Let’s be honest: Summertime in Tokyo can be HOT. And HUMID. And MISERABLE. I complain a lot about the heat and humidity here on Kaua’i, but it’s child’s play compared to what can be experienced during a Tokyo summer.
Visiting Japan in the summer requires a different mindset, but can be enjoyable and a chance to see and experience activities and foods that are not available other times of the year.
Traditional Japanese culture views the seasons a bit differently than in the West – they’re meant to be experienced, both the good and the bad, and not masked. That means in winter you should experience a little cold, and in summer you should experience hot. While air-conditioning abounds in stores or on trains and other public places, it is often not used in the home, or not as much as we would here in the U.S. It’s not just that it’s expensive to operate A/C, but summertime is hot, and the underlying belief is one should appreciate the hot of summer a bit. Also, too much air-conditioning is not considered healthy, especially for children.
Homes in Japan often hang furin (small bells) outside or in doorways and windows during the summer. Made from glass or iron, the bells have a large paper strip attached to the the clapper. The paper moves in the slightest breeze and rings the bell to evoke a feeling of air moving, and thus coolness.
Still, sometimes things can get to the point of being dangerously hot. On days when the temperatures climb to broiling, and the humidity is high, you will hear loudspeaker announcements throughout the city warning residents to stay inside and stay cool rather than risk heat stroke or exhaustion. One thing that has improved greatly since we lived there in the 1980s and early 1990s is that these days the air is clean(er). When we were there the combination of heat and pollution during the summer was awful, but these days blue skies can be seen almost all of the time (unless there’s a storm).
Following the 2011 tsunami, and the catastrophic loss of the Fukushima nuclear plant (which affected power to many areas of Japan, including Tokyo), the government began a major, nation-wide plan to lower energy use during the summer, called Cool Biz. Government and other offices raised their thermostats, and workers were encouraged to wear special lightweight, comfortable clothing instead of the usual heavier suits and ties for men, and stocking and suits for women. Although Cool Biz seems to be a permanent fixture (and there’s now Warm Biz standards for winter wear), it’s not mandatory and initially caused some awkward moments in protocol between Cool Biz and non-Cool Biz offices.
Festivals (matsuri) abound during the summer months, from small street fairs to temple fairs to fireworks displays to giant events with crowds of people. I got to a point that just hearing the word festival sent waves of terror through me because of the crowds I knew I would encounter, but in reality the crowds were never unruly, and people were always polite, cordial and helpful. Bon odori season arrives in August, when Japanese families welcome back the spirits of their ancestors for a week, and celebrate with festivals and dancing, then end the celebration by floating candles down a river or out to sea. Many Japanese return to their home villages (furusato) during this time of the year, but it’s not difficult to find a bon odori festival in any city and join in the dancing and celebration.
One of the joys of summer in Japan is kaki gori, or Japanese shave ice. It’s served at festivals, in stands throughout Japan, and even in fancier restaurants. Kaki gori is a mountain of fluffy shaved ice topped with fruit syrups, and is extremely cooling and refreshing. Japan also has the most amazing assortment of ice cream and frozen treats I’ve ever seen. You can stop into any supermarket or convenience store and find something that will refresh you.
Special foods are also available during the summer, such as cold somen noodles with dipping sauce, or chilled silken tofu with thinly sliced green onions, soy sauce and grated ginger. Summer foods are often served in glass bowls or dishes, some made to look like ice, to evoke a feeling of coolness.
June is the month for baiyu or tsuyu, the rainy season, when humidity is at its peak, and the rain can drag on for days. When we lived in Japan, even though we had air-conditioning and humidifiers going, the humidity was bad enough that things would still mold, including shoes, backpacks, and such. June really can be miserable, but other months during the summer, even with the heat and humidity, can be a wonderful time to visit Tokyo and the rest of Japan, and experience the delights of summertime Japan.