Tag Archives: matsuri

How to Survive the Japanese Summer

The Japanese are particularly proud of their four seasons. Blissfully unaware that many a nation also enjoys four varieties of weather, they nonetheless do have a great deal to be pleased with when it comes to the climate.

On one end of the scale I’ve been fortunate enough to live in Nagano Prefecture in freezing cold December when though my toes were either freezing off or close to melting under my kotatsu, I was able to enjoy the beauty of an endless range of snow capped mountains in every direction I cared to look.

Similarly my luck in landing just at the top of the Izu Peninsula, in sight of Mt. Fuji, a short train ride from the beautiful coastline and wonderful sunshine through most of the year is something… I’m not currently enjoying all that much.

You see there’s one problem with being an Englishman in Japan. We are by our very nature, atsugari or sensitive to the heat.

Now we’ve been having beautiful thirty one degree days around here of late, which would be fine if it weren’t for the horribly, stifling humidity. The sad reality of this is that I am too hairy, too painfully, awkwardly, sweatily British for such climes. I feel my brow gush salty water down my face from the second I step out the door in the morning and doubly so when I finally enter a beautifully air conditioned building for work.

It ought to be a relief yet the reality is that such a sharp change in temperature, while initially refreshing merely leads all the humidity you’ve somehow gathered up and dragged with your heavy-laden legs through the door to condense in seconds thus drowning you from within your own clothes.

So how do the Japanese survive this?

Well there’s cool biz which is essentially the sale of clothes that happen to cope far better with humidity and heat and the absence of long sleeves and ties for men.

There’s the air conditioners turned up to full blast despite last year’s and this year’s efforts at power saving or setsuden.

I personally make use of a frozen pillow while others opt for a strip of cool, blue fabric stuck to the back of their neck or to their forehead.

However, if you really want to understand how the Japanese get through such muggy, draining heat waves you’ve just got to look at how people spend their evenings in the summer months.

Summer festivals, fireworks, cold beer, BBQ meat on a stick and shaved ice in a cup topped with bright, fruity, sugary, sauce aka kakigori.

Much like I couldn’t make it through the misery of England’s winter months without Christmas and New year’s to brighten my horizon I couldn’t imagine getting through a long summer here in Shizuoka without the relief these festivals bring.

There really is nothing like seeing a previously sleepy town erupt into life as every family from miles around comes to eat, drink, carry Mikoshi (portable shrine), bash away at the Taiko drums and dance in the street.

So if like me you’re melting in this summer heat, do yourself a favour, slip into a yukata don some geta and crack open a cold one while gazing at a sky filled with more fireworks than Guy Fawkes has ever seen.

And be thankful, that while Christmas comes but once a year, matsuri (summer festivals) are every weekend.

Harry Potter and the Matsukawa Matsuri

Japan in the summer is hot, it’s humid and frankly downright unpleasant at times. In addition, we’re currently experiencing the last vestiges of the rainy season or ‘tsuyu’, which means that I am never without an umbrella.The Japanese summer does have however, one major redeeming feature. It’s festival time.

What does this mean? Well the usually quiet streets of every village or town will be full to the brim with people of all ages. Little kids clad in kimonos strike a traditional tone somewhat tempered by the Pikachu mask while grown men sway and bounce as they carry large wooden floats down the street powered only by sheer force of will and a plentiful supply of sake.

Then there’s the street food. The takoyaki (octopus dumplings), the yakisoba (fried soba), barbecued ika (squid), barbecued everything on a stick, and most necessary in such weather, all manner of kakigori (flavoured ice) to lessen the suffering of my scolded tongue; the takoyaki was particularly hot. My friend believes that the takoyaki is in fact super heated to drive sales of the kakigori and beer.

Considering how quiet these little Japanese towns can be it is absolutely wonderful to see them packed to the brim. Local dance groups perform for the crowd, hanabi (fireworks, though the literal translation is fire flower) burst in the clear night sky, shimmering against the black night. All the while the booze flows quite freely. In fact, if the guys carrying the floats down the street aren’t very hammered indeed, well you’re simply in the wrong kind of town because the festival season is the time of year when the otherwise polite and restrained Japanese let their hair down.

Towards the end of the festivities a friend of mine, another English teacher, bumped into a former student of his. Standing on the side of the road and being quite the talkative bunch, particularly after a few beers, we ended up talking not only to his former student but to many a passerby. In particular the five of us gaijin English teachers there that night, met a very nice Malaysian family. Having revealed our various nationalities (Serbian, American, Canadian and English) the parents began trying to remember what English person I could possibly remind them of. With floppy brown hair, dark brown eyes and a fairly quintessential English accent, I’m used to being compared to pretty much anyone out of a Richard Curtis movie. However, I’d made a fatal mistake. I was wearing my glasses. I give a warning now to any Englishmen of the bespectacled variety that ventures onto foreign shores, there is only one man, nay boy, you will be compared to should you meet anybody under thirty or with children. You may think the individual in question, who you have no doubt guessed the identity of by now (mostly by dint of the title) is a wonderful chap, and in real life he may perhaps be just that, but in literary form he is a multi-million pound boy wizard who has never captured my cynical imagination.

So having raised giggles from all around with my resemblance to Harry sodding Potter, I thought it couldn’t get any worse. Then someone said, ‘cast a spell! You know, for the kids.’

Lets get something straight. This was in no way, for the kids, the kids were simply bemused by the random collection of foreigners. This, this was for the parents and my friends.

My cynicism however, only goes so far. Handed the inflatable toy sword of one of the kids I sheepishly proceeded to cast a spell above his head.

Ah well, if all I have to do to enjoy festival season in Japan is occasionally impersonate a fictional wizard I’ll do it.

I won’t be wearing my glasses to another festival mind you.