Summer in Japan

It’s been over two years since I returned home, yet I still find myself reminiscing about summers in Japan. These summers brought me so many wonderful memories that they made someone who typically dislikes the season (due to the extremely muggy and uncomfortable summers in southern China) actually start to enjoy it.

Tomohisa Yamashita once said that all his summer memories revolve around yukata, fireworks, and Masami Nagasawa (the Japanese national goddess). Initially, I couldn’t relate, but after spending three summers in Japan, I understood why he said that. Unfortunately, I never met Japan’s national goddess (laughs).

In my eyes, Japanese summer is about yukata, fireworks, summer festivals, Mount Fuji, draft beer, flowing somen noodles, Horoyoi (a type of alcoholic drink similar to RIO in China), and the beach.

Fireworks Festivals

When talking about Japanese summers, you can’t avoid mentioning fireworks festivals. Every summer, fireworks festivals are held all over Japan, with displays lasting several hours and tens of thousands of fireworks in various shapes (some festivals even have competitions and judging). Aside from the rush hour at Tokyo’s train stations (where I was once pushed in and out of trains), I’ve rarely seen such large crowds in Japan. The crowds at these festivals are immense, with people walking so close together that movement is very slow. I was shocked the first time I attended a fireworks festival; some well-known festivals attract 600,000 to 700,000 people.

Local Attire

Men and women alike wear yukata (similar to kimonos but lighter and thinner), wooden clogs, and girls often carry small decorative bags and elegant baskets with fans, looking very graceful.

Fireworks Festival Directory

There are around 800 fireworks festivals nationwide, with dedicated websites detailing the dates, duration, and past attendance of each event (the thoroughness of Japanese information is impressive and reflects their meticulous and serious nature, which I find very humane).

There’s even a national ranking. I’ve attended the top three fireworks festivals in Japan, including the Adachi Fireworks Festival, which draws about 670,000 people. It’s an absolutely amazing place for a date (laughs).

VIP vs. Non-VIP Areas

The viewing spots at fireworks festivals are categorized into VIP and non-VIP areas. Regular VIP tickets might cost around 8,000 yen (roughly 400-500 RMB), while the more expensive seats are also available. Non-VIP spots are free; people bring mats, sit on the ground, drink beer, and chat while watching the fireworks. However, I personally think VIP spots aren’t always ideal due to occasional accidents where fireworks land in VIP areas (such incidents happen yearly due to unpredictable weather conditions). Conversely, non-VIP spots might offer a better view.

One year, a senior colleague from my part-time job told me he biked half an hour to see a fireworks festival, only for it to be canceled upon arrival because a firework landed on someone, causing the event to be stopped. He had to bike back, disappointed (laughs).

Summer Festivals (Natsu Matsuri)

Around July and August, Japan observes a week or two of rest to celebrate Obon (a festival to honor ancestors and spirits). These large-scale events are held nationwide, similar to but distinct from fireworks festivals. They often last several days, featuring local delicacies and unique cultural displays. While modern young people may not be as enthusiastic about cultural or political events, these festivals are a great way to experience local culture. There are around 600 such events nationwide, detailed on specialized websites. Tourists rarely get to experience these events, but they’re an excellent way to understand local culture, which is remarkably similar to ancient Chinese culture in terms of language, etiquette, and values.

Popular Festival Foods

According to a Line survey, 52.9% of people voted for takoyaki (octopus balls) as the most popular festival food. It’s ubiquitous at any event.

Following takoyaki is yakisoba (stir-fried noodles), a staple

that is available everywhere. Japanese people seem to love it, though I’ve had enough to last a lifetime. It’s cheap and filling, but it tends to be on the sweeter side, which aligns with Japanese taste preferences.

Another popular treat is shaved ice. In the hot summer, enjoying a bowl of shaved ice feels like bliss. Japanese drinks generally have less artificial sweetness compared to those in China. For instance, their tea and drinks aren’t overly sweet, which prevents that thirsty feeling you might get from sugary drinks. Their green tea is often just plain tea, which might take some getting used to but is refreshing and natural once you do.

Of course, there are many other delicious foods to enjoy, but listing them all would take a long time.

Mount Fuji

Climbing Mount Fuji was an unforgettable experience in the summer of 2018, bringing a mix of complex emotions. The people, the scenery, and the experience itself were all impactful.

Among international students, there’s a saying that if you live in Japan but haven’t climbed Mount Fuji, you’ll regret it. However, after you climb it, you’ll likely never want to do it again. I deeply resonate with this sentiment.

Legends of Mount Fuji

The name Fuji is pronounced similarly to “immortal” (不死, fushi) in Japanese. One of the most famous legends associated with Mount Fuji is from “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” It tells of an old bamboo cutter who finds a tiny girl named Kaguya-hime inside a bamboo stalk. She grows into a beautiful woman, attracting many suitors, including the emperor, whom she rejects. Kaguya-hime reveals she is a celestial being sent to earth as punishment. On a full moon night, celestial soldiers come to take her back to the heavens. To thank the emperor, she leaves him a potion of immortality, which he decides to burn on a mountain, thus naming it Mount Fuji.

Summer at Mount Fuji

In summer, Mount Fuji may not look as picturesque as it does in other seasons due to the lack of snow and cherry blossoms. However, it’s unique because the climbing season is open only in July and August. The rest of the year, it’s too dangerous due to snow, although some daredevils climb it anyway, often leading to accidents reported in the news. The Japanese seem to have a passion for mountain climbing, often with professional gear. This meticulousness extends to other sports as well; for example, they carefully wrap their shoes in bags before putting them on at the court, a stark contrast to the casual approach often seen in China.

Most climbers are foreigners; few Japanese people actually climb Mount Fuji. When I told my Japanese friends I had reached the summit, they were surprised and said they hadn’t, nor had their friends or family. It’s similar to how many locals in China might never visit the Great Wall. There’s a mindset that it’s always there, so there’s no rush, while for travelers, missing it might be a once-in-a-lifetime regret.

Accommodation on Mount Fuji

Have you ever stayed in a mountain lodge thousands of meters up on Mount Fuji (elevation 3,776 meters)? This unique experience is unforgettable. To accommodate those who can’t make it to the summit in one go, there are several mountain lodges where climbers can rest for a few hours before continuing to the peak to catch the sunrise.

Due to limited resources on Mount Fuji, especially water, using the restroom (about 200 yen) and drinking water (about 500 yen for 350ml) are luxuries. The higher you climb, the colder it gets. Even in summer, the summit’s temperature can approach zero degrees, making hot water a precious comfort. Despite thorough preparation, I underestimated the mountain’s cold, and the joy of drinking hot water under such extreme conditions was indescribable.

Views and the Journey Up

The climb to the summit is challenging, and the trail can be crowded with both experienced climbers and novices. As you ascend, the temperature drops, and the scenery changes, offering breathtaking views of the surrounding lakes and clouds. Reaching the summit at sunrise and witnessing the landscape bathed in early light is an awe-inspiring experience. The sense of accomplishment and the beautiful, mystical atmosphere make the journey worthwhile, despite the physical demands.

Japanese Beer (生ビール)

In Japan, the phrase “とりあえず、ビール” (“Let’s start with a beer”) is common in izakayas, reflecting the Japanese fondness for draft beer. Japanese beer is rich and flavorful, providing a genuine beer experience. Paired with a few pieces of fried chicken or skewers, it makes for hours of conversation. Perhaps this moderation contributes to the lack of beer bellies among middle-aged Japanese men, in contrast to their Chinese counterparts. Their generally lighter and healthier diet might also play a role. Unlike China, where meals are often larger, in Japan, I rarely felt truly full.

In addition to beer, Japanese plum wine (梅酒) is also a favorite of mine, to the point where I even tried making it myself during my stay in Japan.

Reflecting on these experiences, Japanese summer stands out as a time of vibrant festivals, breathtaking natural beauty, and rich cultural traditions, creating memories that last a lifetime.

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