Summertime in Japan is magical. It’s hard to recall any fonder childhood memories. There’s fireworks, wind chimes, yukata, uchiwa fans, chilled mugicha, kakigōri (shaved ice), swimming, cicadas and of course, matsuri, or festivals!
The first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions summer in Japan is 花火 (hanabi) or Fireworks! And why not? Fireworks are enjoyed throughout the summer, but especially during 花火大会 (hanabi taikai) or fireworks displays. Each city has its own fireworks displays during the summer, so it’s just a matter of finding out when and where it will be.
Something else that comes to mind is 風鈴 (furin) or Japanese wind chimes. These delightful wind-powered percussion instruments have become an essential aesthetic, and have evolved into many varieties, including glass, metal, and bamboo. Although summer heat in Japan can be overwhelming, it’s nice to know when you hear a wind chime that a cooling breeze is on its way!
Yukata (浴衣) are the lightweight cotton kimono worn in the summertime in Japan. Men, women, and children wear this popular attire for fireworks displays, festivals, or just strolling outside on summer evenings. Not only are they cool and comfortable, but they also remind the wearer and anyone who sees those wearing them that it’s summer, along with all the traditional joys that entails.
Uchiwa (団扇) are the natural accessory for summer yukata. Great at keeping you cool, these fans look somewhat like ping pong paddles. Also like yukata, men, women, and children all use these handy fans to fend off Japan’s oppressive summer heat. They are also useful tools for cooling down hot rice, such as when preparing sushi.
Perhaps one of the reasons why summers in Japan are so oppressively hot is because of the humidity. Being an island chain, Japan is surrounded by oceans and seas on all sides. The word Japanese use to describe humid and hot weather is 蒸し暑い (mushi atsui).
One way to beat the heavy heat of summer in Japan is to enjoy chilled mugicha (冷たい麦茶 tsumetai mugicha). Mugicha is barley tea, and nothing seems to hit the spot after a day in the summer quite like an ice cold glass of mugicha. Many eateries in Japan will serve mugicha free of charge the way that a class of water might be served in restaurants in the west.
If mugicha hits the spot on a hot day, then kakigōri (かき氷) or shaved ice with sweet syrup and other toppings might make you positively grateful for the summer heat in Japan! Kakigōri is similar to shaved ice in the west, but look out for those undeniably Japanese flavor classics, strawberry (red), melon (green), and soda (blue). Although a favorite at festivals, you can find kakigōri on most restaurant menus in the summer.
Of course a favorite activity in any country with hot summers, swimming (水泳 suiei) is beloved by Japanese, most of whom will usually make at least one annual excursion to the seaside to enjoy a day of swimming. Beaches usually become crowded, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a great way to escape the heat.
At night during the summer, cicadas (セミ semi) can be heard serenading festival goers or anyone else outside enjoying an evening breeze. Children often use nets to catch cicadas and then keep them in small cages. Japanese children love their insect pets, and I’ll admit I had my fairshare during the summer.
Of course the king of all things summer in Japan are the festivals (祭り matsuri). There’s tanabata, obon, and many smaller local festivals. You never want to miss one if you ever get a chance to attend. Regardless of the festival you can always count on there being traditional dancing, fun games, and delicious street foods.
Tanabata (七夕) or Star Festival in an ancient festival that has its roots in the Chinese holiday of the same name (pronounced 七夕 qīxī). It commemorates the annual reunion of Orihime (Vega) and Hikoboshi (Altair), who according to legend were separated when they neglected their duties to pursue their budding young romance. People customarily write wishes on small white strips of paper, twist them up, and then tie them onto bamboo branches that are displayed around the city.
Obon (お盆) is a Japanese Buddhist custom of remembering the spirits of one’s departed ancestors. Usually held in mid August, Obon originated from the Chinese Ghost Festival. The 盆踊り (bon-odori) is a folk dance that has a 600 year history, and is performed differently in various parts of the country.
There are many other local matsuri in Japan, most paying respect to the local shrine or some historic figure. These festivals usually involve street processions with people dressed in traditional wear, often bearing 御神輿 (omikoshi) or portable shrines/floats. Food stalls called 屋台 (yatai) line the streets. Most summer festivals culminate in a dazzling fireworks display.
Writing about summer in Japan brings back a ton of memories. The Japanese word that describes a fond longing for something in the past is 懐かしい (natsukashii), which is roughly translated as nostalgia. Perhaps that’s the best part of summer in Japan, all those fun experiences today that become our fond memories that we can recall over and over tomorrow.