Ah, summer in Tokyo. Crazy hot, insanely humid and so very sticky and wet. (Especially this week, thanks to Typhoon Mindulle.) To help beat the heat, I thought I’d have a bit of fun and highlight a few of my favorite – and not so favorite – aspects of summer here. We arrived in Japan one steamy and sweaty July day in 2014, so this list may not be as exhaustive as one compiled by someone with a longer history here, but I hope it will give my readers a refreshing taste of summer in Tokyo city.
A is for Asahi
Want to drink a beer in Tokyo? Your choice is often limited to an Asahi beer. The Asahi Super Dry is a light tasting lager that goes down easy and is a decent summer beer. I don’t love ’em. I don’t hate ’em. But on a hot day, I’m happy to drink ’em.
B is for Beaches
Whether we travel to Shimoda or Enoshima – some even brave the Tokyo Bay beach at Odaiba – summer provides a great excuse to escape the crowds in the city for the crowds on the shore. The chance to frolic in ocean waves still thrills me, given that the largest body of water I grew up near was Lake Erie.
C is for Chu-hai
A “shochu highball” is my favorite Japanese summer drink. Shochu is an alcohol, similar to vodka, typically distilled from rice or potatoes. Chu-hai is shochu mixed with soda and fruit juice. It comes in cans in flavors like pineapple, lemon or grapefruit. It’s a little too sweet for some tastes but I think it’s refreshing, especially when sitting outside.
D is for Dancing
Summer festivals in Japan mean lots of dancing. Bon-Odori dances originated to help honor the dead during Obon, a Buddhist observance in August when ancestors are prayed for and honored. The tradition is something I love to observe – streets fill for parades with groups of the dancers, dressed in kimono, performing the simple, repetitive, movements while the music blares from speakers. Sometimes, it becomes a crowd activity, with dancers forming a large circle and everyone joining in.
E is for Escalators
Strictly speaking, I enjoy escalators all year round, but I’m especially happy to see an escalator instead of a flight of stairs when I’m already sweaty and tired from exploring Tokyo. It doesn’t hurt that the escalators here are often Godzilla-sized, stretching up and up and up and up to impossible heights. Sometimes, they’re even outdoors. (How is that possible? When it rains so much?)
F is for Fireworks
Summer means amazing displays of pyrotechnics in the sky over Tokyo at the culmination of another favorite “F” of mine: Festivals. Fireworks are a fantastic way to end the night and are way more frequent here than I expected before moving to Japan.
G is for Gloves
This one is for two kinds of gloves. It’s for the long, above-the-elbow kind donned by lovely young ladies and toddling old ones to keep the sun at bay. And…it’s about the white gloves that police, security officers and traffic officers here often wear. I’m especially fond of the ones worn by the workers guiding traffic around construction projects. They wield those gloves with such grace and panache, ushering you forward with a sweep of the hand and an elegant bow. I happened to snap this white-gloved officer while taking a picture inside the Edo-Tokyo Museum last week.
H is for Hachioji
Hachioji is a Tokyo city that throws one heck of an amazing matsuri festival every August. We sweat, sweat and sweat some more, but there are copious food booths, taiko drums and the best parade of floats and mikoshi (portable shrines) that glow beautifully after the sun sets.
I is for Ice Cream from 7-11
Have I mentioned how amazing the 7-11s are in Japan? They sell food you truly want to eat, including noodles, rice bowls, onigiri, fried chicken, donuts, salads, snacks, and, yes, ice cream. I checked my files for pictures, but apparently, I’m usually too busy eating the ice cream to snap pictures of it. I’m partial to anything matcha (green tea) flavored but Wil prefers to grab the vanilla soft serve in a cone that comes already packaged in the freezer.
J is for Jinbei
A jinbei is a matching short and shirt worn by children or men to festivals. (Or also as pajamas and house wear.) Liam’s school required him to wear one for his summer festival last year and the kid fell in love with it, wearing it out and about to other festivals. He was excited to finally get to wear his new one this year. Here he is wearing it at this year’s Hachioji festival with his friend Midori. (And hey! There’s a lady with the long gloves, a tan bonnet, sunglasses and a fan standing behind him, doing her best to ward off the sun.)
K is for Kakigori
Kakigori is shaved ice with sweet, flavored syrup poured over the top. It’s a hugely popular summer treat, especially at festivals and parks. Sometimes, the syrup bottles are all set out on a table and kids (and adults!) can pour their own. The one pictured below is from a restaurant specializing in kakigori in Inokashira Park in Kichijoji.
L is for Lanterns
Lanterns festoon the city streets during the summer. They’re perfect for setting a party mood: They bob and sway in the wind and glow enticingly when the sun sets low. We found a great festival in Ebisu, Tokyo, a few weeks ago thanks to the presence of lanterns. I spotted them draped around the square near the train station when we passed through early in the day. Sure enough, when we returned that evening, a festival was just getting started.
M is for Matsuri and Mikoshi
I’m cheating a little here. Matsuri is the Japanese word for festival. The festivals, as you’re probably gathering, are the sugar that makes summer sweet here. Mikoshi is the term for the portable shrines that get carried through the streets during some matsuri. Here’s one of my favorite pictures of a mikoshi, thanks to the presence of Wil, who was invited spontaneously to participate when we attended a festival as foreign guests last year at a samurai festival in Kanigawa. (And, yes, Wil is wearing a jinbei in this picture!)
N is for Nice Road Barriers
Summer means construction on roadways no matter where you live. In Japan, though, they do their best to make the process more pleasant. I’ve mentioned the white gloved traffic monitors but even the inanimate equipment is polite and/or cute. I’ve seen a lot of bowing characters on barriers, apologizing for the inconvenience. These pandas in Yokohama’s Chinatown aren’t bowing but they caught my eye as being particularly cute.
O is for Octopus Balls
The real name is takoyaki but many of us English-speakers refer to this tasty treat as ‘octopus balls.’ (Tako means octopus in Japanese.) Think of them as piping hot hush puppies with a bonus tentacle tucked inside. They’re usually cooked before your eyes in large molded pans at festival booths but they’re also available at stands at mall food courts. (We devoured these ones for lunch at our local Aeon Mall.)
P is for Parks and Playgrounds
Tokyo may be an urban jungle but its density is broken up frequently by parks and playgrounds. Two of our favorites are Inokashira Park in Kichjijoi, which has a massive pond and a small zoo, and Showa Kinen in Tachikawa, which features amazing only-in-Japan playgrounds, including the dragon area pictured below. A plethora of trees at both locations provides plenty of shade.
Q is for Quiet Shrines
There are local shrines located in neighborhoods throughout Tokyo. Some are very, very small, occupying maybe a lot or two on a corner, and others are more expansive. I love stepping away from a busy sidewalk into shrine grounds, which can be like entering a garden oasis. They can feature trees, small ponds, and the tinkle of water pouring from the purification fountain. The torii gates pictured below are from Hanazono Shrine in the heart of Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s most dense neighborhoods.
R is for Really Crowded Streets and Trains
Not one of my favorite aspects of summer here but it’s an unavoidable annoyance when living in Tokyo. Almost every outing is experienced with thousands of your new closest friends. Even on weekends, the trains can quickly transform into tightly packed sardine cans, with doors opening at each stop to welcome yet more people into aisles you swore were already crammed to capacity. Emerging onto the streets isn’t necessarily a reprieve. I’ve learned to walk shoulder to shoulder comfortably with strangers, but taking care to keep a firm grip on my little boy’s hand. A normal day here can feel much like the mid-December mall crowds I dreaded back in Ohio. The Ikebukuro scene below isn’t the worst I’ve seen, but usually I’m not whipping out my camera when we’re completely surrounded.
S is for Soba
I love a big, steaming bowl of ramen, but when I’m sweaty and hot, my noodle of choice is soba. Soba noodles are served cold, on a bamboo strainer, with a bowl of soy-based sauce on the side. You dip the noodles, which are made of buckwheat flour, in the sauce for each delicious bite. I thought the concept of cold noodles sounded gross when we first moved here, until I tried it. I’m now a proud convert. The picture below was the advertisement on the wall outside of a soba restaurant in Nakano, Tokyo, where I ate my birthday lunch with a couple of friends. The tempura vegetables and pickled veg it was served with were also delicious.
T is for Tanabata
One of my favorite summer festivals is Tanabata, which is a “star festival” that celebrates the time of year when two star lovers, Altair and Vega, are able to meet in the sky. Tanabata decorations are colorful and have long streamers that hang down over the streets where parades take place. Many also remind me of pinatas, with scenes and characters depicting local or pop culture motifs. Tanabata is also a time for wish making — celebrants can write their wishes for the year on small slips of paper and tie them to bamboo trees for the occasion. Our city of Fussa holds its tanabata festival in August.
U is for Umbrellas
These come in handy, of course, for the rainy season in June. If you forget to take one along for the day, cheap clear ones are purchasable for roughly 100 yen from 7-11 and other convenience stores. However, umbrellas also are popular on sunny days. I haven’t adopted the practice myself – I’d frankly feel silly – but many fair-skinned ladies carry their shade with them as they stroll through the city. The lady pictured below was keeping cool while visiting the neighborhood near Tsukiji fish market.
V is for Vending Machines
When we moved here, I’d lug water bottles in my backpack when we ventured out on hot days. I learned quickly that I don’t have to be a pack mule. There are vending machines every 50 feet here (I’m only slightly exaggerating) so obtaining inexpensive cold water is easy and convenient. As you can see from the picture below, the machines also sometimes stock beverages of the adult variety. (Including, of course, plenty of Asahi.)
W is for Wildlife
I don’t see much wildlife in Tokyo – I’m not counting cockroaches – so this item is a bit of a joke. We spotted this ferocious, stuffed, creature while shopping near the Tsukiji fish market. (I now notice the shrink-wrapped bear in the background. Creepy.) Shopping can indeed be a wild adventure here, especially when you can’t figure out what on earth a shop is selling.
X is for Extremely Tasty Fruit
Fruit is insanely expensive in Japan but at least it is also insanely delicious. Summer brings the delights of juicy peaches and watermelons, sweet blueberries and swollen grapes. Grocery stores often package the fruit individually, nested in boxes or little webbed sleeves, for giving as gifts. In June, Liam and I joined a group at a Japanese farm, where the farmer generously allows friends and friends-of-friends to pick blueberries for free. Getting to enjoy fruit fresh off the bush was a rare, and welcome, treat and we were grateful for the invitation.
Y is for Yukata
J may be for jinbei but Y is for yukata. The summer weight kimono is donned by Japanese women for festivals, special events and trips to shrines. Made from cool cotton, it’s more comfortable and less elaborate than a formal, silk kimono. That said, I can say from experience that it’s not exactly an easy thing to wear to a festival. (I had to take rather tiny steps and the ladies who dressed me ensured that I also wouldn’t take any big, deep breaths either.) I love the beautiful fabrics and the color and pattern combinations when the yukata is paired with a bright obi sash. You can buy new ones inexpensively at department stores and even at recycle (used) clothing stores, like the one pictured below.
Z is for Zojo-ji Temple
Z isn’t the easiest letter to match with a word so we’ll end with Zojo-ji Temple. I visited the temple back in February for a Setsubun Festival, where I was pelted with beans by Superman, Batman and a giant box of caramel corn, but that’s a story for another day. I snapped the picture below in August from the observation deck of Tokyo Tower. If you are having a touristy-day in the city in the summer, escaping into the air conditioned Tokyo Tower for an hour or two is very appealing.
I hope you enjoyed my ABCs of Summer in Tokyo. It may be hot but exploring Tokyo in June, July and August is always worth the effort. If you like this post, please share. Maybe we can create a cooling breeze as it whizzes around the internet. Now excuse me, I need to go find something cool to drink….