Postcard From: Summertime Japan

Parks are a popular place to stay cool during the summer

Even on the narrowest of streets, summer plants and flowers pass along a feeling of coolness.

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.

Mugi cha (wheat tea) was an acquired taste for me. I hated it at first but now find it more refreshing than regular iced tea (and it’s caffeine free).

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.

The sound of furin is one of summer’s delights in Japan.

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.

Dirty, polluted air is a thing of the past in summertime Tokyo (thank goodness).

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).

Cool biz outfits from Uniqlo

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.

A traditional festival game for children: if they can snag a ball with a small hook they get a prize.

Bon odori is a popular summer festival, and they can range in size from small to huge. The central platform holds drummers and dancers, and attendees, both men and women, dance around the platform, typically in lightweight cotton summer kimono, call yukata.

Candles are floated down a river, or out to sea, at the end of bon odori, to escort the ancestors back.

The Gion Festival is a massive event held every summer in Kyoto, and is filled with lanterns, floats and portable shrines of all sizes.

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.

My grandson contemplates the size of his kaki gori. It came with small pitchers of fresh strawberry syrup and cream to pour over the ice.

This banner, with the word ‘ice’ on it, lets you know kaki gori is available. The waves and small plovers in the design are traditional motifs, and evoke summer.

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.

Cold somen noodles over ice with dipping sauce are a cool summer treat.

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.

Besides lots of rain and high humidity in June, the summer months also can bring typhoons.

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.

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8 thoughts on “Postcard From: Summertime Japan

  1. UnwrittenLifeBlog says:

    I had a friend from high school who married a Japanese lady and they lived in Japan. I loved his entertaining Facebook posts when he was out and about with his two boys – especially in summer when they would find a multitude of ways to keep cool. Sadly, he died this past spring, and I just realized how much I miss those posts. Thankfully his wife still posts pictures of the boys and tags his account, but it’s just one more thing that happens as we get older.

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    • Laura says:

      That sounds like our summers in Japan – finding ways to stay cool! It could be a challenge though. I’m glad your friend’s wife still stays in touch with you.

      It’s a good thing we didn’t go last June for the walk – my son said it was absolutely miserable. We’ll get there one of these days.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Laura says:

      Those kaki gori were particularly large – my D-I-L and I didn’t think he could finish it, but he did. They came in lots of wonderful flavor combinations, too – my D-I-L had coffee syrup and cream on hers, and I had green tea syrup and red beans on mine. The second time we went I had fresh peach – yum!

      Are you preparing for Irma? I have been thinking of you and other friends that live in Florida – I read today that the whole state is preparing. Hopefully the storm will turn and head back out to sea.

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  2. The One in Debt says:

    I totally understand why my daughter is fascinated with Japan. I know she would love to go to a Bon odori festival. One day I hope I can get the courage to take her there.

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    • Laura says:

      Japan is actually a very easy country to travel to and in. There are signs everywhere in English (even more so with the Olympics coming to Tokyo in 2020), and it’s very easy to follow maps and ask for directions. People there are very courteous and helpful and will go out of their way to make sure you don’t get lost. It’s also easy to find places to eat, including familiar foods. I hope you get to go!

      Liked by 1 person

      • The One in Debt says:

        I just spoke to a friend that used to have bad travel anxiety. she has cured herself of it by going on lots of inter US flights. She kept telling herself she was safer in the plane than being in a car on the interstate. There is hope for me I can do the same! (with some Benedryl). 😉

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      • Laura says:

        I used to be a very reluctant flyer. But there were places in the world I wanted to see, and I realized I had to conquer my fear/anxiety if I was ever going to see them. I found that two Dramamine and maybe a gin & tonic in the airport bar before takeoff made flying very relaxing. The plane could have taken me anywhere.

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