This is part one of a three-part series called Sweatiquette! It’s all about ways to beat the heat during a Japanese summer including some etiquette tips. Thanks for reading!
* * * * * * * * * *
Growing up in cold Canada, being hot was and still is an exception. As such, responses to mild rises in temperature above freezing are usually overly enthusiastic. For instance, as soon as the temperature reaches 10°C, it’s time for t-shirts, shorts and beach sandals.
At 15°C, some consider shirts optional. At 20°C, there isn’t much more clothing that can be acceptably removed but Canadians do what they can and make sure to show off secret tattoos. Bathing suits in the park show up at 25°C.
The cut off is 30°C. This is where the weak are separated from the sun worshippers. While some run to the nearest air-conditioned building (me), others take to the streets to party.
Japan’s approach to rising heat
Japan does things differently. The average person tends to stay clothed and often conservatively in comparison to those nutty Canucks across the ocean.
10°C and sometimes even 15°C is still considered cold. While living in Tokyo, I went grocery shopping in my Canadian winter coat at this temperature.
T-shirt weather doesn’t start until around 25°C.
Summer is just getting started at 30°C. This is where cooling sheets (see below), slipping into convenience stores for a break from the heat, and moaning and groaning about the weather make an appearance.
Ack! Too hot! I’m going to die!
While Hitoshi thought he would die in the Canadian cold, thankfully I already had some hot weather experience in Thailand and Australia before moving to Japan. Otherwise, I likely would have not made it through that first summer.
Regardless, I had some adjusting to do. While I was travelling in Australia and teaching/volunteering in Thailand, I wasn’t required to wear a suit. Japan’s socially acceptable dress code combined with humidity and heat was a shock to the system. This, along with serious public sweating, took some getting used to.
If you arrive in Japan in the summer from colder climes, you might have to adjust, too. It’s astounding how much sweat your body can produce when provoked. Then again, sweating prevents death and everyone else will likely be as sticky, slippery and overheated as you.
First six coping tricks
Living in Japan introduced me to a variety of ways to handle the heat. Some seem downright wacky while others are delightfully practical. To celebrate the start of heat in Japan, here are six of my favorite ways to handle Japan in the summer.
#1 – A Small Towel
It is perfectly acceptable to wipe your face with a wee towel in public. This goes for women, men and children. Don’t be shy and wipe that brow!
This took me ages to do comfortably and I admit that I still hesitate a little. Don’t I call more attention to my sweaty face by wiping it? My next thought, “Ewwwww.” And then I simply surrendered.
Towels come in countless prints in all price ranges. 100 yen shops are a good place to start. The piggy and sea otter towels in the upper left were picked up there. The others are from department stores, a Fukushima mountain gift shop and higher end gift shops.
Another plus for carrying a small towel is having something to dry your hands on. Bathrooms don’t commonly have paper towels and you can still find the odd one without an air dryer. In the summer, some places turn off the hand dryers to save electricity. This leaves only your own clothes or toilet paper from a stall that usually sticks to your fingers. Instead, carry a mini towel and you’re classily set. And again, men carry towels, too.
#2 – A long, skinny hand towel
If you think you will be particularly sweaty, drape a long, light towel around your neck to soak up neck dew and wipe your glistening face. Wetting the part that touches your neck cools you faster.
This style of towel has a very light weave and dries quickly. They are usually white but we picked up some gorgeous printed ones at a department store.
100 Yen stores, convenience stores and grocery stores are other options to hunt these down. If you’re lucky and live in Japan, you might get some as a gift set. When we moved into our apartment in Tokyo, our downstairs neighbor presented us with a small set as a welcome gift.
While it’s fine to wipe your face and neck in public, avoid mopping your armpits. That is, unless you’re a high school boy riding a rural train and showing off for your buddies. (Yes. This really did happen. Hitoshi, unfortunately, has no memory of this eye-popping event.)
#3 – Cooling sheets
These disposable, wet towels give a chilly blast that lasts about 10-15 minutes. If it’s breezy, wiping your skin first and then standing in a draft of any kind intensifies the cooling feeling.
Convenience and grocery stores sell them; look for “ice-type”, “cooling sheets” or a snowflake. Quality varies but I prefer the versions for men. There are fewer to choose from and no fruity scent.
There is no shame in using sheets freely in public on your exposed body parts but look over your shoulder before wiping your armpits or back. (Again, unless you are a way super cool high school boy on a rural train.)
#4 – Gel packs
Another option is a narrow cloth holder for a gel pack, draped or tied around your neck. You put the gel pack in the fridge or freezer and then slip it into the holder.
The contraptions are available almost anywhere including 100 yen stores. Pictures on the package tell you what you are buying. I have seen people of all ages wearing these in the summer, even in Tokyo.
Another use for these is sleeping. The pillow style ones are larger and usually rectangular shaped. The one I bought for me, but Hitoshi ended up permanently “borrowing”, was about the size of a tablet.
#5 – Fans: u-chi-wa or sen-su
Hitoshi’s dad trusts only in the biggest fans! This means less effort when you’re desperate for a breeze.
Plastic or paper fans in different styles are usually handed out on the street to advertise stores. You can buy more traditional fans starting at 100 Yen. There is no stigma in fanning yourself with enthusiasm in just about any context.
The black one was a gift from an employer. The one on the right is old, made of sandalwood and still wonderfully fragrant. Hitoshi’s dad gave it to me shortly after we were introduced. The middle one came as part of a summer gift set. The one in the lower left was from a very friendly monk. The froggy one on the bottom right has a frog bell attached. I proudly (and gushing with love) presented it to Hitoshi shortly after we met.
#6 – Sun umbrellas
Long ago, men and women used umbrellas for sun protection and this practice is still acceptable today.
Contemporary ones are usually black or silver or have the same on the inside as a liner. They cut the strength of the sun remarkably. I burn easily, sunscreen washes away when I sweat, and my head suffocates in a hat. An umbrella is a lifesaver.
Department stores usually have the best selection. Try them out as the shape is different from a rain umbrella with a much shorter post. Look for tags that show a sun or the letters UV.
In the picture below, my umbrella is for rain. I thought it would work after my sun umbrella broke because it was white.
It didn’t. I roasted. Lesson learned.
How about you? Do you get out in the sun and sweat freely or glue yourself to the nearest air conditioner?
* * * * * * * * * *