Japan has four seasons. The rainy season is called a season, but does not impact the fact that Japan Has Four Seasons. A vehement shaking of the head.
In winter we remind each other as often as we can that it’s cold. Yes, it’s cold today. It was cold yesterday. Yes, it’s cold. Is your country this cold in winter? Well . . . probably a little colder, but then, we do have central heating, and that makes getting up in the morning a completely different experience.
The rainy season . . . it’s raining. Yes, I know, it’s the rainy season. Oh, the humidity has started. It’s humid today, isn’t it? Is your country humid? No, not like this. Ah, I thought so.
Now, I know that this is an important part of social interaction; we exchange non-threatening small talk about the weather, we agree, we feel better for having agreed and we go on our way. But in all this, I am reminded of a scene from years and years ago on Fawlty Towers, when Sybil is badgering Basil about something, and he goes away muttering about Mastermind, and ‘Sybil Fawlty, subject, the bleeding obvious’. I do realise that if you’re not British I may have lost you with that last cultural reference, but anyway, moving swiftly on . . .
It’s hot. It’s humid. And while we may be taking part in the great social interaction and confirming widely-believed facts, part of me wants to say, yes, I know, and talking about it just draws our attention to it, surely? Except, I am feeling so wrung-out in the heat that I don’t have the energy to point that out.
It’s hot and humid, did I mention that?
Just as in winter, there are a number of nifty little ideas that Japanese people have used for many years to try to keep cool. Of course, most people have air conditioning at home, and certainly in shops and on trains the AC is quite ferocious, but there are other ways to try to keep cool too.
Wherever you go you will see people fanning themselves. Many people carry a folding fan in their bag or pocket, shops and other businesses often give out the non-folding type as promotional goods, and where neither are available people will use whatever they have to fan themselves; a book, a newspaper, a small towel or their hand. I first starting using a fan in summer when I lived in China, and remember taking several back to the UK because I liked the designs so much. Once I put one in my bag and on a particularly hot day pulled it out to use it and was met by incredulous looks from the people around me. I put it back in my bag and decided that was behaviour best confined to Asia. These days I have a fan in my school bag, one in my handbag, and at least one more at home. When my students pick up their textbook and employ it as a fan instead of the teaching tool it is meant to be, I don’t bat an eye. Go ahead, student! You keep cool any way you can. It’s hot and humid today, isn’t it?
While almost all of us enjoy sitting around in air-conditioned comfort at home, conventional wisdom dictates that sleeping with the AC on is A Very Bad Thing. No good will come of it, you will catch a cold and we shall all roll our eyes knowingly. The appropriate way to sleep on a hot summer night is to use an electric fan, which is surprisingly effective. There are cooling ice pillows (‘cooling’ seeming to be an understatement, what do you think is going to happen if you sleep with your head on a giant ice-cold gel pack?) and the excellently-named towelket. This is the hybrid offspring of a towel and a blanket (I’m sure you’d already figured that one out for yourself), which you use instead of a duvet in summer. I must admit that I don’t use all these things; I have a fan, but sometimes I wake up around 4:30 when the sun is coming up and switch to the AC. No good will come of it, I’m sure.
Summer in Japan also means insects. In most places you would think that that is obvious; hot weather bringing out all kinds of creepy crawlies which we dispose of in a variety of ways. If you’re thinking of mosquitoes and cockroaches, of course, we do the same in Japan. But there are other insects which are greeted with delight. Children go out looking for these mini beasts and carry them home triumphantly. Failing that, you can buy one in a department store, along with its own plastic box and the strange gel it likes to eat.
Last summer I was in Yamanashi on a school trip. On the last day, the Japanese teacher and I found some kind of stag beetle which we knew her young son would like. Between us we picked it up, carried it back to the cottage we were staying in, put it in a plastic box with a slice of Japanese pear, gerry-rigged a net used to catch organic waste in the sink over the box to contain the beetle but allow it to breathe, secured said net with dental floss, and at some point on the bus journey between Yamanashi and Tokyo even named it. It made it back to Tokyo, where my colleague continued to feed it and tend to its needs for several days. It expired before her son returned from his grandparents’ house, but not before she had put considerable energy into its care.
The cicadas also are an important part of summer, their incredibly loud noise being part of the soundscape. In the last few days I have heard the first ones start up, and they will continue until some time in September.
Adding to the soundscape in my neighbourhood, of course, is my neighbour’s fondness for wind chimes. We have already had the great cacophony that is the full-on five-chime experience. Friends on Facebook have suggested a variety of remedies but since I do not possess Spiderman-like skills to scale the front of their house and make it up to the second floor to cut the things down, nor can I legally arm myself and take potshots at them (either the chimes or the neighbours) I can only close my windows, turn the AC on and try to ignore the sounds that I can still hear. How they find it relaxing I just don’t know.
The are other traditional Japanese responses to summer. I was in the supermarket today and saw a lot of people buying giant wedges of watermelon. A mobile phone shop was tempting people to stop and find out about some new service by offering free bottles of ramune, a traditional Japanese soda. I saw variety packs of small fireworks on sale in a local shop, which seems to me to be all wrong, since fireworks to a British person mean November 5th, Guy Fawkes, baked potatoes and bonfires, but I suppose to American and French people do mean summer celebrations. There will be giant firework dispays put on by different wards in Tokyo over the summer and people will buy these variety packs to have fun at home, which again creates alarm in me, a British person raised on public service announcements every autumn about the dangers of fireworks and why you should be very careful with them at home.
I have twice seen people at the station or on the train wearing yukata, lightweight summer kimono made of cotton. A few days ago I saw this teenage girl waiting for a train at my local station
Here I sit in air-conditioned comfort (though I must say I am being ecologically responsible and have it set at 28 degrees). I feel a little hypocritical writing of the long, hot, humid summer stretching ahead of us, no relief until probably the end of September. I fly back to the UK on Tuesday. When I get back in August the heat, humidity, insects, will all still be here, but I will have a break from it all.
But have you heard about the British summer? Sometimes it rains all the time and it isn’t very warm. Then again, it’s been too hot recently. But in my country? No, there’s no humidity, the insects are smaller and we certainly don’t keep them as pets.
I am looking forward to my summer holiday, but I shall miss Japan too; my life is here. It will be good to have a break, visit family and friends, re-charge my batteries, remind myself again just how lucky I am to be European and be able to hop around to other countries easily. But it will be good to come home again.
Wherever you are, I hope you have a wonderful summer.