Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Atsui, ne? Surviving Summer in Japan

If you've been in Japan for longer than a couple of weeks, you surely can't have helped but pick up at least one word. ATSUI!!! This multipurpose word has not one, not two but THREE different kanji*. This particular kind of atsui, though, means hot. Common (and by common I mean every couple of breaths) utterances from the Japanese during the summer include "Atsui, desu ne?" or the slightly more casual "atsui, ne?" ("Hot, isn't it?") to the exclamation of "ATSU!". While you may think that this particular expression is reserved for those hot days, outdoors, with the sweat slowly trickling down your back, you would be wrong - I most frequently hear it in cool, air-conditioned rooms. Still, the fact remains that summer in Japan is, indeed, atsui.

*If you are interested: 暑い= hot weather, 熱い=hot (temperate of things or people?) 厚い = thick, kind, cordial or deep!

So, I thought I'd give those of you thinking of coming to Japan a heads-up and let you know what summer is like here. Of course, this only really counts for Hamamatsu area. Hokkaido's summers are apparently quite cool, while the further south you head, towards Hiroshima and Fukuoka, the hotter it gets, of course.

Temperature ranges between 30 and 36, usually, although Kyoto reached 39.9 a couple of weeks ago. Don't let these temperatures scare you, though (if you're from somewhere like the UK, like me, where 22 constitutes a "heat wave") - this summer was apparently the hottest Japan has had in about 150 years. 118 people have died from the heat. The good news is, though, that Japan is a country of great air conditioning. While most classrooms in the schools are not air conditioned (I'll get to that in a minute), your average bus or café compensates by blasting ice cold air into the room, making the wave of unpleasant humidity that hits you on your way out all the more powerful.

How to survive? Well, personally I battled it by hiding in my air conditioned apartment, ducking into shops and cafés whenever possible, and of course staying in the shade. You should also be warned that air conditioning can give you flu-like symptoms, headaches and fatigue - not fun, but sometimes having it on is the only way that I can sleep. As for being at school, it's obviously advisable to wear short-sleeved shirts and (for the ladies) a skirt, as jumping around like a crazy genki lunatic will get you pretty sweaty. No self respecting Japanese person leaves the house without a fan (or doesn't have one stashed in their desk) but if you don't want to spend 1000-2000 on a pretty one, ugly ones adorned with advertisements are usually handed out for free on the streets - keep an eye out!

As well as temperature, the humidity is pretty extreme, too. Not only does this cause you to feel as if you've been hit by a wall of watery heat whenever you step outside, but it can cause things in your apartment to get mouldy, too. Yay! Your futon will most likely be the first victim - I lost one to mould already. When it's definitely not going to rain, hang the futon on your balcony throughout the day. As for the rest of your things, I recommend getting some "shikke tori" - humidity absorbers. Three tubs cost something ridiculously cheap like 150 Yen, and you can buy packets of the absorbent white crystals to refill them. You'll be amazed at how much water gathers in them after only a few days. They are available in pharmacy type shops, the same places that you would find make-up and vitamin tablets. You can get special de-humidifying sheets to put under your futon, and hanging packs to put in between your clothes. Magical! Just be sure to keep your apartment well-ventilated, and you should be OK. However, when I say ventilated....

...Beware of evil, massive insects. One thing that nobody told me about Japan is that bugs are MASSIVE! While freakishly large butterflies are beautiful, their friends - f***ing massive wasps - are not quite as enchanting. There are also massive, scary grasshopper-like things that lurk above doors. As far as I know they are harmless, but they can give you quite a fright. People in more rural areas have reported finding a lot of spiders. There are also the cicadas, who sing (well, SCREAM) from the trees and occasionally fly past your face while you're innocently cycling past... Japan is also quite the place for mosquitoes; although this is not a malaria-carrying country, they are bloody annoying. Of course, you can buy spray to deter them, and I have bought a little plug-in device for my apartment that seems to have worked for around 3 months in keeping them out. If you're wondering what these magical things look like, behold.

Deserving of a paragraph all to themselves are the evil cockroaches ("gokiburi" in Japanese). Growing to about three inches in length, these horrible things appear out of nowhere and crawl across your floor. When you try to attack them, they will run not away from but TOWARDS your feet. Naturally, when this happened, I jumped and screamed like a little girl, banging my side against a door handle and leaving a massive bruise for weeks. If you're an insect killing kind of person, one unorthodox method is to spray them with whatever you have on hand (mosquito spray, hair spray) to slow it down... before crushing it with the nearest object (shoe, bottom of a cup, bottom of a bottle of hairspray..). I have heard that they release eggs when crushed so clean everything nearby.... a LOT!!! They keep coming back. You can also buy cockroach spray, but generally try not to have any food lying around, it attracts them!

This should go without saying, but (like ma mamma always says) use protection! I found out the hard way that the sun is much stronger here than back in the UK. Sun cream only protects you for a couple of hours before you have to slap it on again. The other day, I was fooled by a cool breeze, and spent two hours outside. When I came inside, I realised that I was bright red. Always a good look. At least it amuses my students, though! If you're as fair as I am, invest in some 30+ suncream (it's quite expensive and watery here, sadly), sunglasses and a decent hat, and drink plenty of water throughout the day.

It started to get hot in July, after the rainy season. Now (late September) it is still hot, although the odd typhoon has cooled it down to the point where I can sleep at night without my air con. If you are planning to visit during the summer, just be warned! So be wise, stay safe, and remember - always know where your fan is!


  1. Speaking from experience... Hokkaido's summers, while coolER, are not a walk in the park. This year was quite hot. Though I know we did not hit the same temperatures as Tokyo and Osaka (though I was in both cities during the heat! ugh), we still suffer our heat too.
    The thing that makes Hokkaido so annoying is that there is NO air conditioning ANYWHERE. I'm serious. Not in any shopping centers, train stations, traings, or restaurants. It doesn't exist here. The air is always suffocating and stuffy because it never circulates. Apparently they have something against using fans here too. I bought two for my apartment and when my co-workers found out, they freaked out haha. Strange. ;)

  2. Hey Gwynnie,

    So I have wanted to teach English abroad for the past two years and have had my heart set on Japan for the past few months. This past week I have read your blog from start to finish. As you are aware this is an exciting but terrifying decision and I keep going back and forth as to whether it is the right one. Should I leave my boyfriend of two years? Would I be better finding a job here? Will I like Japan? Will I make friends easily? Etc. Etc. You are such an inspiration to me. After reading through this (as I have read many that were not a fan of Japan, although I think they didn't know what they were getting themselves into) I am DEFINITELY ready to go to! I hope to be as lucky as you are and meet so many amazing people. I have been trying to figure out which program would be better JET or Interac. I am going to apply to both but it seems to me that, while the pay is less, that Interac offers the most flexibility and holidays to explore the region. I was hoping you could answer a few questions for me. What was your interview like? Did Interac set you up with housing? I read something about being able to get a roommate but that didn't seem clear. Did they provide adequate training? I've never taught before so this is my main concern. Are there different starting months or just March? I'd appreciate any advice you have to offer!

    Boston, MA

  3. Hey Erin! :) Gwynnie will be able to provide you with great information! If you have any other questions, I'd be more than happy to help you out too. I'm on the Interac program as well. You can find a lot of links to other Interacer's blogs here on Gwynnie's page. Feel free to check them out. Everyone has a different experience. I for one am with Gwynnie in that I LOVE teaching here in Japan. :) Good luck with everything!

  4. Hey Erin! :)
    Wow, it really touches me to be called an inspiration. If you'd like to email me about it I'm at :)
    So, the interview had a few stages. Firstly, you fill in an online application. They'll call you eventually for a telephone interview. It's just things like "why do you want to go to Japan?" and "what do you think makes a good teacher?". If you're selected to go through to the next stage, they'll email you in a few days inviting you to an interview. I don't know where you live, but in the UK the only options are Edinburgh, York or London. So, I went to York, where I sat at a seminar about Interac and Japan with about 6 other applicants. We had to complete a grammar test, a personality test and then do an example 5 minute lesson in front of a camera. You pretend there's a class and teach something like colours. I think you're graded on how well you've prepared, how smiley and "genki" you are, etc. :)
    Housing! Interac sort you out, yeah, although they like to leave it until the very last minute! 8 days before I flew out they sent me 3 housing options, and let me choose one. You have to pay quite a lot up front (but you can take a loan from them) and after the week of training, an IC (independent contractor - a Japanese local with good English) will meet you and take you there, give you the key, make sure you understand everything and even take you to a nearby supermarket to buy supplies (cutlery, cooking equipment, food etc)!
    Anyway, send me an email, I'll be happy to reply to more of your questions! :)

  5. Wow this is nothing far from the truth your so right and thanks for the advance once more