So, I’m getting ready to take a trip to the US in… about twelve hours now. And I haven’t finished packing. But that’s not really the point. The point is, I am SUPER excited to be going. I’m going to be in a house with OTHER ADULTS (OK, yes, I have a husband, but he’s generally worthless) who will contribute equal parts to the cooking/cleaning/laundry side of things, and maybe even make sure my kids don’t decapitate themselves for fifteen minutes while I have a glass of wine. I am getting to meet my newest nephew, my friend’s son, and my CP(!!!) for the first time in person. This is going to be FUN.
But it’s also going to be sad, because it means that for the first time in over a decade, I’m going to pretty much miss out on summer in Japan.
I’m also writing a book about a long, angsty Japanese summer. That’s not enough of a spoiler that someone can steal my idea, right? 😛 So I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes Japanese summers so awesome, despite the sweltering heat and the crowds of junior high school students everywhere (no offense, junior high school students… you’re awesome, I’m just old). A lot of these things will probably never make it into any of my books… but I still want to share them with you guys, so here goes!
Soft serve ice cream and shaved ice
Okay, so these are not really uniquely Japanese things. And they’re not even really limited to summer… there is an amazing shop near my in-laws’ house that sells black sesame flavored soft serve all year round. But summer’s obviously the biggest season for these kind of things, and if you’re at all familiar with Japanese Kit-Kats, you know that we do NOT limit ourselves to the plain old chocolate and vanilla over here.
There’s wasabi-flavored soft serve (which I haven’t actually had, sorry!). Sweet potato and lavender (which are amazing). Spinach, all kinds of fruits, and more predictable things like green tea. Basically, wherever you go in Japan, there will be some kind of local specialty presented in soft-serve form.
Shaved ice is a bit more conservative, flavor-wise, but the ice itself is much more finely shaven and “soft” than shaved ice in the US. Strawberry, melon (honeydew?), and Blue Hawaii are the go-to flavors, and things like lemon, orange, and grape are fairly common. There’s actually green tea shaved ice too, usually with azuki (sweet beans) and a condensed-milk topping. Yum!
(I should add that I am also going to miss the flavor variety of Japanese alcohol… as I nurse what may very well be my last Sour Cherry Chu-Hi of the summer. By the time we get back in mid-August, the fall flavors will already be on sale.)
OK, the translation here is a little confusing, because a “beach house” in American English tends to mean a rental property or, for the one percent, a second home on the beach, that happens to be house- instead of condo- or hotel-shaped. 😉 But in Japan it’s something different. A beach house is like a surf shop, except more geared toward families or groups of students or travelers than actual surfers.
A lot of people in Japan, especially from the big cities, don’t have cars. It’s not at all uncommon to find older people who have never driven a vehicle in their lives. The popularity of “umi no ie” is possibly due at least partially to the fact that a lot of people arrive at the beach via public transportation… but if you have little kids, like I do, it’s also just nice to have a home base to come back to.
So, basically, you pay a set fee (usually around 1500 yen, or $18 or so by today’s exchange rate), and that gets you a locker key and use of the showers as many times as you like throughout the day. The beach houses also offer rental floats, food, drinks, and other items for sale and rent. They tend to be expensive, but if you don’t have a car or just have a bunch of little ones running around and making it hard to sneak out to the convenience store, it’s a nice way to spend a stress-free day at the beach!
The firework displays here are truly amazing, and aren’t just limited to one or two days a year. Of course, you can go to Disneyland to see fireworks any day of the year, but a lot of local governments put on firework displays in the summer.
I’m honestly not a HUGE fan of most of the local ones… like a lot of things in Japan (I need to make a “pet peeves about Japan” post for the future), there’s really not a lot of thought given to making sure there is enough space for everyone to enjoy the festivities comfortably. They tend to be very crowded, and you’ve got people walking around with open food and beer in crowds where you pretty much can’t do anything without touching the person next to you. The last time I went to one in the heart of Tokyo, I saw a woman hold her child (who was maybe one year old?) over her head, scream the Japanese equivalent of “MY BABY CAN’T SEE!,” and push her way to the front of the crowd. It’s kind of a meh experience.
BUT. BUT BUT BUT. The fireworks themselves are really amazing, and if you can find a way to get around the crowds (or if you’ve got the kind of personality that allows you to deal with crowds), they’re immensely enjoyable. I have to admit that when we bought this house, we totally factored in the distance from the local amusement park. From my sons’ room, we get a nice view of the fireworks display every Saturday and Sunday in August! There’s also a supermarket nearby with parking on the roof. I see lots of people go up there and watch the fireworks from there.
Alternately, it’s completely legal to buy fireworks and do them yourself here, and if you manage to find a park that allows it, you can have your own little private display. Even the sparklers are kind of legendary.
OK, so Japanese pools are KIND OF a pain in the you-know-what. They’re only open as long as school is out… which, since Japan follows a year-round schedule (which is mostly REALLY NICE… I have no idea how parents cope with a three-month sumer break), means about 5-6 weeks, the last week of July and all of August. But it’s HOT from the end of March to about the middle of September!
The pools are also… you guessed it! REALLY CROWDED! In the city where I grew up in the US, there were multiple city pools, as well as private pools you could join only for the summer, and of course the fitness clubs and country clubs, etc. Here, in a city with about the same population, we have ONE city pool and a handful of fitness clubs. So one outdoor pool. Two if you count the one inside the amusement park, which costs about 2000 yen ($23-ish?) per person per day.
But the upside is, the pools are really cool. Temperature-wise, sure, but I mainly mean awesome. Even our $4 for adults, $1.50 for 6-12 year olds local pool is really THREE seperate pools with six water slides, and there are all kinds of vendors selling food, drinks, ice cream, and floats. About an hour away, there’s a genuine water park, which is run by Kawagoe city, and therefore only about $12 per person. A wave pool, a lazy river, tube slides… all partially funded on the taxpayers’ dime.
There are bigger and more expensive parks, too, some of them indoors and open year round (except February, apparently, when my son’s birthday is… and his one wish was to go to a pool this year (we found one, it just took awhile and was two prefectures away)), but “pool” in Japan tends to mean at least “mini waterpark,” and that in and of itself is cool (as in awesome).
I’ve lived in Japan for fourteen years, and I’ve worn a kimono exactly once, at my own wedding. Okay, actually I wore three different kimonos and a Western-style wedding dress all in the course of one day… we can blame my mother in law for that. But anyway, kimonos are crazy expensive and next to impossible (ALLEGEDLY, I have never tried) to put on by yourself. Most people only wear them for weddings, funerals, coming-of-age day, things like that.
But yukata! Yukata are a much simpler, lighter, cooler version of the kimono for summer, and much more popular among the general population. (And no, Japanese people won’t be offended if white, black, Latina, Southeast Asian, or otherwise non-Japanese people wear them. Really. There’s no religious significance, and they’re pretty much a fun novelty for Japanese people too.) Sure, it’s a little bit of a pain to tie your own obi the first time… but you can learn a simple knot from the Internet in a couple of hours! Just be sure not to wait for the last minute to get dressed, at least your first time! 😉
While I personally like the challenge of tying my own obi, there are also pre-tied ones that you just fasten like a belt. It’s also a lot of fun shopping for geta (wooden sandals) and other fashion items like bags, earrings, and hair accesories in traditional prints and designs.
Men’s versions exist too. So if you’re in Japan during the summer months, I highly recommend buying an wearing a yukata at least once.
Obon, the festival of the dead
Japanese people always look at me a little strange when I say Halloween used to be like Obon. Halloween in Japan is pretty much symbolized by Mickey Mouse wearing a witch (wizard?) hat with a pumpkin on it. But Obon is the Japanese answer to the traditional pagan Halloween—a day for ancestors to return from the dead to spend time with their families.
Now, my husband’s family (and by extension ours) is sort of the Japanese Buddhist/Shinto version of a Christian family who maybe goes to church on Christmas every other year or so. We don’t really go all out for the religious aspect, but what we do is nice. If we do happen to be in my husband’s hometown for the holidays, we’ll visit his family grave and leave offerings for his grandfather and the other relatives who are interred there. The concept of offerings is really nice: we burn incense and leave flowers, as well as some typical offerings like fruit. But we also leave Ojiichan a can of his favorite beer and some snacks he used to enjoy. (Of course, we take them all home afterwards, because there are laws about just leaving beer cans and plastic wrapped rice crackers outside… but the symbolism is nice. It’s a good way to remember HIM specifically, by offering the things he liked in life, and to feel like he’s with us when we gather with the extended family later in the day.)
Having Obon in the summer and the New Year’s holidays in the winter is great, too… not a lot of presents involved, but as far as seeing extended family and eating delicious food, it’s kind of like having two Christmases every year!
So, this is kind of the confluence of all of the above. And I’m kind of going against my “avoid the crowds” statement above, but summer festivals in Japan are a lot of fun, and if you manage to avoid the big, tourist-y ones and find one in your local community, they’re… crowded, but not AS badly as they could be (you get semi-immune to this stuff after awhile, introverted or not), and when most of the people are from your neighborhood, they’re a great chance to hang out with friends and have fun.
In addition to traditional dancing and drum performances, summer festivals are a great place for FOOD! There’s definitely no need to eat dinner on a festival night. Just show up with enough cash for yakisoba, bananas dipped in chocolate, cotton candy, French fries in every flavor imaginable (curry! seaweed and salt! Japan really knocks it out of the park with the flavor variety again!), and games.
Local festivals are a great place to try traditional games, from a ring toss to “kingyou-sukui,” where you catch goldfish with a paper net that will break or dissolve if your technique isn’t up to par. If you manage to catch anything, you can take the goldfish home as pets!
Some festivals are quite extreme, but our local celebration is fairly small. A local ladies’ club usually does some traditional dancing, and kids are welcome to join in as well as they can. There’s usually a drawing for door prizes, too—my daughter won a 500 yen gift card from McDonald’s last year (OK, that’s not so traditional… but free McNuggets? She was thrilled!)
So… I’m going to miss my Japanese summer this year! But if you have the chance, you should brave the tropical heat and give it a try.
If you’ve read this far, congratulations! Have one of the songs I’ve been playing on repeat as I try to write this WIP. 🙂