Journey to Japan 10: Japanese Summer Survival

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Photo by Chi-Yow Lee

The gentle tinkling of windchimes. Delicious kakigori (shaved ice) on sale left and right. The constant screeching of cicadas. Feeling like you’re melting as quickly as that kakigori in the oppressive humidity. It can all only mean one thing: it’s summer in Japan.

Coming from the U.K., I had a pretty loose concept of “summer”—it meant those couple of sunny weeks in July or August when the temperature crept into the mid-20s before giving up and reverting to its mild, cloudy norm. I had heard that Japanese summers were hot and humid (on a trip to Kew Gardens with my language exchange partner, I recall how she remarked upon entering the famous Palm House that it felt “just like summer in Japan!”) so I had some idea of what to expect, but the reality was still a shock to the system.

Coming from the U.K., I had a pretty loose concept of summer

Temperatures start to climb to the low- to mid-20s throughout May, with June’s rainy season heralding the start of summer proper. By the end of the month, the frequent downpours give way to a period of hot and humid days that can last right through until the end of September, with the sweltering temperatures generally peaking in August (last year there was a record-breaking period of eight consecutive days where the mercury hit 35 degrees, with the humidity meaning that it felt about 10 degrees hotter still).

And the soundtrack to all of this is, without a doubt, the call of the cicada. These giant insects colonize the trees and bushes in huge numbers and fill the air with their constant, shrill cries; summer in Japan is truly a bombardment of the senses.

Those three months between June and September can seem unending—by late July I was already counting down the days until autumn—but there are steps you can take to make things more bearable. Thankfully, most Japanese houses and apartments are equipped with air conditioners, as are the vast majority of shops and restaurants and, perhaps most mercifully, trains. But of course, you cannot simply cloister yourself away for three months—life goes on, and there are still plenty of enjoyable things to see and do!

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So, here is a non-exhaustive list of some things that helped me to struggle through my first Tokyo summer:

Mosquito Repellents

During my first summer here, I learned that I react very badly to mosquito bites (and seem to be a magnet for them). Mosquitoes are abundant from late spring to early autumn in all open areas, but particularly in places close to water, and tiger mosquitoes (the black and white ones) in particular have a very nasty bite.

To keep them at bay as best you can, you’ll want to pick-up some repellent spray. Your local drugstore or hundred yen shop will also have a variety of anti-mosquito products, from scented blocks to hang in your closet to bracelets you can wear and incense coils you can burn. Stock up and don’t take any chances!

Powder Sheets

Available in any conbini or 100 yen shop, these are basically wet tissues imbued with a deodorant powder. It’s pretty much impossible not to sweat in the height of summer, so these are good for freshening up throughout the day until you can get home and have a cool shower.

Dehumidifying Tubs

These plastic tubs are partly filled with absorbent substances that will help to draw some of the moisture out of the air. Mold is a big problem in the summer, with shoe cabinets and closets being the biggest breeding grounds. Put a couple of these in any enclosed spaces in your apartment, change them once they become full of water, and save yourself the upset of having to throw away possessions that have grown a disgusting layer of gray fur come autumn.

Sekai no Kitchen Salt and Fruit

Hydration is also extremely important—carrying a bottle of water or isotonic drink at all times is a very good idea. My personal favoritee is the popular Salt and Fruit drink from Sekai no Kitchen—this pleasant lychee-flavored soft drink contains salt (though doesn’t taste noticeably salty), which will help to replace that which your body loses through sweating.

Folding Fan

It’s amazing what a light breeze on the face or back of the neck can do on a hot and sticky day—you’ll see many people fanning themselves while commuting or just wandering around the city. Beautiful in its simplicity, a folding fan (or its non-folding, rounded counterpart, the uchiwa) can be obtained easily and cheaply from any 100 yen shop—be sure to pop one in your bag for when you’re out and about.

In addition to these, there are untold other products, both useful and gimmicky, to be found in the seasonal aisles at this time of year: cooling sprays, UV-protective parasols, gloves and sleeves to keep the sun off your skin, cooling bedsheets and slippers, pillows filled with refrigerant… Throwing together a “summer survival kit” is pretty easy and affordable, and will help you to feel considerably more comfortable.

Despite the itchy, sticky, sweatiness of the summer months, there are still many things to be enjoyed should you find yourself in Japan at this time of the year—it is the height of festival season, and there are also many impressive fireworks displays; join the yukata-clad throngs to enjoy some good food and merriment. It’s also the perfect time of the year to head to the beach or enjoy that refreshing kakigori.

Come January, when you’re making that teeth-chatteringly chilly dash from your bed to the shower across your frigid apartment, you’ll miss these sunny days—I guarantee it.

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British girl living in Tokyo, Japan.
  • soccerteesandplaydoh says:

    Nice memories! I would love to add the wonderous beverage that is mugicha! Also squid and corn grilled with soy sauce, somen noodles, and the lovely scent of mosquito coils.

  • Becky says:

    Sounds just like the American south. Come to South Georgia, we have cicadas too!

  • frank says:

    Cry me a river. Everywhere I hear about the terrible Japanese summers, and I know why, it’s because so many foreigners here are from the UK and have never lived anywhere else. It’s basically 2 months of hot, humid weather, that’s nothing. Try living in Taiwan, HK, southern China, SE Asia, etc. Winter in Japan is terrible; it’s cold, dry, windy, no insulation, and since most people use public transport you’re exposed to it constantly. I’ll take the “oppressive” heat 12 months a year, thank you.

    • Modern Luddite says:

      Cry a river right back. Winter in Japan is not terrible when you have previously lived in Edmonton Alberta. Try living there for 3 years with temps to -45C in winter and you won’t cry about the “tough” J winters.

    • xxteashixx says:

      No need to be so snarky. I’m from Australia and still find Japanese summers tough to deal with due to the humidity. I have never been a fan of summer regardless of where I am so theres no getting used to Japan’s summer for me.

      No matter where you are from, you will always need to acclimatise when going to a new country so this article is useful for new expats to help them prepare.

    • Stewart Dorward says:

      1) Most English speakers in Japan are from the USA and that is excluding the huge numbers working on the bases. 2) Winters here are lovely – bright sunny warm and have none of the piercing damp on Northern Europe. 3) SE Asia is cooler than Japan in the height of summer. Having said that, summer here is WONDERFUL.

      • frank says:

        The reason I mention British people is because they seem to be the ones always complaining about the summer, a la the writer of this column.Winters are warm here? If youre from N Europe, yes maybe so, but for many Americans, Aussies, and even Brits its cold. The height of summer is about what, one month? I lived in Shanghai and it was hotter longer than central Japan. It may be humid as hell but there does seem to always be a nice breeze, assuming youre not in the concrete jungle of Tokyo.

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