Kiyomi is a former Canadian pharmacist who is now living in Japan, where she enjoys being immersed in her Japanese roots.
Summer in Japan: Tips for Visitors
If you are going to be visiting Japan sometime between late spring and early autumn, you will most likely encounter some unbearable humidity and heat. There’s nothing more disappointing when travelling than feeling drained or tired when all you want to do is see more of the city. If you’re not used to the high humidity and the hot summer temperatures in Japan, you might find yourself unable to do as much as you would like. Fortunately, these nine tips will help you enjoy your summer vacation a little more.
1. Buy a Sun Umbrella
While in your own country, you may feel silly using an umbrella on a perfectly sunny day; however, it is the norm in Japan. Many Japanese women do not want to get any sort of tan because paler skin is a sign of beauty. Using a sun umbrella (also called a UV umbrella) is a good way to protect the face from damaging rays. I, on the other hand always apply sunscreen on my face and am not afraid of a bit of a tan.
Even so, I will use a sun umbrella whenever I go out on a sunny day because even just the slightest shade makes me feel cooler and prevents the unwanted burning feeling of the sun's rays on the skin (I am also Canadian and am not used to this heat). You should be able to find foldable and feather-light umbrellas that tuck away easily in a bag. And don't forget, you can use it on rainy days too.
2. Wear Loose Clothing
You may be used to wearing fitted clothes in your country (e.g. bust-enhancing tops for women, skinny jeans or muscle shirts for men), but I would strongly advise against this when you come to Japan in the hot months. Keep in mind that it is not only hot here—it is also quite humid. You may sweat a little more than you’re used to and if you’re wearing tight clothing, they’ll just end up sticking to you more (good luck when you run to the toilet in your skinny jeans on an emergency run!). Instead, opt for light material and a loose fit. The air streaming through the seams will feel wonderful whenever there is a slight breeze.
If you don’t own anything like this, light and flowy is in fashion in Japan, so you can go on a little shopping spree once you get here. For men, there are even suits and shirts made to look chic but are actually made from a thin material designed to allow air to flow through and make summers cooler.
3. Bring Long Sleeves or Indoor Clothing
You might be thinking, if it’s so hot, why do I need to bring long sleeves? There are two reasons. For me, the main reason I carry around a shawl or a light cardigan is that after sweating and walking around outdoors, going indoors can feel like I’ve stepped into a freezer. Many shops in Japan seem to have their air conditioning on full blast during the summer months.
At first, it feels great, but soon you may find yourself shivering or wanting to go back out into the heat. Aside from being uncomfortable, it just doesn’t seem great for the immune system, putting stress on your body by going back and forth between the two temperature extremes. Having something to wear indoors will help make your meal, museum or shopping experience more pleasurable.
The second reason for wearing a shirt with sleeves (short or long) is to block the sun and sop up sweat. You may be surprised that even on the hottest of days you’ll see some Japanese people wearing long sleeves outdoors. You’ll also notice that people don’t tend to wear tank tops. I first thought that this was just something done as a courtesy to the modest Japanese ways, however, I no longer think this as I do see more young people with bare shoulders.
In my own experience, I have realized that covering my shoulders or wearing flowy sleeves can actually feel cooler during the summer. It not only prevents sun rays from directly piercing my skin (and ultimately leading to a sunburn), it also helps dissipate the sweat and if there’s a slight breeze it feels very refreshing. Popular clothing shops such as Uniqlo even sell long-sleeved UV tops specifically for summer (for both men and women).
4. Carry Around a Small Towel
If you’re going to be walking around outdoors, you’ll see why you need a towel after just 10 minutes of being in the sun. With the high humidity in Japan (it is a small country surrounded by water after all), you may find you sweat a lot easier. When I was living in Canada, my Japanese relatives and friends would always send over handkerchiefs and small towels as presents. I never really found a use for them in Canada, but in Japan, you can find them being sold anywhere from 100 yen shops to high-end department stores.
This is because they are an essential item. Aside from wiping away your sweat, there are still some older restrooms that don’t have a hand dryer or paper towel, so having your own towel comes in handy in these situations too.
5. Use a Fan
In Japan, when summer nears, you can find foldable (accordion style) fans with designs made for both men and women. I know they say that fanning yourself is unproductive because of the heat produced due to the actual fanning, however, I still find that using a fan at least dries up the sweat on my face and neck, and the breeze makes me feel cooler overall. Plus, if you buy your fan while you’re in Japan, it’ll make the perfect souvenir for yourself.
While the folding fans will probably never go out of style, in the summer of 2019, the battery-operated handheld fan became very trendy. Here they call it the “Handy Fan” and now you can’t go out without seeing someone holding one. They create quite a breeze and can provide some relief from the heat quicker than manually fanning yourself all while being portable and small enough to fit in a bag or purse.
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6. Get Help With Your Luggage
Talking about the production of heat from the movement of your body, what will definitely make you sweat more is lugging around your suitcase or backpack where ever you go. Fortunately, Japan has a great and reliable service for this. It’s called takuhaibin. With this service you can send your luggage from where you are one day, to the hotel you’ll be staying at next.
For a fee of around 2000 yen (differs by company, distance, luggage size, etc), you can have stress-free and light travel between cities. Arrange it yourself online or by phone, and have your luggage picked up or drop it off at a close-by convenience store participating in the service. If that seems too troublesome, I’m sure the hotel you’re staying at can help arrange this.
The takuhaibin service is very safe and oftentimes you can choose a two-hour time slot within which you will receive your luggage (the reception desk at the next hotel should be able to take care of receiving and storing your luggage until you arrive). Every major airport has counters offering this service so you can start taking advantage of it once you step foot in Japan. Here is a good explanation of the service and the different companies that offer it.
7. Look for the 氷 Sign
This is the kanji for the word ice. If you see a banner outside a shop or café with this kanji it means they serve kaki-gori. It’s definitely something you’ll crave on a hot day. While ice cream is thought to be a good way to cool the body, the creaminess just isn’t thirst-quenching on an extremely hot day.
Kaki-gori is a shaved ice dessert usually flavoured with a fruity syrup. Some people here have become so particular about their kaki-gori that they’ll go and search for the ones using ice from a certain region, or ice shavings made from whole frozen fruits. The shaved fluffier variety that instantly melts in the mouth tends to be more expensive than the crunchy crushed ice, similar to the snow cones or slushies in the West. There are also non-fruity flavours such as red bean and matcha, avocado cream, or chocolate coffee as examples.
If you’re craving something to just cool you down, you might not care about the texture or unique flavours, but if you’re a shaved ice fan, it might be interesting to try and search for shops selling the more extravagant type of kaki-gori (this shouldn’t be too hard to find since it is still a popular trend in Japan).
8. Eat Some Cold Noodles
It might not sound very appetizing when I say cold noodles, but there are many delicious types in Japan that are made to be eaten cold. They don’t get stiff or hard when cooled down (even with ice), and they aren’t prepared with fatty sauces or broths that become oily when chilled and leave an unpleasant, sticky texture in the mouth. Udon, somen (thin noodles almost always associated with eating chilled in the summer), and soba (buckwheat noodles) have traditionally been eaten cold in Japan because the broths are clear and need no change whether eaten hot or cold.
Hiyashi-chuka (cold Chinese-style noodles) have also been a popular summer dish for years. It’s called Chinese-style because of the egg noodles used. It is typically topped with julienned vegetables (usually cucumber and sprouts), thinly sliced omelette, ham and seasoned with a vinegar soy sauce, or a thicker sesame seed dressing. You should be able to find cold udon, somen, soba and hiyashi-chuka pretty easily, even in the convenience stores during summer.
Recently, ramen shops have been producing special ramen only offered in the hot months. They can’t however just serve their regular signature ramen chilled, since ramen often contains fatty slices of pork and the broths also contain pork or chicken fats that will conglomerate as it cools. The ramen shop owners must get creative and make a dish that can be still thought of as ramen but can be enjoyed even in the midst of summer when it can sometimes be difficult to keep up a robust appetite. Light soups and lean meats, or even cold cuts are often used in place of tonkotsu pork broths and fatty cha-siu. I once tried a tomato-based cold ramen that came with a bottle of soda water to pour over the sauce and noodles; the shops can get pretty innovative!
9. Head to the Mountains
Of course, you can take in the cool mountain air at the famous Mount Fuji, but something just as spectacular is the Japan Alps in Toyama prefecture. There is a route involving buses, gondolas, ropeways and streetcars starting at Kurobe Dam that take you through the snow-covered mountains with bright blue waters surrounding them. Take a look at this site for the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route.
If you’re somebody who can’t stand the heat or has never experienced the same type of humid heat as Japan, you’ll want to be prepared if you are visiting in the late spring, summer, or early autumn months. The last thing you want is to have a bout of heat stroke, or even just a headache from the heat while travelling. Take advantage of the season and try some interesting kaki-gori or chilled noodle dishes (even better if you find teuchi, or places that make their own noodles). Happy travelling, and stay cool!