Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The heat and humidity of Japan

People here love to tell me Japan has four seasons.  Just to simplify things on my end, I love to tell them my little part of Georgia has only two.  After having lived here on and off for about a decade, I've come to appreciate Japan's seasons and their nearly clockwork-like regularity.  They really do tend to start and stop right on schedule.  That's probably confirmation bias rather than empiricism but usually if I hear spring starts on a particular date bringing with it its characteristic weather, then come that date and BOOM!  Spring.

It's rainy season now, which usually begins in mid-June and lasts about a month, after which we get boiling heat until September.  My first year in Japan rainy season started in May and lasted until July, but the others have been more accommodating to the yearly plan, give or take a week.  Rainy season means steamy apartments when it's not actively pouring down outside.  Rental saunas in which you eat and sleep and watch TV.

In fact, we were watching a drama just last night about a family that's falling apart.

"They have a sauna," my wife said.  On TV, the dumb, depressed dad (fired for embezzlement) was steaming himself before getting dressed and pretending to go to work to keep up appearances with the neighbors.

"We have one, too," I said.  "You just open the door and go outside."

By July, it will be inside.

I'm pretty sure our apartment isn't insulated, and I'm absolutely certain we don't have central heat and air.  We had to buy a wall-mounted A/C unit when we moved in.  This is pretty common in Japan, which is so modern as to be positively futuristic in many respects, but surprisingly tradition-bound in others.  In winter, people tend to wear layers and rely on kerosene heaters and comfy kotatsu (heated tables) more than blasting heat from a lot of vents.  In summer, you open screened windows, run fans and eat shaved ice.  Houses and offices have small A/Cs up on the walls in individual rooms.  This works well for single room heating and cooling and for small studio apartments.  Not so much for places like ours, with two bedrooms.

The A/C.  It's expensive to run, too.  We ran into a little cultural problem during the winter over its use.  I'm from warm climes and would spend my summers beach-side if I could.  My wife is a mountain girl who is used to cooler air.  She would run the A/C to heat if I looked miserable enough or my nose and lips turned blue, but she was perfectly comfortable in sweatshirt and sweatpants on all but the coldest mornings.

But while Georgia's temperatures usually average higher than Japan's in summer, Japan has Georgia beat by far in humidity levels.  Georgia can be a swamp when you're outside, but who goes outside?  It's a quick dash from the air-conditioned house to the air-conditioned car to the air-conditioned Wal-Mart then back.  Farmers sweat, and cops and convicts cleaning the roadsides.  Everyone else stays cool.  Still, I'm more used to summertime heat and damp underarms than my wife is.  We're in agreement our A/C will be a necessity at some point, but I'm in favor of economizing and ecologizing and trying to put off its activation until we can no longer survive without it.

I go shirtless around the apartment, she asks me, "Why are you naked?"

"I'm not naked," I reply.  "I'm wearing shorts."

She rolls up her sweats and eats fruit ices.  We're fine until bedtime.

Enter a really cool invention, which we used for the first time last night.  The cooling pad.  I'm not sure how this baby works, but my wife ordered one for our bed.  It's a mattress pad with a plastic sheath in the center and inside this sheath are pouches with some kind of chemical goo that turns cold when your body presses against it.  You can put it in the freezer to chill it even more, but that's not really necessary right now.  The only drawback is the cooling power doesn't last.  While it felt very nice at first-- although it gave me the sensation the sheets were slightly damp-- sometime during the night the goo gave up and the sheets went back to room temperature.

We're going to order smaller ones to put inside our pillow cases, too.  Plus some covers that also promise a cool sleep.  And we're buying fans.

Another way we beat the heat here is by taking cold showers.  During winter, we turn on a little gas meter in our shower room and set the water temperature, usually to 37 degrees C.  Last week I took that down to 35 and last night and this morning to 32.  After rainy season I anticipate not turning on the gas at all and just blasting myself with cold water.  Which will probably be more like lukewarm even without gas.  You really need to cool your skin as much as you can while showering because with the humidity being what it is and your pores opened by the warm water you end up working up a sweat while dressing.  Some summers here I average more than two showers a day in July and August.

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