Aug 6, 2017

Reasons why summer in Japan is such a challenge (and how to make it easier)

It's been great reading the posts by others on here about things to do during summer in Japan or tips about how to deal with the heat. What I thought I might do here is explain what it is about summer in Japan that might draw out so much (fine) advice about how I cope with it. This is all personal to me, although I dare say some of it is shared by plenty of others living in Japan.

Reasons why summer in Japan is such a challenge (and how to make it easier) photo

(Image: iMorpheus Flickr)

The first time the idea of summer in Japan entered my conscious was back in 2002 and the FIFA World Cup jointly hosted by Japan and South Korea which I watched on TV from the comparative comfort of an English summer. A lot of fuss was made by the sports media back home about how England's players would get on in the heat of Japan. Pretty well as it turned out and watching the action unfold on TV gave away no sense of just how hot and sticky things were. Still, if England can get to the quarterfinals and give eventual winners Brazil a decent run for their money, the heat and humidity can't have been all that, can it? As it is though, with Japan's summer in mind, the 2002 World Cup was played out over June, which is still pretty sticky to be fair. England played their games in Saitama, Sapporo (inside the dome presumably with air con), Osaka, Niigata, and Shizuoka.

I think the main point to draw from this is that from a distance it's almost impossible to appreciate just how hot and humid parts of Japan can get in the summer. I think this is exacerbated by the fact that Japan just doesn't look like a hot country, outside of Okinawa and perhaps some parts of Kyushu. I mean, how many times have you seen Japan on TV cloaked in an industrial grey sky?

Maybe a better way then to convey a sense of summer over here is to describe the effect is has on life, the body, and the daily routine in Japan - at least from the perspective of this foreigner in Japan. To this end I present the reasons, for me, why summer in Japan in such a challenge.

(I should add at this point that I live in Chiba close to Tokyo Bay. Not the hottest place in Japan - that generally goes to Kumagaya in Saitama).

1) Sweat - let's get the unpleasantries out of the way. I'm not talking about the kind that drips and looks embarrassing out in public I'm talking about the sticky kind that makes the armpits, nether regions and skin around the joints sore, even when you're padding about the apartment in nothing but your underwear. Pain from chafing aside, what annoys me the most about this is just how dry the Japanese partner manages to stay. (Sorry if this is getting too intimate.) I just can't understand it, and nor can she.

The best I've been able to do to combat this is cold showers and baby powder. If I take even a lukewarm shower in summer, the chances of getting dry afterwards are almost zero. At least with a cold one I can enjoy a good 30 mins of comfort. The baby powder, unglamorous as it may be, is an absolute summer essential.

A note on the baby powder - in Japan it usually comes in tubs like a skin cream might. This makes the application an extremely messy business. Somehow, somewhere I did manage to find some baby powder that came in one of those containers with the tops that allow for a sprinkle effect applications (like dry icing sugar). If you find one too, keep hold of it, as they are rare.

2) Tired everyday - To be honest, after passing 30 years of age I've found that the days when you wake up not already feeling knackered become fewer and fewer. This then doesn't bode well for summer in Japan, a time when even sitting still feels like hard work. And then there's actual work. Still, at least this is usually in an air con office (my heart goes out to those who have to work outdoors during the summer - heroes, all of you). Since the earthquake in 2011 though, office air con temperatures just don't quite cut it. Don't get me wrong, I understand the reasoning but it doesn't change the fact that productivity suffers - at least in my case. It's not a conscious slowing down to adjust to the climate, it's the fact that the body just won't let me do all the things I want / need to do.

The only way I've found to deal with this it simply by accepting it. Summer in Japan is hot and sweaty and the more you resent it, the more irritable you will be, and the harder it is to deal with. Go with the flow, and let your body dictate the pace of things.

On a side note, here's how stupid I am (or thrifty) - I used to endure working life during summer wearing the same work shirts I would during winter, only with the sleeves rolled up. I also used to wear a plain t-shirt underneath so as to soak up any potentially unsightly sweat. This year (yes, only until this year) I cracked and bought some polo shirts from Uniqlo (about 1,200 yen a piece). Emphatically worth it.

Reasons why summer in Japan is such a challenge (and how to make it easier) photo

(Image: Dom Pates Flickr)

3) Japan is crap at summer - This relates to the previous point. Japan really isn't geared up for it. Yes it's got all the air con, the kakigori, the romantic festivals, and even the "cool biz" buttons are undone, but the pace of life really does not adjust, at least not in Tokyo where I work. It's the same mad rush of bodies every morning, the same long hours. There's no siesta, no sign of a, "F**k it, let's hit the beach!" sentiment, not even a, "You know what, let's call it an early finish today." from the boss.

Not so much a solution as an explanation - maybe the office is actually the best place to be during summer in Japan. An air-con buffet all on someone else's money.

4) I hate using air con at home - I know, it seems rich to moan about stifling temperatures and then declare a hatred of air con. And it's not even an 'eco' thing. There's just something inherently unnatural about using air con at home (I come from a country where it is completely redundant) to the point that it feels unhealthy. I think the thing I dislike about it the most is that I know at some point I'm going to have to switch it off (a money / health thing) and when that time comes, the way the heat starts to seep back in almost immediately, is like the onset of a creeping death.

I understand that my argument lacks any legs, especially when I often head to an Internet cafe to felch off their air con and get some tasks done.

Reasons why summer in Japan is such a challenge (and how to make it easier) photo

5) Cicadas terrify me - As if summer in Japan didn't involved enough physical plight, Japan has seen it fit to throw in some summer mental trauma, too. Cicadas (セミ / 蝉 / semi). A bit like household air con, there are no cicadas where I come from. Actually, I quite like the sound they make, especially of an evening when they are largely settled in for the night. It's a sound that almost makes me feel I'm in the tropics. The size and the movement are the problems. As bugs go, these things are pretty huge (especially for an area so lacking in any other wildlife) and it's this combined with a lack of ability on their part to control where they fly that is the problem. Wasps and bees show much more savvy and control, largely doing their best to avoid humans. Cicadas, even though they don't sting, terrify with complete unpredictability. If I see one on the street I have to give it the widest birth that I can. The worst is when they land on the balcony. Every time I go out there in summer, I do so tentatively and not without scanning the situation for their presence. Sometimes you think they're dead, only for the buggers to suddenly spring to life as you attempt to clear them up.

My solution to cicadas on the balcony is simply to get the Japanese partner to deal with them. They are absolutely fearless when it comes to the things. Meanwhile I cower in terror behind the safety of screen doors as they attempt to rid the scene of a crackling bug in the last random throws of its life.

Maybe I should one day confront my fear of cicadas. Maybe next year!

6) A gaping lack of appetite - I'm more of a grazer anyway and the staple meals of the day often carry limited appeal no matter the season. During summer in Japan, eating well presents a challenge as the appetite for these things is all but absent. I think it's lunch at work that carries the least appeal. I usually bring my own bento - a tub of rice topped with spare bits from last night's dinner. It's the rice, I think, that is the hardest to get down.

The solution - Not much to be done really. One has to eat, and a good supply of energy is vitally important during the draining summers in Japan. For breakfast the regular granola makes way for the much more easily digested yoghurt and banana. I drink protein shakes from time to time, usually after I've been surfing, so I probably increase these during summer, typically as part of a breakfast.

I should end by saying that, while summer in Japan can be tough, there are plenty of things that make it special, too. Maybe I'll write a post about that, but for now I've pretty much spent all of my limited summer energy on this post.

What's the hardest aspect of summer in Japan for you?



Traveler, surfer, and scribe. Based in Tokyo for six years.


  • genkidesu

    on Aug 6

    The humidity kills me every year. I had always lived in dry heat environments beforehand...I just don't do humidity well! It feels like being in a bathroom after a hot shower, while someone is simultaneously holding a hair dryer at you. Yuck! I've got two young kiddos as well - a 2 and a half year old and a 4 month old. It's exhausting at the best of times but summer zaps me even more. Worst part of all is that my 2 and a half year old always wants to go to the park (which is my idea of torture at this time of year) but staying inside too often makes me feel like I'm under house arrest! Ready for autumn, that's for sure!

  • helloalissa

    on Aug 6

    Haha, yeah semi definitely lack control of where they're going... they love to fly into the building where I live for some reason. What gets me is when I walk past a tree where one is lurking and scare it I guess. They make a startling scream when I least expect it. And if the sun doesn't already wake me up too early, the semi will do the trick. This year I'm more irritable than usual because of lack of sleep.

  • Tomuu

    on Aug 7

    @genkidesu Definitely - bring on the autumn. I wonder if I stay here long enough will I get used to the summer? I've been here a while and it surprises me every year.

  • Tomuu

    on Aug 7

    @helloalissa It's a shame but living close to trees can be noisy in summer! And terrifying!

  • Namakemono

    on Aug 9

    My favorite is #3, summer is indeed time to chill out. We gotta teach them how to bum a little. B-)

  • Tomuu

    on Sep 7

    @Namakemono Glad you like number 3. In a way, I think this is the most important. Summer is fine really, it's just that the lifestyle over here doesn't adjust enough to take it into account. As you say, people need to "bum a little".