The harsh reality of Japanese summers and winters
If you’re like me and your Japanese apartment did not include an air conditioning unit, then you may need to live by these next tricks to stay cool. I’ve long dreaded summer, it’s my least favourite season, at least in Japan. Back in Canada, I didn’t mind the summers because they were dry heat. Yes, they were hot, but at least you didn’t sweat like a beast. Everyone warned me, as I complained that the teacher’s room was too hot in winter with the kerosene heaters blasted to the max. My coworkers repeating the sentence 日本の夏暑いよ nihon no natsu atsui yo (Japanese summers are hot) over and over, I asked myself: Can they really be that hot? I mean, summer is just summer…right? Boy was I wrong. Imagine daily temperatures ranging from 35ºC-45ºC night and day, PLUS humidity. I feel so sorry for whoever is coming to Japan in August, as I can remember so clearly those first 10 minutes after getting off the plane. Thinking to myself, are the air conditioner’s broken? Did I just step into an oven? Oh, I see. They just turned on the heaters by mistake…right? No…That humidity that wraps around you and suffocates you, that heat that pierces through every single inch of your body…This is what you will experience every summer that you live in Japan. You will be miserable. You will sweat from places you never knew could sweat. Your body will be drenched in sweat and be sticky all day long, but honestly, you eventually get used to it. Behind that intense heat and humidity, Japanese summers are one of the best seasons to enjoy. It’s a time where you can wear summer yukatas and enjoy summer festivals, eat cold delicious food, and travel around beautiful areas. I also really love the tsuyu and typhoon season because the rain cools down the earth and brings down the temperature! YAY! To help you survive a Japanese summer, I’ve compiled a list that you can do to make yourself feel more comfortable in this intense heat.
- Buy an air conditioner. Yes, this is the most obvious one, but some apartment may not come with one. E.g. mine. I managed to survive a Japanese summer without the use of an AC up until the first week of August. Yes, it was hard, and yes, it was hot, but it wasn’t impossible. However, when August came up, the nights became too hot to handle and I had to buy an AC. I don’t personally use it during the day, just at night so that I can sleep comfortably.
- DRINK WATER. I’m not kidding. I don’t know how to emphasize this enough. Your body needs water, and lots of it. That amount of water your sweating needs to be re-hydrated. DO NOT underestimate the heat. It will bring you down and you may suffer a heat stroke. Heat strokes happen every single day in Japan because people don’t stay hydrated. Don’t take this lightly as it’s really dangerous. I used to drink a 500mL bottle of water a day back in Canada, but after coming here, I started drinking 2-4L of water per day. If you notice that your head suddenly starts to hurt, it’s because you’re dehydrated. You need to re-hydrate a.s.a.p.
- Close your curtains and windows during the day, and open them up at night *(hopefully your windows come with a screen, or else GINORMOUS bugs will come flying in). You don’t want the sun rays and heat to heat up your house during the day, but you do want the *cooler* breeze to come in at night.
- Install a fan in your window and turn it on at night. This will bring a cool breeze inside your house. You can also buy more than one fan and install them at various places in your house to get the air flow going.
- If you don’t have enough money to buy an AC, then freeze some ice packs and install them in front of your fan. This will send wind through the ice packs and make the wind feel a bit cooler. You will need to repeat this process a couple of times per day as the ice packs will melt pretty quickly. You can also use frozen water bottles and place them in front/back of your fan. If you feel like you’d rather buy a fan that does all of that for you, you can buy a cooling fan and only need to add ice to the bucket inside the fan.
- Sleep with an ice pillow. An ice what?! It’s a gel pillow that you pop into your freezer that freezes halfway so that it’s still squishy. Once it’s frozen, you place it inside the pillow case and sleep on it. This way, your head will stay cool during the hot summer nights.
- If you’re home and don’t have an AC, you can always wet a long neck towel and wrap it around you. This only works ’til a certain point though. The wet towel will no longer be effective after July as the air temperature is just too hot to make a difference.
- Wet a long neck towel and put some ice cubes in it. Wrap it around your neck or place it over your head. This only works until the ice melts off. It’s a good temporary solution.
- Buy cool towels. You simply need to pour water over the towel and wrap it around your neck. The towel supposedly keeps the water cool until it has all evaporated, to which you then fill up again. They sell these at various department stores.
- Carry a bag of ice packs. Some of my Japanese friends do this. They carry a “cooler” bag and load it with like 4 large ice packs. Whenever they feel too hot, they either hug the pack until they cool down, or they grab one ice pack and rub it all over their body to cool down.
- Buy sweat wipes. We don’t have these in the West, but they’re awesome! I buy the ‘cooling’ wipes. It’s basically wipes that you use to clean the sweat off your body. They clean your skin leaving a cooling agent all over your body. This works for 10-30 minutes.
- If you’re outside in the heat, then you’ll need to carry a portable fan. They sell them everywhere or give them out for free in front of stations, at festivals, or in convenience stores. The word for these is sensu or uchiwa.
- If you need to cool down right away and you don’t have any ice on you, then you can use these fever stickers. They care called 熱さまシート netsu sama shi-to. People usually use them when they are sick and their head is boiling hot. Stick it on any part of your body that feels too hot, and it’ll automatically cool it down. These work 5-10 hours. I showed them to my mom when she came to visit me and told her it was for her head. She took the box and stuck them everywhere on her body.
- Buy a sun umbrella. This is great if you don’t want to tan or make your body absorb all the sun rays. It really does help when you’re outside all day in the sun.
- Buy a dehumidifier. The reason you can’t sleep at night isn’t because of the heat, it’s because of the humidity. You furniture, clothes, bed sheets, and so on, all have this layer of humidity on them. Getting a dehumidifier will make your apartment so much more comfortable to live in.
- Get cotton sheets for your bed. Any other fabrics will just absorb the heat and bake you as if you were in an oven at night. Speaking of cotton, wear cotton clothing. It’s breathable and perfect for summer. DO NOT wear polyester clothing. It absorbs all the sweat and traps it inside making you super uncomfortable all day/night long.
- Turn off your computer, lights, and appliances when you’re not home or at night. These not only use your electricity, but they also generate heat. This is what was happening at my house: the sun warms up the house all day long, so it’s basically a little oven. Your computer generates heat (in my case, my iMac) + all the heat that’s been accumulated. It’s gotten to the point that my furniture, yes…my furniture is now HOT. My chairs, my bookshelves, computer desk, carpet, etc, are all hot. I swear I could fry an egg on my desk. Also, my iMac has been shutting down automatically because it’s becoming too hot for it to handle. Unfortunately, you can’t do anything about the sun heat that comes into your house, but you can try to limit the heat by turning off your computer and other electronics that may be using heat.
I remember coming here wondering if the winters would be cold. I come from a land of long, dry and cold winters, where the lowest temperature can reach up to -50ºC, just like beyond the wall. Whenever spring comes in Canada and the temperature drops to 0ºC, you can see people rockin’ pairs of shorts and light vests, and essentially come out of hibernation. 0ºC is like a dream come true; a sign that the long harsh winter is finally over and that summer is finally coming. Before coming to Japan, people warned me that it would be cold, and so I trusted them. They explained that Japanese houses weren’t insulated and didn’t have central heating so the winters would be long and cold. Coming to Japan in January, the coldest temperature it got in Saitama was 0ºC. Okay, not bad at all! I don’t think Japan is cold, not like in Canada. I mean, I would walk in the streets with my light jacket and see people wearing huge ‘North Face/Canada Goose’ jackets, snow pants, and snow boots as if they were ready to march through Siberia in the middle of an ice age. Unless you’re placed north of Kyoto, I wouldn’t bother bringing snow boots, snow pants, and a huge winter jacket. Chances are, it probably won’t snow where you live, and if does, it won’t snow very much. Yes, it does snow up north, so be ready for that. So like I said, Japan isn’t necessarily cold, but it is SUPER cold inside! Basically the inside and outside temperature of a house will be the exact same. The lowest temperature it will get to in Hokkaido will be -25ºC. But fear not, I agree that houses do get cold in winter, but there are loads of ways to deal with the cold! I personally think that if you put enough layers on and follow these next steps, you will have no problem surviving non-insulated Japanese houses!
- Buy a heater if your house doesn’t already have one. You may need to buy additional ones if you think it may not be enough.
- This can be a heater directly attached to your wall. In Japan, these are also air conditioning units.
- It can be a kerosene heater where you need to add gasoline in it every time it runs out. Note: this will stink up your house and be hard to breathe, but it will keep you warm and you eventually get used to the smell.
- Buy a portable heater and stick it right in front of you wherever you are in your house.
- Buy a kotatsu. These are the most genius Japanese inventions. It’s essentially a low table that has a heater installed at the bottom. The table is then covered with a gigantic blanket and another piece of wood is placed over the blanket. You then sit on the floor, cover your legs and lower body with the blanket and crawl under the table to stay warm. The only problem is that your upper body gets cold, while your lower body is boiling hot. I usually sit under my kotatsu and cover myself with a blanket so that all parts of my body stay warm.
- Buy an electric carpet or/and blanket. Seriously, buy one. Those are life-saving! Basically, you put your futon over the warm carpet, or any other furniture you foresee yourself using every day, and sleep over it. The warm carpet will keep your futon warm all night long! You can also just buy an electric blanket and place it between your blankets when you sleep. This will ensure that you’re warm all night long. I personally have this and use it whenever I’m at my computer and cover my legs.
- Insulate your house! This can be achieved for a very low price using only a couple of tools.
- Buy bubble wrap and tape it all over your windows. This will keep the cold air from coming in, but still keep the hot sun rays warm up your place.
- Buy sukima teepu. This is tape that you can use to fill in the cracks or gaps in doors or windows that may be letting the cold air in.
- Buy thicker curtains. This will act as a blanket for the house walls to keep them warm and stop the cold air from coming in.
- Buy a noren. This is one of those sign curtain that’s hung in restaurants and shop entrances. This won’t exactly insulate your house, but it will keep the heat in one room.
- Buy a humidifier. This may seem silly, but the Japanese winter’s are extremely dry. When you sleep at night, your throat may get really parched and you may become sick, so having a humidifier really helps keep you comfortable and healthy.
- Buy hokkairo. Those are small pouches that get warmed once opened. Great for pockets or for inside shoes. There are sticky types that you can stick to your clothing, or non-sticky type that go wherever you want them to go.
- Drink lots of hot liquids to prevent sickness!
Note: Japanese weather apps or websites do NOT include the ‘real feel’ option. So you may think it’s 0ºC or 35ºC, but it actually feels like -6ºC or 43ºC.
If you know of any other ways to keep cool or warm in Japan, please write a comment below!
Mira is a self-trained home cook from the land of maple syrup in Quebec, Canada, who currently lives in Saitama. In her spare time, she studies Japanese, travels, and practices photography.