One of the most surprising things in Japan is how much you sweat in summer. More than in tropical countries such as Thailand, where you can feel yourself turning up the airconditioner in the hope that the cold air will alleviate the heat even in winter.
The surprise lies in the contrast. Winter in Thailand is certainly cooler than the summer. Actually, Bangkok does not have four seasons, like temperate climate countries such as Germany, Canada, or South Africa. Thailand has three seasons: Cool, hot, and rainy. In the south, where most of the resorts are, there are two seasons. In Pukhet there is only the hot and rainy season, and the hot and dry season. And temperatures creep up above 45 degrees centigrade at times.
With high humidity, because you are close to the sea. No wonder people sweat.
Five seasons of Japan
Contrast that with the five seasons of Japan. Yes, Japan actually has five seasons. Starting around new year, when the fall has just segued into winter, there can be snowfall in most of Japan, with the exception of Okinawa. The heavy snowfall does not start until later in the year, even February at times. And while the people of Tokyo may be excited at a couple of snowflakes, they see nothing compared to northwestern Japan, where there can be up to four meters of snow in a season. All powder. It is a wonder foreigners are not flocking to Japan in winter, if they are even remotely interested in skiing. There are more ski resorts in Japan than in the US, and most of them have onsen - hot springs. After a full day on the slopes, few things beat the experience of sinking down in a piping hot bath smelling vaugely of sulphur. Having washed and rinsed yourself throroughly before stepping into the little pool, this being Japan.
Stressing the grey
When your body stops aching, you get out, dry yourself off, put on a yukata, and go to your room where a truly delicious meal is waiting. And it does not just look that way because you are hungry.
Not every day is like that. Most of them, especially in Tokyo, are grey and cold. About half of each, but maybe stressing the grey. The Tokyo winter cityscape has a lot more than 50 shades of grey, and the mental shades are infinitely many more than the physical. Winter can be very depressing in Japan.
Even if winter usually is short. Suddenly, the cherry blossoms are there, and the weather turns - rainy, if you are unlucky. If it gets warm, everyone in cities everywhere in Japan turn out to spread their blue sheets on the pavement, park walkway, and anywhere else you can possibly sit down with a bento and a few cans of beer for an improvised picknick. The reason is not in the air, but above their heads. Cherry blossom season not only turn Japanese to frantic party animals, it turns the country into a pink cloud.
Spring is longer than cherry blossom
The cherry blossom season only lasts for a few weeks, but spring continues for at least two months, typically lasting from March to June. The climate is gorgeous, just warm enough with trees breaking out and all the other flowers (than the cherries) that Japan has to offer, many of them indigenous. Which means you have never seen them before. And it does not rain all that often, just enough to keep the flowers fresh. The birds are singing in the morning too, although you have to get up at 4 AM to hear them.
But then the fifth season starts. Japanese actually count five seasons: Summer, fall, winter, spring, and the rainy season. And this is when you get all the rains you did not get the rest of the year. It rains and rains and rains. This is why rubber boots is a fashion accessory in Japan. In some places you get 100 mm of rain. In a day. The start and the end of the rainy season varies somewhat, but usually the last two weeks of June should be avoided. Being cold and wet is no fun and that is what Japan is during those weeks.
Heat separates from summer
One reason the Japanese distinguish the rainy season from the summer becomes apparrent sometime in the beginning of July. Then, the sky clears, the cloud parts, and the sun starts shining from a picture-perfect sky. And shines. And shines. And shines some more, but harder this time. Bar the occasional typhoon, summer in Japan can be hotter than in Bangkok, and temperatures can place it in the leauge of the ten hottest cities of Earth. And not figuratively, either. Daytime temperatures can be far above 40 degrees centigrade, which feels much hotter when the air is shut in among stone and glass surfaces on four sides, and hot asphalt on the fifth. It feels hot enough to melt actanides. This is one reason Japanese businesspeople stay so long in the office: the airconditioning. Keeping cool when the temperatures creep way up is harder than you think, even for the famously restrained and reserved salarymen (still mostly men). And avoiding becoming hot is almost impossible.
For salarymen, the government - with enthusiastic support from the garment industry - a few years ago instituted the "cool biz" campaign, now repeated every summer. The idea is to get Japanese to dress in "business casual" clothes, so that they do not have to set the airconditioning on high to avoid sweating in their woolen serge suits.
It worked, on both counts. From July to September, the official duration of Japanese summer, you do not see many businessmen in suits any more. Beige has become the new black as people dress down for office life, in slacks and a shirt bisiness casual style.
Saving energy, creating comfort
The campaign started well before the Fukushima disaster with the goal to save energy. The biggest annual peak of Japanese energy usage is during summer as temperatures outdoors shoot up, and the building owners and energy companies struggle to keep homes cool. Most Japanese houses do not have central heating, because for most of the year, you need neither cooling nor heating. During the cold winter months, people used to huddle together in silk-stuffed coats around the kotatsu, a table with a heater fringed with a quilt cover so you could stick your feet under it and keep warm. That was the traditional family time, when everyone talked about the day, kids did homework, and everyone ate clementines, which actually is a badly choosen name for the vast collection of more than 200 citrus fruits cultivated in Japan. There is one available each season, but what the Japanese call "mikan" (actually a number of different citrus fruits) are in season during late fall and early winter.
Imported summer fruits
But it is still summer. The fruits that fill the store shelves at the greengrocers are mostly imported, or imported varieties. Like the succulent plums grown in Japan that the Japanese have not yet learned to love. The vegetable shelves in the grocery store are perhaps more interesting. The vegetables in Japan, especially the early harvest, are as succulent as a piece of sushi. There are a few weeks during winter in the Tokyo area when you can not grow vegetables, when the Japanese suffer through the last vegetables of the last harvest until the first harvest of spring vegetables enter the stores.
But it is still summer, and after a few weeks of sweltering heat, the Miyazaki mangoes and Kyushu papayas enter the stores. The succulent taste is almost worth the exorbitant price. And the sweat dripping as you eat, sucking on the juice to avoid it running down your clothes.
Typhoons hit tropical paradise
And then there are the typhoons. In late springs there can be tornadoes, but the biggest weather dangers in Japan are the typhoons. Since they are vortices they can actually cool things down a few days by drawing in cold air and mixing it up with the hot air from the south. Typhoons are not so different from tornadoes in that way, but they cover much bigger areas so the energy is more spread out as they move away from the South China Sea where they originate towards Taiwan and the Philippines. The part of Japan hardest hit is actually the southernmost province of Okinawa, at the same latitude as Hawaii and otherwise a tropical paradise. Yes, for real. Even though its people are Japanese, they are famous for their relaxed lifestyle. There are Okinawan restaurants all around Tokyo where you can go to experience the Okinawan cuisine and drinking culture. But not the sun, the beaches, or the typhoons. Or the unemployment, because like all parts of Japan Okinawa is stuck in a permanent depression, but there are no industries but tourism to provide jobs.
The last typhoon of the season usually comes around September, although there are occasional typhoons as late as the end of October some years. The heat slowly subsides and fall starts. But temperatures plateau around 20 degrees centigrade, with occasional chilly days and consistently chilly nights. The turning trees color the landscape until you realize that a Japanese garden is designed for two seasons: Autumn and spring, with the cherry and ume (Japanese apricot) flowers providing very different experiences from the fall colors, brasher than the fluffy pink of the cherries yet somehow more muted by the occasional green speck. Autumn is harvest time in Japan, new rice arriving by the pallet load and apples from Aomori competing for space on the store shelves with the indigenous nashi, a fresh cross between apple and pear, and the Japanese persimmons, at once sweet and tart.
Fall trips into winter
The days gradually grow darker and colder until fall suddenly trips into winter around mid-January, just after the New Years vacation, the only time the Japanese collectively close up shop and go home to celebrate. There are no fireworks on New Years Eve in Japan, only temple bells ringing and lines of people forming around the shrines, where you burn last years New Year decorations, offer a prayer to the gods and draw a fortune prediction from the temple boxes, bind it to a tree if it is bad and go home drinking a cup of hot unfermented sake, a sweet and thick drink as warming as a cup of hot, creamy chocolate, but fat free.
January wakes up to a cold and dark February, often with flurries of snow in the Tokyo air, melting as nothing compared to the snow that falls in western Japan, the part of the country facing the cold Japan sea. There can be up to four meters of besutiful powery snow in the high mountains, a dream for a skier and a wet dream for snowboarders.
And then one day, those cold winds turn warm, and suddenly the cherry blossom buds start swelling, filling the new year with hope and a new spring. Five seasons are just about right for Japan.
This post is one in my ongoing series on how to navigate Japan for travelers with children. I have written before about the Japanese travel year and the Japanese travel day (for most people heavily centered around taking the train). I have a couple of articles on buying diapers in Japan and buying baby goods in Japan. I have written about how to figure out where to stay in Tokyo and how much you should budget for your trip to Japan.
I have also written about specific destinations, like the PUK Puppet Theatre, and picking strawberries in Tochigi. And I wrote a post about what you can do when it is raining in Tokyo, and 10 things you should not miss with your kids in Tokyo.
And I have written about whether you will be safe in Japan. And of course, since I have three kids, I have written a lot about Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea. And lots more.
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I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning four - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on email@example.com, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.