case, I’ve never had allergies.
While most of my family members and friends suffered from hay fever in Germany or had animal hair allergies, I never had to deal with that.
After moving to Japan I soon noticed that a lot of my students had red, teary eyes and a runny nose in spring.
About 4 years after I had moved to Japan, I thought I had caught a cold.
I went to the doctor and had my blood checked.
I was told I had hay fever (kafunshou, 花粉症). I had become allergic to “sugi” (杉), Japanese cedar tree – or more precisely Cryptomeria japonica – pollen.
Exactly in that year (2012), there were more pollen than usually.
I got medicine and only dared to go outside while wearing a surgical mask.
While spring used to be my favorite season in Japan, I could only enjoy cherry blossoms with teary, red eyes from then on.
Why So Many People Suffer From Hay Fever in Japan
Most people in Japan are either allergic to “sugi” (杉, Japanese cedar) or “hinoki” (檜, Japanese cypress).
Both are native Japanese tree species.
There are other pollen as well, e.g. pine tree pollen, but they’re comparatively minor.
After the war (World War II), Japan had a high demand for timber to rebuild everything. So, they planted a fair amount of cedar and cypress trees.
They soon switched to cheaper material from abroad. The trees grew older and especially the ones that are 30 years+ reached their peak production of pollen.
Although hay fever was never an issue in Japan before, a few decades after the war it became more and more common because of the increasing amount of sugi and hinoki pollen.
Nowadays pretty much every 4th person in Japan is suffering from “kafunshou” – and the number is steadily increasing.
When is Pollen Season in Japan?
Just like with the cherry blossoms, the “pollen front” moves from south to north (and west to east).
As soon as it gets a bit warmer (10°C+), the pollen start spreading.
In Tokyo the sugi pollen can start bothering you as early as late January, but the peak is usually in March, then lasts for about 6 weeks.
Hinoki is generally about a month behind the cedar pollen.
While people currently probably suffer in central Japan (e.g. in Tokyo or Kyoto), the pollen density should be still quite low in northern Tohoku.
Just like with the “cherry blossom front”, you can also check the “pollen pollution” in a certain region if you check out any Japanese weather forecast website. The daily pollen amount can vary greatly:
The pollen amount varies from year to year. If the summer in the previous year was especially long and hot, there will be more pollen the following year. That clearly happened in 2012 which is also when my allergy broke out.
Typical Symptoms of Hay Fever in Japan
Not only the amount of pollen, but also your personal sensitivity towards them will determine how bad your symptoms become.
I just had red, itchy eyes, an itchy throat and a runny nose.
However, some of my students could barely go outside and had to wear special types of glasses / goggles and surgical masks. Poor kids!
Some typical symptoms for allergies (アレルギー) are:
- Runny nose (鼻水が出る, hanamizu ga deru)
- Sneezing (くしゃみが出る, kushami ga deru)
- Congested nose (鼻が詰まる, hana ga tsumaru)
- Itchy nose, eyes, throat, ears (鼻／目／喉／耳が痒い, hana / me / nodo / mimi ga kayui)
- Red eyes (目が充血する／目が赤い, me ga juketsu suru / me ga akai)
- Watery eyes (涙目, namidame)
- Headache (頭痛がする, zutsuu ga suru)
- Sleep disorder (睡眠障害, suimin shougai)
Keep in mind that hay fever season starts when it’s also flu season in Japan. A lot of people mistakenly think they just have caught a cold (as it happened to me). So, make sure to go to a doctor and get a proper check-up!
How to Survive Hay Fever in Japan
As mentioned earlier, wearing surgical masks and special types of glasses is certainly one way to avoid contact with the pollen.
Here are some additional hay fever countermeasures (花粉症対策, kafunshou taisaku) that you could try:
1. Medicine (antihistamines, nasal sprays, eye drops)
Take medicine such as “Allegra“, “Aneton Almedi” or nasal sprays (点鼻薬, tenbiyaku). It’s recommended to start taking antihistamines about 2 weeks before the pollen hit (depending on where you live that could be as early as January).
2. Proper outside gear
Apart from wearing surgical masks, there are also clothes with a special smooth surface, so that pollen won’t stick easily to it.
Furthermore you can purchase sprays that will prevent pollen from bothering you (e.g. for your clothes, your surgical mask, your furniture). Make sure to wear glasses if you get itchy eyes easily.
3. Keep the pollen outside
During hay fever season in Japan it’s best not to dry your laundry outside.
Try to keep your doors and windows closed. There are special filters you can buy for your air-conditioner and also for your window screens.
You could also purchase an air purifier.
It’s important that you brush off your clothes carefully if you’ve been outside.
If your symptoms are really bad, take a shower and wash your hair to get rid of any remaining pollen.
4. Stick to a special diet
It’s said that consuming local honey can prevent and help against allergies.
Some can alleviate their symptoms by taking a lot of probiotic food (e.g. natto, miso) during hay fever season.
In Japan they also sell several teas you could give a try. I purchased a Chinese tea called tencha (甜茶), but also gauva tea (グアバ茶), beni fuuki (べにふうき) or nettle tea (ネトル茶) are said to help. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure if the tea really helped in my case, but it’s always worth a try.
5. Escape after all
There are actually regions in Japan with a very low density of pollen such as Hokkaido or Okinawa.
You could just take a trip and forget about your runny nose for a while!
Or how about a trip to a foreign country? The good thing about sugi and hinoki pollen allergy is that you won’t suffer from it OUTSIDE of Japan!
Back in Germany, I can actually enjoy spring as I’m not allergic to any local pollen there.
Oh, So You Can Actually Escape?
I was truly surprised that I was able to go 4 years without any symptoms and then suddenly the allergy hit me.
But that’s how it goes for most people.
So, even if you’ve lived in Japan for several years, it doesn’t mean you’re safe.
Just know that it can happen to you anytime.
While it’s annoying, it’s bearable as long as your symptoms aren’t super extreme.
And I hope this blog post gave you a few ideas on how to deal with hay fever in Japan.
Now, you might wonder why they don’t just get rid of all those pollen-producing trees then.
It’s not that easy. Plus, you don’t want to destroy all the forests. The government has planned to replace the trees with low pollen-producing species instead, but as there are so many of them, this may take decades.
Researchers are eagerly inventing ways to get rid of the symptoms completely. Soon there will be more options than the ones mentioned above.
Until then the population just has to “gaman” (我慢, ~ hang in there).
How about you?
Are you also suffering from allergies?
Do you have to deal with hay fever in Japan?
If so, what countermeasures are you using?