In addition to Japan’s famed cherry trees that blossom in spring, the summer months of July and August are often one of the most popular times to visit Japan. After all, the kids are out of school and many firms allow their employees some additional leeway when it comes to taking vacation time. No doubt, given its many unique festivals and convenient timing, summer proves to be the most appealing time to plan a trip. While there is certainly a lot of truth behind this notion, many tourists simply don’t know what they are getting themselves into. You see, one of the other highlights of this season in Japan is that temperatures get so miserably hot and humid that even the slang term “swamp ass” fails to aptly describe the experience. What’s more, the heat can become downright deadly and especially so in locations such as Kyoto where the city is surrounded on all sides by mountains.
In addition to the sweltering conditions, one of summer’s other hallmarks is its many devastating typhoons. That’s right, the only time you’re going to get a short reprieve from the oppressive heat is when you’re being drenched to the bone by a torrential downpour. To make matters worse, these storms are often followed by increasing humidity making the already sultry conditions even more unbearable. Now being a bit of a pluviophile, rain isn’t something that I mind in the least bit. That said, the strength of these typhoons has swelled to epic levels in recent years as was recently evidenced by the catastrophic flooding in western Japan. Reader be warned, these typhoons are definitely not to be taken lightly!
While these dual deterrents might have you clamoring to cancel your travel plans, remember that millions trek to Japan during the summer months every year, heat be damned. The sauna-like conditions need not FUBAR your vacation. With a little bit of itinerary tweaking, it’s possible to get the best out of this season without succumbing to the same fate as our friend Frosty the Snowman. What follows are some of by best tips and suggestions for those who visit in summer…
1.) Get an Early Start
This first tip serves as a good bit of common sense given temperatures are always cooler in the morning than they are during the midday hours. Because of this, it’s often in your best interest to make an effort to get up as early as possible. Many of Japan’s cultural attractions are open as early as 8:00 AM or 9:00 AM and almost all Shinto shrines remain open 24 hours a day. In addition to beating the heat, getting an early start also means that you can avoid the worst of the crowds. When visiting mainstream attractions such as those in the ever-popular city of Kyoto, this can mean the difference between enjoying yourself and getting a selfie stick to the eye.
Again, sleeping in is usually not as good of an alternative to getting up early. This is because getting a later start often forces one to either contend with the crowds or hurriedly explore places with mere minutes until closing time. While places like Fushimi Inari Taisha are otherworldly after the sun goes down, many temples and other attractions begin to close after 5:00 PM. Trust me here and just set the damn alarm! You’ll thank me later.
2.) Plan Indoor Fun
Truth be told, this suggestion goes hand in hand with the previous one. Japan has a huge collection of exceptional and unique indoor attractions running the gamut from the Meguro Parasitological Museum to the wondrous galleries at the Mori Art Museum. Even better, these venues are all thoroughly air conditioned and protected from the sultriness lurking outdoors. All in all, it makes the most sense to set aside some time for a refreshing lunch followed by indoor activities as the best strategies for escaping the high noon heat. Of course, I never heed my own advice but that’s another matter…
Anyway, astute readers might already see where I am going here but I suggest that you get up early, do some temple and/or shrine viewing and then escape to the air conditioned indoors when the heat starts to get truly intolerable. After a brief and chilled respite, you can head back out again around 3:00 PM or 4:00 PM when the temperatures are a bit more inviting. This way, you can still see most of what Japan has to offer while avoiding the overly challenging humid conditions.
Want some good suggestions for what to do indoors? Well, the Edo-Tokyo Museum is one of the my favorite places to visit on a hot day because of its spacious interior. This museum is also one of the best resources for grasping a quick and comprehensive historical overview of Japan’s capital city. For those interested in exploring a more modern venue, the Art Aquarium in Nihonbashi is definitely worth your consideration. What’s more, this setting will definitely deliver a more memorable experience versus a mundane outing at the aquarium. Note that the aquarium’s 2018 theme focuses on the influence of goldfish in traditional Japanese art and aesthetics.
Before moving on, let me say that you may want to consider avoiding the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum if an extremely popular exhibition is going on. Unfortunately, due to the required crowd control measures, you may end up needing to wait in line for a while before being admitted to the facility. As you can imagine, this is not an activity you want to do outside on a hot day. Therefore, it would behoove you to check the exhibit info in advance and try to avoid attending during the opening or closing dates of a popular exhibition.
3.) Take a Trip Up North
Few tourists venture up to the northern reaches of Japan and those feeling more adventurous often only travel to Hokkaido. This is a real shame. You see, Tohoku, the northern part of Japan’s main island, is chock full of all sorts of hidden gems like Yamadera. What’s more, the slight longitudinal difference between Tokyo and Tohoku often times means the temperatures are just a little bit cooler than elsewhere. This alone is often enough to justify the trip!
Note that if you’re going to do Tohoku, you should really do it right. Don’t head up there just for a day or two. Plan to spend a significant portion of your time exploring its many wonders. Unlike with other parts of Japan, Tohoku is in many ways the last bastion of authenticity as little of the area has been commodified for tourism.
4.) Enjoy Japan's Oceans
Japan is an island nation and therefore has access to some awesome beaches. While you’ll need to make an extra effort to find picturesque white sand, this doesn’t stop the locals from flocking to perennial coastal favorites like Yuigahama in Kamakura or neighboring Enoshima. These beaches host an eclectic array of temporary shacks every year during summer called umi-no-ie. Especially after a imbibing a few drinks, these makeshift huts can create the atmosphere of a non-stop, oceanside party. While Japan’s beaches are certainly family friendly at all times, several are better known as being a real blast for the young and single.
Of course, the best part of most oceanside towns is that they have more to offer than just the beach itself. Attractions such as gorgeous views, onsen, fresh seafood, and even historic temples and shrines dot these coastal communities. In fact, you can find turquoise blue waters and white sandy beaches only three hours from Tokyo in Shimoda (which is nestled at the southern tip of the Izu Peninsula). Meanwhile, on the western coast, Shimane Prefecture boasts some of the most gorgeous beaches in all of Japan. Furthermore, Okinawa and Kyushu are also both renowned for their subtropical beaches and crystal clear waters.
Most beaches across the country are noticeably emptier after mid-August. While this practice may seem strange as the weather is still hot, there is a good reason for this. You see, jellyfish appear in large numbers during the late summer months and you definitely do not want to get stung. Thankfully, some beaches, particularly in Okinawa, have sections netted off to help prevent jellyfish from interrupting one’s summertime fun. Other locations have man-made barriers that keep both the waves and the jellyfish far away from the swimmers. Just remember that these safeguards are never 100% foolproof so be careful if you venture into the water.
Like water but sand isn’t really your thing? Don’t worry, I have some great alternatives for you! Given that most of Japan is mountainous terrain, there are a large number of rivers and streams for you to enjoy. Moreover, many of these waterways are only about 90 minutes from central Tokyo. The Tama River in Okutama, for example, is one such easily accessible spot. These types of excursions are best for families or groups of friends. Just don’t go thinking that you’re limited to only the rivers though. In the aforementioned case of Okutama, there’s also a nearby limestone cave called Nippara Shonyudo. The temperature inside the cave dips to a chilly 11 degrees Celsius which can be a true relief from the oppressive heat outside!
Lastly before moving on, I have one other option for you to consider if you’re in the Tokyo area. Simply put, there’s no better way to relax and cool off than to hop on one of the many boats cruising around Tokyo Bay. While typically not recommended during the daytime hours (scorching sun rays reflecting off the water anyone?), a nighttime excursion around the harbor is nothing short of magical. Keep in mind there are a variety of cruise options available for you to consider; as always, Google is your friend here.
5.) Eat Like the Locals Do
Yo foodies! Are you afraid that consuming something will make you feel even worse in the heat? Fret not! The gamut of Japanese cuisine has a variety of chilled options too. Here are just some of my summer favorites…
- Sushi: This one is perhaps the best known fare among people around the world. Just make sure to eat indoors and definitely avoid takeaway during the daytime as the fish can easily spoil in the heat. Summertime offers quite a variety of seasonal fish, so choosing a restaurant with a fresh catch is a wise idea.
- Zaru-Soba: Pictured above, this cold noodle dish is a summertime staple. It is simple and best eaten at a restaurant which specializes in soba but you’ll need some chopstick skills for this one. Take the cold noodles, dip them into the chilled dipping sauce, and slurp them up. There is a variation on this dish that uses udon instead of soba and this version is perfect for people with buckwheat allergies.
- Somen: Somen is basically the angel-hair version of udon. It is eaten primarily in the summer and is usually served with a chilled broth and garnished with green onions. The noodles can also be eaten with a slightly heavier dipping sauce much like soba or udon. You can actually find pre-made somen at many convenience stores for a light, refreshing lunch.
- Hiyashi Chuka: This is yet another noodle dish but it’s quite unique. These yellow Chinese noodles are served cold with a splash of a vinegar-based sauce. They are typically topped with thinly sliced cucumber, sliced pork or ham, pickled ginger, and a half hard-boiled egg. This is one of Japan’s most popular summer dishes and is enjoyed by people of all ages.
- Chilled Bukkake-Udon: Hold your dirty thoughts! The name doesn’t mean what you think! Chilled bukkake udon is a dish consisting of udon noodles served in a splash of cold broth. The noodles are typically topped with grated daikon radish and green onions. Get your mind out of the gutter and give this one a try!
- Cold Pasta: While the concept may seem strange to some, it tastes a lot better than you think. Note that this is not the mayo-coated pasta salad that you may have in mind. Instead, it’s chilled pasta, usually served with seasonal veggies and a tomato-based sauce (which is made differently from familiar sauces). The dish is commonly found at cafes and family restaurant style eateries as well as at many convenience stores.
Now no summer menu would be complete without a refreshing dessert. The following are my favorite treats for cooling off…
- Ice Cream: What is summer without ice cream? This is a great opportunity to sample some of Japan’s special varieties. By now, green tea ice-cream has become well known around the world but there are also more flavors to explore. Black sesame and yuzu are both popular and the more adventurous souls may want to even try wasabi ice cream. If you’re traveling outside of Tokyo, many locales offer their unique local flavors in the form of ice cream. Owakudani in Hakone, for example, has its famous egg custard ice cream as well as a jet-black ice cream. Alternatively, if you are in Okinawa, hop on over to Blue Seal to try their purple yam ice cream.
- Kakigori: Kakigori is the Japanese version of the west’s shaved ice or snow cones. You can usually find the ice cones for sale at any number of beachside vendors. Those adverse to new tastes will be happy to know that the typical flavors from “back home” are all available as are local favorites such as green tea and the ever-popular ramune.
- Parfaits: Parfaits obviously do not originate in Japan but Japanese cafes certainly go all-out with their concoctions. When out and about, be sure to keep an eye out for the enormous plastic parfaits that some restaurants display in their windows. These are not exaggerations. The parfaits are really that big and the larger sizes are often meant to be shared by 2–4 people. Moreover, these parfaits are picture-perfect for Instagram too!
- Anmitsu: This is a traditional Japanese dessert that is based on sweet red beans. It typically includes red bean paste, a preserved apricot, some small pieces of sweet mochi, and sometimes chunks of other fruits. A version with ice cream is also available.
- Mitarashi Dango: Another traditional snack that is great for those who have a real sweet tooth! Originating in Kyoto, mitarashi dango are now common nationwide. You can even find these in almost any convenience store or supermarket. They consist of a skewer of dango coated with a thick, sweet syrup. Mitarashi-dango are a must try for sweet lovers but be careful not to go overboard!
6.) Drink Plenty of Water
OK, this should go without saying but consume plenty of liquids throughout the day. As I write this in summer 2018, there have been as many as 65 deaths resulting from a recent heatwave. Unless you want to join the ranks of the dead, be sure to consume far more water than you would otherwise. When you’re checking out the sites, it can be difficult to gauge your level of hydration. Don’t ruin your vacation by failing to pause for a well earned hydration break!
Just in case this is your first visit to Japan, please know there are plenty of vending machines waiting around every corner. Getting your hands on a chilled beverage is a breeze. Just remember to actually drink it!
7.) Keep it Hygienic Folks
This goes for just about anywhere in the world but noticeable body odor and sweat are generally looked down upon in public places. It is therefore best to be prepared and pack your own deodorant. While carried by some drug stores, Japanese deodorant is probably not going to be as effective as what you typically use back home. Additionally, strong-smelling body sprays, cologne, or perfume may get you a negative reaction, especially on public transit. I’m looking at you, fans of AXE body spray…
If you are a person who sweats a lot, there are some items that can help. For one, you can find under-arm sweat absorber pads that stick to the armpit area of your shirt. This will help you avoid those unsightly underarm sweat marks. Also, given that walking into a shop or restaurant drenched in sweat is frowned upon so consider carrying a small hand towel with you to wipe your face or neck. If you wear makeup, you can try out the aburatori gami. This is traditional cosmetic paper used for blotting oil off a made-up face without messing up the makeup. It’s also makes a neat souvenir to bring back home. You can find these items for sale just about anywhere.
Of course, be sure to shower and/or bathe daily. This is a staple routine in Japanese culture and trust me, in the hot weather you will not want to skip cleansing yourself of the dreaded “swamp ass” feeling…
8.) Put Some Clothes On
In case you haven’t already realized, it can get very, very, very hot outside during summer. Nevertheless, it’s important to always be respectful of any social setting you are in. Now I don’t want to tell you what to wear but in some cases, it can be considered a bit rude to dress in only a tank top or fully expose your shoulders. That said, sleeveless tops or dresses which cover most of the shoulder rarely raise any eyebrows. Additionally, unless you’re exercising, you should probably reconsider venturing out in ONLY yoga pants. Save that for the likes of Walmart folks! On the other hand, while at the beach you will have a lot more freedom with your choice of clothing (male readers should avoid showing up in a Speedo though).
Oh and before moving on, while I know it’s an awkward topic, let’s quickly talk about nipples. Regardless of your gender, in most settings, it’s probably not a good idea to have your teats visibly poking through your clothes. This really should be common sense but you know what they say about common sense. Anyway, if you are not going to wear an undershirt or a bra, consider buying a pack of Nippless. These skin-safe stickers help conceal the outline of your sensitive bits and can be found at drug stores anywhere.
Bonus Tip: Check the Weather!
Truth be told, I am someone who never really checks the weather. With that said, I’m continually impressed by how the Japanese seemingly always have an umbrella in hand for unexpected rains. Now I’d wager this claim has less to do with mystical connections to Mother Nature and more so to folks being aware of current forecasts. A word to the wise, you should follow their lead and especially so during typhoon season. At times, the rushing rains can cause a myriad of train delays and cancellations. When it comes to the weather, be flexible when necessary so you don’t share your precious vacation time holed up on a train with hundreds of passengers.
Until next time travelers…