A California Girl's Guide to Surviving Seasons in Japan--Pt.1 (Spring and Summer)
Whew! As I’ve now fully experienced the joys (and the horrors) of all the seasons in Japan, I feel I can now write about them. I’m from southern California, pretty close to L.A. in fact. We don’t have seasons, or if we do, it’s simply a “hot and sunny” and a “less hot but still mostly sunny” which means that I am a cold weather wimp. If we feel the need we can go to visit the seasons in the nearby mountains, but then we return to our sunny homes in the afternoon after we’ve had our fill!
So moving to Japan was my first real experience with the changing seasons. I’d seen them in movies, and enjoyed our day-trips to the mountains, and so was (however misguidedly) under the impression that I could totally handle it, no sweat!
I’ll go in the order I experienced the seasons here and hopefully help out all you other weather-spoiled, solar-powered southern Californians!
I arrived in spring, a beautiful flowering time full of sakura (cherry blossoms) and ume (plum blossoms). You know what this means? Allergies! I’m lucky enough to have escaped the curse of allergies, but everywhere you see face masks, eye drops and tissues.
The flowers are beautiful! All the greenery is coming back and the world is waking up after a long winter. Everything is also spring flavored! Find plum wine, juice, cake, ice cream, pickled plums,etc. along with cherry blossom art, mochi, specialty Starbucks drinks, candy--the whole country goes crazy for sakura in the spring! I recommend hanami, a cherry blossom viewing--watch Japanese families, friends, and businessmen stake out a spot, eat good food and get drunk all set against a lovely backdrop of blushing pink flowers. It’s really fun guys, you should go (just make sure to stake out a spot early in the more popular places like Ueno Park).
It’s still cold. Pack some long sleeves and a jacket because while it’s miles warmer than the winter, days are still chilly and nights are downright icy! Allergy season is also at hand. Pollen is everywhere, even blowing over from China, and almost everyone will be wearing a preventative face mask. I’m blessed enough to have never had allergies but for the majority of people it’s a problem.
Free packets of tissue are handed out everywhere as an advertisement, especially in allergy and flu season. I’ve had an entire box as a gift from a gas station! Make use of those free tissue, take them all and take them everywhere.
Allergy medication, you should bring it. I even have some just in case. And while you can definitely find it over here, you might not be able to recognize it…
Like I said earlier, stake out a hanami spot early. If you’re planning on a popular area you’ll want to set up a tarp or some tape with your name in the early morning hours. It’s incredible, people actually respect that here! If I just saved my spot with a tarp at a major event in the States while going about my day, I’d probably come back to find people in my spot and my tarp crumpled up in the gutter.
Bring an umbrella. Everywhere. I don’t care if it’s sunny in the morning, if you don’t bring your umbrella (heck, even if you do) it’s gonna rain.
Ah, the glorious warmth is back! Everything is green! Melon and cool festivals are everywhere! Summer is an awesome season in Japan--as an avid hiker it’s my 2nd favorite (and it’s a very close second).
It’s sunny! While it still rains, and there’s the occasional typhoon, the sun is shining more often than not. I’ll totally take it. Also--festivals, festivals, festivals! The Japanese like their festivals! If you get lost and come across a random shrine there will probably be some kind of festival going on. It’s also a great time to try on a summer yukata, eat some greasy festival food and have a shaved ice in an unusual flavor for dessert.
Fresh vegetables and fruits are abundant and meals get really colorful. Summer food in Japan is really good--try some unagi (eel) said to be cooling for the body or get a few friends and splurge on a fancy melon to go smash open and eat on the beach! Iced barley tea (mugi-cha) is often served with meals and it’s something I’ve come to love, though it was an acquired taste.
Beaches! Being an island and all, Japan does have some great beaches and a thriving surf culture. Ibaraki Prefecture is the destination of many Tokyo surfers and finding a surfing competition isn’t very difficult. Fuji and other hiking destinations are also now open for business full-time. The hiking season for Fuji usually starts in July and goes to about mid-September, weather permitting. Japan has its 100 Famous Mountains for you to tackle and (as Japan is pretty much one long mountain range) there are a million more less crowded trails for you to discover. I highly recommend Fukushima Prefecture for hiking in summer and fall--I've still never seen a view that can match the Mt. Bandai area in whichever season you are there.
The humidity can get really bad at times. I’ve never lived anywhere with humidity before, only in the dry heat of California and Arizona, so I was unfamiliar with how miserable it can get. Humidity also means bugs. Mosquitos, those little buggers, were the bane of my existence. I don’t usually get bitten too often but man, they sure liked me this summer! Cockroaches are something I’d never experienced either. Those suckers can run and are apparently the only kind of bug that truly creeps me out. Humidity also means that everything grows mold quickly. Go figure. You have to be extra diligent with futons and showers to make sure they don’t get taken over by icky yucky mold.
Plan your Fuji climb at least a month ahead of time as it gets crowded. And please be prepared! It’s not a walk in the park, but it’s most definitely worth the effort.
Daiso and other 100 yen stores all sell dehumidifying sheets. Put these in your closets, cabinets, in your folded clothes, futons, etc. They’ll help keep mold and moisture at bay, just remember to replace them when they’re expired!
A mosquito and fly catcher would be good, they’re sold in most stores. Also cockroach spray so you don’t have to chase a half-smashed and nearly beheaded cockroach running at light speed around your living room (still kind of traumatized…).
Wear loose clothing in light colors, also it helps to do things in the early morning and the evening. I get why siestas are a thing in some countries now other than the enjoyment of just taking a nap--when it’s that hot you don’t want to be productive in the middle of the day.
Run the dehumidifying setting on your A/C unit. It’s cheaper and more energy saving than the full on air conditioning, and it also helps to cool the air a bit. Fans to circulate the air are also lifesavers and can be cheap at second hand stores like WonderREX.
If you get too hot, try freezing a wet washcloth to put in bed with you. They feel marvelous (just be sure to put it in plastic, don’t want too much moisture on your futon as it melts).
When you go out, bring a folding fan. Even men carry these around with them and when you’re in a stuffy subway or walking around in the sun or sitting at your desk by the window in the teachers room at school you’ll be glad for it! Pocket handkerchiefs and hand towels are also carried by men and women alike for wiping sweat away (and washing hands in restrooms without a hand-drying method).
In the interest of keeping this a manageable length, I’ve broken it up into two parts. Stay tuned for fall and winter later this year!
Japan is truly a place that wholly embraces the changing of seasons. Everything from food to decorations to clothing changes as the year goes on so no matter which season you visit Japan in there will always be something new and exciting to discover! Adventure on!