Sweatiquette! Part 1: six ways to deal with sweat during a Japanese summer

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!

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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.

window air con

The appliance that made our last Canadian home bearable in the summer.

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.

using a cooling sheet

cooling down with a cooling sheet outside a conbini (convenience store) in Asakusa, Tokyo

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.

calligraphy practice, Japan

Notice my left hand? Inside is tucked a lovely sweat towel. I was *roasting* and my knees were stuck to the pillow, but I was suitably dressed for the occasion.

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.

hand towels from Japan

lovely sweat sopper uppers from Japan

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.)

cooling sheets from Japan

packages of cooling sheets from Japan

#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.

fans from japan

selection of fans from Japan

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.

sun umbrellas in Japan

sun umbrellas (except for mine!), Kyoto

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?

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Stick around! There’s a whole lot more. Part 2 covers arm bands to onsen and Part 3 is the grande finale, “For when my sweat is sweating.”

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20 thoughts on “Sweatiquette! Part 1: six ways to deal with sweat during a Japanese summer

  1. I had no idea sun umbrellas were different.. I feel so silly now haha. Stands to reason they would be! I definitely need to get myself a little mopping towel, but even though I’ve seen the longer neck-wetting towels being sold, I am yet to see anyone wear one :/ I think my boyfriend might disown me if I tried wearing one out haha :p

    • I know! I thought the same thing about sun umbrellas. I figured, hey, it’s a thing over my head, it’ll work juuuust fine. But nope. I was red as a lobster.
      Yes! Those little mopping towels are a lifesaver. And if you’re into cute, you can always find ones to make you smile. I love my pink Totoro one.
      Ha ha! As for the long towels, I have photographic evidence of wearing them, but mostly around the house or in the yard playing with my little relatives. My in-laws teased me saying that I looked fully Japanese. 😀 When I’ve seen them being worn in Tokyo, it’s usually been school kids after baseball practice or the like or older adults who don’t worry about what others think or just about any age at summer festivals. In rural areas? Well, just about anywhere!

    • Ha ha! Yes, that’s a good point about those towels. I’m not a big makeup wearer but I do remember one day when I got all dolled up, marched with my hubby to his TOEIC test in July or some other steamy month, marched back through the neigborhood to the main street to hang out during his exam and had to go to the bathroom. Horror of horrors! My face looked like someone was looking at me through a wet window. One big smear. I cleaned myself up the best I could but really, I just needed a shower. ;D Thanks so much for commenting! I haven’t visited your blog in ages and am excited to see what you’ve been up to.

  2. As you I am also more used to the colder regions. In Finland I was used that with +15-20 degrees celsius everyone was wearing t-shirt and shorts. Now here in Germany my mother-in-law is complaining that +30 degrees is still too cold!
    Natrually I was worried before my first trip to China few years ago as it was just in the middle of the heat season. I had some experiences with hotter places but that was always during swimming camps so most of the times I spend there in the water. I must say I managed rather well, +38-40 degrees is usually the temperature where I even give up and want to stay inside but anything before that is still alright. But I am appearently the only one there as the streets often looked totoally empty when reaching to temperatures 😀

    • Ha ha! Yes, I can see your MIL complaining about the weather. It must be a shock! Is your part of Germany pretty dry, too? Here in Alberta, I might as well be living in the desert. To top it off, it’s apparently the driest spring in 50 years. Even my eyeballs are drying up.
      Oh yes. I hear you about your first trip to China and worrying about the heat. Do people bathe a lot during the hot seasons? That surprised me in Thailand. It was pretty normal for people to shower at least twice a day where we were living. When I got to Japan, the one bath a day in the evening seemed to be the norm regardless of the time of year. My mil couldn’t understand why I showered every morning *and* every evening whereas I would have been happy to have a shower an hour some days. 😀
      And as for wandering outside in hot temps when the rest of the world is safely elsewhere. That was me in Thailand. I wondered if there was something everyone else knew that I was clueless about. 😀

      • No, it is not dry at all here. Its a pretty rainy area here and we are between two seas which creates a lot of wild weather.
        My in-laws only shower in the evening, no matter how melting hot it is outside wheras I could need a shower in those conditions non-stop/ live in the shower 🙂

  3. This isn’t altogether different than India… once you have survived +48’c of a Delhi furnace or +38’c of a humid Bombay, you realise small things really can bring a spec of relief! So – yes to the umbrellas if walking around lots, esp Delhi. Long light loose clothing also help.

    However how do I get me some ‘cooling towels’?? Those sound fab!

    • Oh yes about the “long, light, loose clothing”! I had no idea that uncovering more skin did not a cool and comfy person make. When I was in Thailand the first time, my host (from Canada but had lived in BKK for a few years by then) was in long pants and a t-shirt while I was in my shortest shorts and a spaghetti-strapped tank top. (And I was also not clued in to appropriate dress for Thailand at that time.) I thought she was crazy until I realized that I was wilting within 30 minutes. The next day I covered up and couldn’t believe what a difference that made.
      The cooling towels are fantastic! You can probably buy them online from somewhere. Let me look and I’ll get back to you! They are amazing. By the way, are cooling powders popular in India? I still have some from when I was in Thailand. I used to pour them down my back. Ha ha!

      • I’ve never been a fan of cooling powders. I mean I get the logic but.. erhmm… not for me!

        Right now in Vancouver, I’ve actually had to grab a jacket to survive the cool weather… all the folks walking around in shorts look at me like I’m a crazy lady!

        • Yes, it’s always nice to have a white streak of cooling powder smeared somewhere, like on my clothing. The effect never lasts long but I still love it.

          And yes, you got a nice warm, “We are crazy Canadians who must wear shorts when it is at least 1 degree above zero because this might be the only summer we see” welcome. ;D

  4. I’m a get inside and hug the aircon at 20 degrees person! Don’t like the heat at all. We don’t have very hot summers in Central London but the city often feels very sticky oppressive. Plus I work in an old building without airco…. So I do suffer….

    Your fan photo reminded me of yhe fans I have, one is very similar to the wooden one and I have one from a Japanese tv station (I think) given to me last year at Matsuri day in London. Should stick one of those in my handbag…good reminder to do so!

    • Oh yes. We could both buy our own huggable a/c and be happy. 😀 Maybe it’s my own weird luck but every single time I’ve been in London, there’s been a heat wave. Ugh… I can definitely imagine your workplace in the summer.
      Yes! Those fans are so handy. It’s normal to see employees at work fanning themselves like mad. I’m not sure if it’s still the case but there was a rule when I was living in Japan for some (well, probably most) workplaces that air conditioners were not turned on until the internal temperature reached 28C. I thought that was *nuts* but it makes sense now. I had to beg and plead for permission to turn on the a/c in one of my company classrooms. My students were falling asleep and I looked like a potbelly stove ready to burst!

  5. Oh gosh. I can just imagine your experiences. As a fellow Canadian, we’re more like winter people. But I think I tolerate heat well (sometimes) because I was born in the Philippines and it’s HOT out there. But if I get to choose, I prefer to be in a place where it’s not too hot not too cold. Anyway, don’t get a heat stroke there in Japan.

    • Definitely! I think having that access to the cold provides some conditioning. That said, I’ve been in Toronto during heatwaves and had no idea the Maritimes got so insanely hot. My travel buddy from Ontario had no issue during our Maritimes road trip but me from Alberta wanted the a/c on in the car (and everywhere else) 24/7. 😀
      What places would be “not too hot but not too cold” for you? Hubby and I have often talked about ideal places to live and we haven’t come to any agreement yet.

      • Indeed. I just stay inside any air-conditioned buildings when there are heatwaves. I’m just glad that Environment Canada warns everyone in advance when they detect a heatwave coming.

        Hmmm. I don’t think there’s an ideal place that is “not too hot but not too cold”. Besides, being in a place for too long will make your body used to the place’s weather. Well, I hope that you get used to the weather there soon. Cheers!

        • Sorry for taking ages to reply! Yes, Environment Canada does do a good job of warning people, but have you noticed in the last year or two that they are over-warning? Honestly, sometimes I think the person doing the updates thinks no one looks outside. Well, maybe that’s the truth. 😀 But I’ve seen quite a few warnings retracted or downgraded, making me pay less attention to them.

          As for my ideal not too hot not too cold place, I’d have to say Hawaii. While my body got used to Japan, it has no memory for heat and hubby and I gave in and bought air conditioners today. Going to bed when our room was +30C last night was the breaking point.

          • No problem. It’s not like I “demand” swift replies. Indeed, Environment Canada has withdrawn quite a few of their warnings, but it’s understandable because weather can be unpredictable. And weather forecasts are just that—forecast—they’re not absolute. I actually prefer that they withdraw their earlier warnings because it means that the weather has shifted for the better. It’s better safe than sorry, as they say.

            I see. So you frequently travel to Hawaii? I think Hawaii is still too hot for me.

            Anyway, at least you already bought air conditioners, so the heat will be at least bearable there. Enjoy!

            • That makes sense (about Enviro Canada.)
              I’d love to say that Hawaii is on my regular spot of places to spend time but no. The last time we went was a few years ago and the time before was 25 years!! We did go a few times for family vacations when I was a child so I’ve got good memories.

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