March 08, 2002
My first home in Japan is located in Yokosuka, about 50 km from the hub of modern day Japan - Tokyo, Japan's most populated city. Nested in Chubu (Central Section) of the island of Honshu, Yokosuka lies on the Pacific side of Honshu, known as the Tokai region. Yokosuka (pronounced YOKO-skuh, with long o's) sits on the southern peninsula, called Miura, around Tokyo-wan (Tokyo Bay) with Yokohama and Tokyo to the north.
Yokosuka is roughly the size of Seattle, WA. Due to the population density here, Japan's liveable area is just one big urban sprawl. Due to this, cities are divided up into towns or districts - our home is located in Uraga, about 7km south of Yokosuka's downtown district, and near the western tip of the Miura peninsula.
Uraga, like many neighborhoods, is a maze of streets and houses, with parks every few blocks. Rocky hills topped with green trees roll throughout the peninsula, offering great views and fantastic sunsets. At the bottom of the hill is Uraga's main street, with produce stands, shops, bakeries, restaurants; anything you might need. The train station is about 2km from our home, and due to the traffic, it is faster to walk to the train and take it downtown than it is to drive.
The house is a cross between traditional and contemporary Japanese architecture. Made of concrete, it is two stories, with a garage built into the hill below our house, accessible by the stairs leading from our door to the street. It is very large by Japanese standards. Inside, the floors downstairs are made of wood, with plaster walls and big windows. We have one tatami room, located on the ground floor; this room has an earthy atmosphere that is beautiful, and when it warms up in the sun the tatami mats smell of trees and straw. Upstairs there are three bedrooms reached by a narrow staircase, with balconies on two of the rooms. These are great for line-drying clothing; every morning you can look out across the neighborhood and see clothes and bedding airing out in the sun and breeze.
With the first step into a typical Japanese home, the first-time visitor notices the differences before getting in the door. Floors are made of wood or tatami (thick strawlike mats), a few interior walls may be fusuma, sliding dividers made of paper on a wood frame, and windows can be covered in wooden grids and paper called shoji. Japanese toilets are separated from the shower area, which can include a circulation-style tub used for soaking, and is modeled after an onsen (hotspring). There is no circulation heating; due to the lack of insulation, homes include doors between each room and rooms are heated individually by a wall-mounted heater.
Japan has a landmass roughly the size of California, with half the population of the United States. However, less than 20% of the land is suitable for commercial use, which means highly dense areas of population. Houses are usually 2-4 stories, with only 2 or 3 rooms to a floor, and rooms are usually about 6 tatami (roughly 9x12). Because of the expenses associated with building homes, many extended family members may live in the same home.
Wherever you go in Japan it seems as if you are never far from the ocean. The country's long and narrow island chain is a short distance from one coast to the other. However, Japan's length spans from just short of Siberia down to Taiwan and stretches about 1860 miles.
Hokkaido, the northernmost island in Japan's archipelago, is relatively unspoilt. Home to dense forest, mountains, and lakes usually found in dormant volcanos, Hokkaido constitutes 22% of Japan's landmass but only 5% of the population. Hokkaido is Siberian in climate with long cold winters and short cool summers. The island is bordered by three different bodies of water - the Pacific to the southeast, the Japan sea to the west, and the sea of Okhotsk to the northeast, with a low tip of Russian landmass less than 15 miles away.
Honshu, the largest island in Japan's chain, is home to some of Japan's most memorable icons. Northern Honshu (Tohoku) has a similar climate to Hokkaido. Home of alpine environments, pristine bays, and rich in natural resources, Tohoku is still relatively wild despite its proximity and accessibility from Tokyo. To the south, Central Honshu (Chubu) is the heart of Japan, with a variety of topographical and climactic zones. Alpine areas nest right against the sea, craggy coastlines plunge into the ocean, and Mount Fuji stands tall. The area is covered in beautiful national parks. South of Chubu lies Kansai, home of the very cradles of Japanese civilization. Western Honshu, or Chugoku, located south of Kansai, is the southernmost point of Honshu. Chugoku contains both heavy industrialization in the north, and miles of coastal sand dunes, rural farmland and rugged coastlines.
Shikoku is the smallest of Japan's main islands. Lying just to the south of Chugoku, Shikoku's northern coastline is heavily industrialized, but the remainder of the island is rural and unpopulated. To the east of the island, the Naruto Whirpools tumultuously swirl in the waters, caused by tidal currents meeting between the islands. Included in the region are the thousands of islands of the Inland Sea, the Seto-nakai. These islands are mostly rocky shoreline, the sporadic beach, and small pine forests, with the occasional one being large enough to house a population.
Being the island closest to the Asian mainland, Kyushi has been a gateway for centuries. Kyushu is the most volcanic area in Japan, and one of the most volcanic in the world. Also with a Meditteranean-type climate, Kyushu has blue-green seas, fraquent hot springs, and active volcanoes, yet with a heavily industrial north. Aso-san, a volcanic mountain in the north central part of the island has a giant crater with a conical outcropping, and the crater is large enough to house several towns. Rivers cut through craggy cliffs throughout the island.
The Ryuki-ken constitutes the remainder of the smaller islands south of Kyushu, including Okinawa. With a mean temperature of 75 degrees, Okinawa lies on the same parallel as the Bahamas. The island chain of Ryuki-ken has coral reefs, spectacular beaches, and a few jungles. The southernmost island of Yonaguni-jima lies only 60 miles east of Taiwan.