Thursday, April 2, 2009

Combating Hay Fever in Japan

Years ago, after World War II, the Japanese decided to plant hordes of cedar trees, since they would eventually hopefully become a useful source of lumber (and money). The combination of this rather foolish idea with the legendary Japanese work ethic resulted in cedar forests covering a whopping 12 percent of the Japanese archipelago today, a considerable (yet ultimately foolish) accomplishment. Today, Japan woefully does not make use of these anticipated lumber sources, using cheaper trees from Southeast Asia instead, resulting in these cedar forests becoming a source of not lumber, but vast (and sometimes visible) amounts of allergy-causing pollen.

As Japan is a rather clean country, Japan's population has steadily been succumbing to cedar allergies, while the government seems to do nothing about it at all. As a result, Japan's allergy sufferers have been quietly buying up antihistamines, surgical masks (to block the pollen), noseplugs, lozenges, and other products advertised as alleviating allergy symptoms. This is good for companies producing such products, but for most people, the cedar pollen season (from around Valentine's Day to May or so - not short by any standard!) is mostly a horrible time of running noses, difficulty sleeping (due to stuffed noses), and fatigue.

I personally have tried a number of methods to alleviate symptoms, while avoiding antihistamines (because I generally dislike medicine), and have found varying results:

  1. Baguazhang Walking: the prime training method of baguazhang, i.e. walking in circles, seems to have a rather strong effect in alleviating allergy symptoms. Walking in circles for 20 minutes in the morning usually alleviates the majority of my symptoms for a whole day; walking 10 minutes or so is less effective, but is still much better than not walking at all. In general, I can also sleep quite normally (I don't have to wake up in the middle of the night), so it seems that the effect lasts for a rather long time.
  2. Yogurt with Active Cultures: yogurt with active cultures seems to act as a mild antihistamine; imbibing the stuff works quickly with almost instant reduced symptoms (although they do not disappear). The effect seems to last for 5 hours or so, so it may be necessary to eat the stuff several times a day if one is depending on yogurt only. Yogurt substitutes that contain active cultures, such as Yakult drinks, seem to have a similar (if weaker) effect. This year, active culture yogurt with fruit added is being sold, which is nice; before, they only sold plain active culture yogurt, which is a bit too sour for my tastes.
  3. Showers and Baths: taking a shower or bath after getting home wipes the body clean of pollens picked up while walking around outside, giving one a welcome respite from the sniffles at least until one has to go out again. This often helps one to sleep soundly as well (make sure that you change into clean, pollen-less clothes)! Some people additionally vacuum their clothes and hair when entering the house to enhance the effect, or buy air purifiers to use at home.
  4. Lozenges: various lozenges purported to contain yogurt, pollen, and other ingredients that alleviate allergy symptoms are for sale in Japan, but they only seem to have a minor effect, if any. Mostly, I found that they seem to clear the nose (much like other minty lozenges), but only if one has but minor allergy symptoms.
  5. Shiso and Shiso Drinks: shiso (a kind of leaf) is often purported as a good remedy for allergies in Japan, resulting in various shiso juice drinks being sold during the allergy season. Although they taste okay, they did not seem to have much of an effect on my allergies (I tried chewing on a shiso leaf as well, but that did not work, either; perhaps red shiso leaves work better, but they are not available during the cedar pollen season).

By far, solution #1 worked best for me with the longest duration of effect; nowadays I depend on it, with some of solution #2 as well for good measure (I like yogurt, anyway) or for when I wake up too late in the morning.

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