Many sites that talk about how to “beat the heat” in Japan give advice such as, “Go swimming!” “Go to the mountains!” “Eat shaved ice!” Well, those are all great things to do to beat the heat, but they just aren’t feasible as consistent tactics that can be applied to everyday life. Here is a list of the things I have learned about surviving through the heat in Japan, especially after having lived 10 years in a house with no air conditioning. (It also had no direct sunlight, which is why it was possible to survive with no air conditioning!) All of these are things I only began doing consistently sometime between five to eight years ago.
Everyday Tips for Surviving the Brutal Heat in Japan: A guide for expats and visitors, with a view to the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics
A bit of background to start: The typical American way of thinking in the summer is that the less your body is covered, the cooler you will be. Many, many Americans, especially women, walk around in tank tops and short shorts, and without a hat.
In reality, though, the opposite is true. If this seems incredulous, I challenge you to try it. Having your skin exposed to the sun drains a lot of energy out of you (especially for fairer-skinned people). Keeping the sun off of you as much as possible actually keeps you cooler than the “less covering” system. Especially when the intensity of the sun’s rays seems to be getting stronger and stronger as the years go by.
I remember when I visited Turkey as a university student. I was SO hot that I was at my wit’s end, and the Japanese woman I was with said sometimes covering your head helps. She had a hat; of course I didn’t. However, on that trip, I always had a large piece of fabric (fashion scarf) wrapped around my waist in case we suddenly decided to visit any mosques, so I put the scarf on my head.
Oh, my goodness! What a difference that made. I have built on that experience as I live here in Japan. Which leads me to my first three points:
Cover Your Head
Even caps are better than nothing, but wide-brimmed hats, ones that will keep the sun off your ears and the back of your neck, do a fabulous job of making you feel cooler.
Carry Your Own Shade
I would scoff at and scorn the ladies walking around with parasols when I first got here. I thought it was the most old-fashioned, funniest looking thing ever. All I can say is, don’t mock it until you’ve tried it! Even if you have to carry it yourself, having a little bit of shade covering you can make all the difference in the world.
Maybe we need a different word for “parasol” in English. It just sounds so classical and prim and proper and therefore, nowadays, less dignified. In Japanese, the word higasa translates to “sun-umbrella.” The root of the word “parasol” is legitimate enough — “defense against the sun.” I don’t know about you, but for an American in the 21st century, just the thought of using a thing that sounds so old-fashioned is a turn-off. But it really should get more use!! Maybe we just need to come up with a different name for it…?!
Cover Your Skin!
The tank-top-and-short-shorts concept is totally overrated. Do not be fooled.
When my family visited Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, all of the employees and volunteers, who dress in the clothes of the Colonial era, had long sleeves (at least down past their elbows) and long skirts or pants. When asked if they were hot, the women answered, “Actually, since it’s 100% cotton, all-natural material, and since it keeps the sun off of your skin, it’s really not as hot as it looks. It’s actually quite cool.” To which I thought, “Yes!”
I’ve been wearing long-sleeved lightweight jackets all the time when I go outside in Japan for the past several years, and it really, really makes a difference! Simply keeping the sun off your skin makes you feel so much cooler. 100% cotton, 100% polyester, 50/50 rayon/polyester blends — there are any number of long-sleeve lightweight shirts or jackets available, and some of them have UV protection worked into the fabric. Wearing long sleeves and even lightweight, long pants has the additional advantage of helping to keep the mosquitoes off of you!
Tank tops as a way of keeping cool are highly overrated. Lightweight, long sleeves are the way to go in Japan!
Wear an Undershirt
I don’t know about your family, but the females in my family in the U.S. never had the custom of wearing undershirts. I know they sell girls’ undershirts in the stores, so somebody must buy them, but we never did. For the first several years of living in Japan, I never put them on my girls, either. Then somebody told me that the Japanese wear undershirts to absorb the sweat, and it really does make life more comfortable. My daughters’ friends started asking them why they never wore undershirts, so they began wearing them, but I still didn’t. When the girls got closer to my size, though, I tried wearing their undershirts just to see what the big deal was, and, wow!
I think to many Americans it seems like an extra layer of clothes means extra hot, but that’s really not the case. They do absorb the sweat, and there’s an extra bonus for women in extremely humid Japan — you can also tuck your undershirt under the sweaty band of your bra to keep that directly off your sticky skin, and that makes a huge difference, too.
Anti-Itch at the First Itch!
I had problems with heat rash when I was a young girl living in the southern part of the U.S. Things were fine for a while living in Minnesota (You betcha!), but coming to Japan brought the heat rash all back again. Showering (even without soap, just to wash off the sweat) multiple times a day helps, of course, but there are times when that is not possible. As soon as the insides of my elbows, backs of my knees, and any other number of places begin to itch from heat rash, I put the same liquid on it that is used for mosquito bites. It clears the heat rash up quite soon — it really is amazing. Two words of caution, though: Be prepared to holler if you put it on after you’ve scratched the affected area. And don’t put it all over your entire body at the same time or you will get the chills. (Voice of experience. Not pleasant.)
These are the two that we use at our house all the time:
As for mosquito bites — if you put this stuff on the bites right away after you get bitten, the bites won’t become itchy again afterwards.
As someone who doesn’t like putting anything on my face (foundation, make-up, etc.), I will admit that I am not as good at this one as I should be. I do put it on when I will be outside for a long time, and I carry it with me all the time in the summer, just in case I need it. I know I should be more diligent about it on a daily basis, but I just really, really don’t like putting things on my face. However, I do notice that I’m a lot less exhausted when I put on sunscreen and don’t get (even slightly) sunburned after being outside. Having your skin absorb the sun’s rays really does drain you of energy.
Eat What’s in Season
There is a reason water-rich fruits and vegetables are plentiful in the summer. Foods that are in season in Japan are there to give your body the nourishment it needs during the hot summer. Cucumbers and tomatoes are my all-time favorites. If you body is feeling drained, sprinkle some salt on a cucumber and just eat the whole thing down. (Japanese cucumbers are only about 3-4 cm in diameter, so this is possible!) Your body will thank you.
Vinegar-based pickled dishes and drinks are also great in the summer! Our current favorite is 60 ml of apple cider vinegar, 40 ml of honey, then add water to make 1 liter of drink.
Always Carry a Towel
Every time you leave the house, be sure you bring something with which you can wipe off the sweat. It makes a big difference just being able to get the sweat off your face or skin. If you use the lightweight, pliable Japanese “face-towel” sized towels , you can also wrap them around your forehead to keep the sweat from dripping into your eyes if you are desperate.
Rest When You Can
There is a reason many cultures have a siesta. If it’s so hot outside that your body can’t really function, why fight it? If nature is telling your body to rest, maybe you need to rest. Especially at the hottest time of the day. Sometimes just sleeping through the heat is the best thing you can do for your body. Get your things done early in the morning (I cannot emphasize this enough. All of the farmers I know try to get as much done as they can between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m., before it gets super hot outside.) or later in the evening, after it cools down a bit.
Invest in Fans: Electric
Invest in Fans: Hand-held (traditional oriental fans)
Just having the air moving around you can make such a difference. Simple medium-sized stand fans can be found on sale at electric stores for about 2,000 yen each, and they hold up well. We have eight of them in various rooms around our house and it’s still not enough. But we move them around, play musical fans, and somehow manage to get through the summer.
Hand-held fans (traditional oriental fans) are also a must-have. You never know when you will need one, so carry one with you in your bag at all times. They are easily procured at a 100-yen store. I can go for days without using one, but then will suddenly need it, and I’m always really glad it’s right in my backpack.
Get Your Hair off Your Neck
I actually don’t like getting my hair cut all that often anyway, but I never cut my hair right before summer. If I cut it shorter at all, it will be between October and February. I want it long enough in the summer that I can twist it up into a bun or pin it up at the top of my head so my hair is completely off of my neck. This is the only hairstyle for me in the summer in Japan.
Drink Lots of Water
I have never been a big water drinker. In fact, until several years ago I didn’t like to drink much of anything at all. A few years ago, though, I began to realize that having water with me when I went outside in Japan in the summer made a big difference. If I had it when I wanted it, I could drink it exactly when I wanted it (not after I found a vending machine or a convenience store), and that was great! Eventually I started noticing that keeping myself hydrated gave me a lot more stamina to get through the day. You know, like all the advice you read that tells you you should drink more water?! It’s TRUE! Even though I was never much for drinking many liquids before, after I started drinking some water, I found that drinking it made me want even more water. Keeping hydrated has not only given me more energy, I now find that when I am feeling stressed out, I want a drink of water. It’s become an essential part of my mental stability nowadays, too. I highly recommend it!
As the old adage goes, “This, too, will pass.” The Japanese word “gaman” is sometimes just something you have to keep in mind to get through the summer. It will pass. Then, if you live in Japan, you will be greeted with the charming Manjushage (my favorite flower here!), and then the amazing fall-colored leaves, and, after that, houses that are way too cold inside even though the temperature outside is laughably warm for someone who’s used to Minnesota.
Yes, if you just grin and bear it, laugh it off, and stick it out for a little while, this heat and humidity, too, will pass. Or, if you’re just visiting, you will soon be able to head home (which, statistically speaking, is most likely cooler or at least less humid than Japan!).
Please note: This “gaman” does not mean to stick it out without doing what you can (fans, air conditioning, creating shade, staying hydrated, etc.) to keep as cool as possible. Trying to stick it out in a hot room just to see how long you can hold out is nothing short of foolish. Please don’t try that. What this gaman means is, after you’ve done these everyday strategies to keep things as bearable as possible, it is still somewhat miserable. So — just grin and bear it with the thought that it will be over someday!
And even though it’s hot, and even though it’s super sticky, for me, it’s all worth it to be here in this country I love so much!
Drink Lots of Water
Oh, wait, did I already mention that?! Just do it!! It makes that much of a difference!