Back into the furnace
Having just returned from my vacation in Toronto, I’ve been finding adjusting to the near-drowning humidity in Osaka a bit worrisome. Surprisingly, Toronto also managed to soar up into the upper-end of my threshold for heat tolerance with a few days hitting 30° C… and three days in particular in which I’m sure the thermometer rocketed even higher. Most of the time I spent in Toronto, I enjoyed the luxury of being chauffeured around in a thoroughly air-conditioned car so I didn’t suffer too much. However, even Toronto was constantly having smog warnings during my stay, advising that one venture outside only if absolutely necessary. And it was on those days that I chose to ignore the warnings and get along without the sanctuary of air-conditioning. Needless to say, I got burnt on those days. And yes, that was after applying first a 30 SPF+ FPS sunscreen lotion, followed by a 45.
Help me, I’m melting!
And now that I am back in Osaka, I find that the heat isn’t as unbearable as the humidity. Once I open the front door to glance at the blistering sun up above, I feel inclined to shut it just as quickly. The heat wave seems to eagerly burst in through the door, swallowing up all the freshly chilled air. If it weren’t for both the fan and the air-conditioning, I wouldn’t have even dared to turn on my computer to write this. I’ve seen a few 37° C these past two weeks, ironically enough this is the same temperature that the human body maintains. The hot air alone plagues my daily activities. But if you think that 37° C is something spectacular, whatever you do, don’t touch any objects lying out under direct sunlight. Some objects, when exposed to such a monstrously large iguana-like basking lamp (I’m referring to the sun here) can reach temperatures of 68° C or higher. Speaking of which, it was really nice to visit my family and my little iguana companions that are currently under my sister’s diligent care. I’m sure that they would love to roam about free in this heat – minus the humidity.
Thankfully, Japan is now filled with festivals that make enduring the summer so much more rewarding. There are three things that I enjoy about this season in Japan; the festivals, the fireworks, and the food. When properly entertained, I lose track of the time and find coping with the humidity a lot more rewarding.
The Gion Festival
A popular festival that I attended the other year is known as the Gion Festival. It’s one of the three largest festivals in Japan – it’s well-known to both the locals and to visitors from all over. The Gion Festival takes place in Kyoto during the month of July each year and consists of a parade with many floats. It was probably the first summer festival that I experienced in Japan. I was thinking of attending again this year until I realized that it ended in July (while I was in Canada). One of the convenient things about the Gion Festival is that the floats are left on display during the day, before the parade later on at night. I was able to take a few up-close pictures, while some other passersby lined up in the streets in order to have a chance at boarding the float. Some of the shop owners in the vicinity also seemed to be selling special goods connected to the festival. What really shocked me about this festival was the unbelievable mass of spectators that flocked into the streets that had been closed-off to normal traffic. I wouldn’t have been able to guess at the number of people there on the day that I chose to check the festival out. There was literally a sea of people as far as the eye could see, and this number continued to increase as the night wore on.
Despite the heat, a good majority of the onlookers (I’d say 80%) were clothed in brightly colored yukatas. The clicking of geta(s) along the street proceeded in an endlessly loud procession. From what I can remember, most of the women also had their hair elaborately styled on top of their heads with pins and pretty ornaments to compliment the yukatas that they wore. On top of that, the rhythmic pounding of the taiko drums vibrating through the pavement – and the air – lent a bold atmosphere to the already lively festival. Watching the yukata-clad men and women traipsing down the main streets of Kyoto, while listening to the taiko drums, made my mochi taste even more delicious as I followed the crowd to Kiyomizu temple. I didn’t return to the station for another few hours after that.
As for fireworks, the ones that are set loose above the Yodogawa River are said to be spectacular and awe-inspiring. The reason why I am basing my conclusions on rumors alone is because I have never had the fortune of seeing these fireworks. I’ve tried – three years in a row – to attend the Yodogawa fireworks festival, but with no such luck. The first year, I wasn’t able to attend because of work. The second year, I couldn’t get to the river in time due to the incredible surge of would-be fireworks viewers who had overloaded the train system. Last year, I set out to watch the fireworks with plenty of time on hand but turned back upon witnessing the waves of people stuck at the nearby station. There was basically a lineup to leave the station itself! Such was the popularity of the Yodogawa fireworks! And this year… although I had planned on braving the crowds (I had actually picked out a place along the river that is not easily accessible by the train lines) I missed the fireworks for having confused the dates.
The closest that I’ve come to getting involved in the Yodogawa fireworks festival is by roaming around the participating vendors. On the second year, I missed the fireworks but turned up along the streets near the river while the celebrating was still in full swing. Yukata clad people swarmed streets and streets of vendors that winded along back alleys, through shoutengai(s) (shopping arcades), and out along the main streets. I’d never seen anything like it in Canada.
Most of the vendors were selling food like okonomiyaki, takoyaki, taiyaki, mochi, candied apples, and custard-filled pastries. I sampled as much as I possibly could, avoiding the takoyaki due to octopus not agreeing with my appetite. The sheer number of these vendors stunned me. There was obviously a demand great enough to warrant such a large number of these stalls. Aside from the food, there were many games being played by children and adults alike. Some of these included ball-toss, ring-toss, and catching fish. One of the most interesting vendors that I noticed was not very busy. His sign challenged any takers into trying to catch an eel from the tank in front of his stall. If the participant were to successfully catch the eel, the man would cook it right then and there for the winner. I’m not sure what the odds are of catching an eel but it sure didn’t look easy!
Somehow, by wandering up and down the streets, the contagious festive spirit caught up with me and it was many hours later before I remembered that I needed to wake up early the next morning. It was with great reluctance that I left the smiling faces and laughter behind.
The week of Obon
This year, since I haven’t had the chance to catch up on the festivals, I’ve been catching up on the food instead. During the week of Obon, I met up with a friend that I hadn’t seen in a while in order to do some window shopping. But before that, we had agreed to start the day off with a Japanese style lunch. We met in Umeda and headed for a small restaurant that I had frequented during the winter season. The lady who runs the establishment remembers me and always voices my order before I’m able to do so myself. Her memory truly is amazing, as is the zaru-soba (buckwheat noodles), which I’m quite fond of. During the winter I had eaten a lot of hot soba at her restaurant but the current weather calls for cold ones instead. My friend chose the hot soba while I chose the larger set containing the cold zaru-soba, and tempura-don (a rice bowl with deep fried shrimp and vegetables on top). No wonder I keep gaining weight! We ate to our hearts content while chatting about the latest changes in each of our lives. After I finished telling her about my vacation in Toronto, she did her best to keep me informed on any gossip that I may have missed during my absence.
Umeda was full of sales that day but instead of doing much shopping, we found ourselves in a coffee shop with dessert drinks, once more chattering away endlessly. It’s nice to have a friend who is constantly on the same wavelength as me and able to hold a lengthy discussion. What is even better is being able to see things from the perspective of a Japanese woman in my age group. Not even an active shopping spree can compare to a days worth of intelligent conversation. We eventually got onto the topic of ‘the Japanese mindset’ or way of thinking. It was very enlightening to hear a comparison of how a Japanese person might think in a particular situation as opposed to a Western person, especially from an insider’s point of view. So, while we sipped at our calorie-laden beverages, we compared our own life experiences and challenged the other into giving an opinion on how an opportunity or obstacle may have been faced differently were our situations reversed.
Needless to say, this conversation proved to be time-consuming and it wasn’t until several hours later that we glanced at our watches. And even then, we only did so because of the grumbling of our stomachs that alerted us to the passing dinner hour.
As enjoyable as our conversations were, I still can’t believe that we idled the day away without so much as glancing at a clothing store – since this had been our original intention. Directly after we finished up with the drinks, we walked halfway across Umeda before finding ourselves in a popular ton-katsu (deep fried pork cutlets) restaurant. The appeal of this restaurant is that you are given the chance to grind up the sesame seeds for the sauce that you will be dipping your ton-katsu into. It’s definitely a good idea to keep the customers distracted while they wait for their meal to arrive. We continued to talk as we ate the ton-katsu, now pulling out our cell phones to trade pictures.
Off to New Zealand?
This time, my friend asked me again if I had any regrets about coming to Japan and staying as long as I have. Aside from missing my family and friends in Canada, I told her once again that I had come to love Japan just as much as I do Canada. Although the two countries are completely different in many aspects, they are both just as comfortable to live in and explore. It was at this point that my friend revealed to me the possibility of her venturing abroad for a time. Perhaps she would be going for a home stay in New Zealand next year. She had taken an interest in Canada after all the stories that I’d shared with her but didn’t fancy the long flight or adverse winter temperatures. Apparently, a friend of hers had already been to New Zealand for a year and had immensely enjoyed the experience. My friend longed for some adventure and was now planning to quit her job and relocate to New Zealand for a year or longer. Hearing her speak of another country in such a manner reminded me of my own excitement upon first coming to Japan. Although I would miss her friendship if she were to go through with her plans and spend a year in New Zealand, I couldn’t help but encourage her in her quest to better understand the different cultures of the world.