Summer in Kyoto

AjisaiKyoto nestles in a valley, and the same valley that inscribes a verdant arc of mountain ranges (named according to their respective orientations in the east, north and west: Higashiyama, Kitayama and Nishiyama) about the city also makes it famously hot and humid in the summer.

Although early summer brings “plum rain” (tsuyu, so called because the rain comes at the time when the plum ripens) to the country, temperatures this year have already hit thirty-five degrees and are expected to inch up some more in the coming two months.

Baked concrete is hard on shoes and feet, and sun on the head and skin can even be painful. People are advised to wear loose, light-weight, and light-colored clothes so as to stave off the heat of the sun’s rays, regulate their body temperature, and not attract mosquitoes.

Many opt to wear hats as well, and department stores like Daimaru regularly hold summer fairs featuring all kinds of hats; the pricier ones cost anywhere from 8,000 to 25,000 yen. Straw hats can also be bought from Daiso, where most items go for 100 yen. Women, for their part, use arm-length gloves, visors, sunglasses, and parasols.

While air-conditioned taxis and stores are blessedly cool, thermostats on air-conditioners in government offices are often set at a high 28 degrees in line with the “Cool Biz” policy of the Japanese government.

Southeast Asian middle-class people who are inured to the arctic blast of air-conditioning in their malls, hotels, and restaurants might want to skip train cars bearing the sign “Weak Air-Conditioning Car” (弱冷房車, jakurei bousha), which are set at a higher temperature, and transfer to another part of the train.

Kyoto pharmacies are well-stocked with sunblock lotion ranging from SPF 28 to 50. Store owners drizzle water on the streets abutting their store fronts to cool down the sidewalk. Occasionally, one passes a house, hidden by high walls, and hears splashing and the gurgling laughter of small children playing in their plastic inflatable pools.

But the best thing about summer in Kyoto is its greenery, the sheer joy of watching the mint, lime, and chartreuse of new leaves deepen into olive, fern, moss, emerald, pine, and seaweed. The streets are lined with the kinds of trees–ginkgo, willow, cherry–that provide shade in the summer and then shed their leaves to allow sunlight to warm the streets in the winter.

Hydrangea involucrata, also known as mama-ajisai

Hydrangea involucrata, also known as tama-ajisai

And then there are the hydrangeas (ajisai), whether partially opened ones that resemble a spray of stars or fully opened ones that look like frothy balls of white, blue, pink, green, purple, and violet. They are everywhere: on the planted areas of the sidewalks along Oike Street; in the vases of flower shops; in big and small pots along the fences or walls of private homes; and in the beautiful gardens of Sanzen-in Temple and Fujinomori Shrine (in Fushimi).

The color of hydrangea florets varies according to the chemical composition of the soil. This changeability has made hydrangeas synonymous with fickleness and infidelity in Japanese poetry. In addition, the florets are poisonous, not just to cats and dogs, but also to humans.  But their beauty is such that, despite these negative associations, poets like Basho are moved to write haiku about them. In one haiku, Basho writes about the ajisai and thickets in the small garden of a detached parlor room. In another, the blue color of a hemp kimono puts him in mind of the distinctive light-blue of the ajisai.

Ajisai have also become summer attractions in their own right. Sanzen-in Temple and Fujinomori Shrine stage Hydrangea Festivals from June to July every year, allowing people to enjoy many different varieties of ajisai in their full-blooming glory.

There are also bellflowers, irises, lotuses, and sal trees, most of which can be viewed and enjoyed in the Kyoto Botanical Garden, a good place to have a picnic or just stroll around.

In the evenings, Gion—which holds its month-long festival in July–is a wonderful place to walk around, provided one is equipped with the requisite fan and an Imabari mini-towel (which comes in many colors) to wipe one’s brow and neck.

Many of the restaurants along the Kyoto rivers have outdoor wooden platforms (called yuka or kawadoko) where people can enjoy the evening breeze by the riverside, drinking sake and eating broiled sweetfish or quick-boiled hamo (daggertooth pike conger) with plum sauce.

Vegetables like tomato, cucumber, sweet corn (when Japanese say “sweet” they really mean SWEET!), eggplant and green pepper cool the palate, as do dishes like cold somen noodles, okra and enoki mushrooms in mirin-laced fish stock (dashi), white fish (sea bream, for example) carpaccio served over fresh eggplant, and octopus and tomato salad with grated ginger, soy sauce and lemon juice. Watermelons, sold in cut pieces or slices at the supermarket, offer stiff competition against Japanese cherries as les fruits de l’été. The Japanese word that best describes the refreshingly light and clean taste that summer cuisine leaves on the mouth and senses is sappari.

Historians tell us that kakigori may be the granddaddy of our halo-halo. Indonesians have their own es campur version.

Historians tell us that kakigouri may be the granddaddy (or else cousin) of our halo-halo. Indonesians have their own es campur version.

For kids, a huge mound of flavored shaved ice (kakigouri) is a delicious way of rehydration. Apart from enjoying the ice with grape, strawberry, melon, green tea, marble soda, peach, orange, and caramel syrup or condensed milk, one can order kakigouri that are topped with fruit like strawberry or mango, colofrul mochi (glutinous rice), sweet beans, prin, and ice cream. Some historians say that the kakigouri may have been the granddaddy (or else cousin) of our very own halo-halo and the Indonesians’ es campur.

Digging into one of these colofrul concoctions puts one in mind of childhoods spent in a nearby part of the world, lounging in the cool shadows cast by firetrees, hands sticky with juice as one bites into a very ripe kalabaw mango peeled like a banana. Here, the mango is more likely to be Indian or Thai or Mexican or Japanese, but it is sweet with longing and makes one believe that the lazy summer will go on forever.

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