Sunday, June 12, 2016

Beat the Heat: Wearing Clothes and Functioning in a Japanese Summer

Left: tight, short synthetic fabrics. Right: long, loose, natural fabrics
Ok, well maybe "functioning" is a bit of an exaggeration. If you're like me, once temps reach 32C (90F) and humidity gets up to over 65%, priorities slide from being productive and functional to simply surviving. At home, the wearing clothes part also becomes difficult. Sometimes there's nothing to do but lie on the tatami under the air conditioner, drink iced barley tea and tease the appetite with frozen blueberries. 

Yes, summers in Kyoto can be brutal. Temperatures soar to as high as 41C (105F) and the humidity is such that any movement is oppressive. There is not a breath of wind in the bowl-shaped Kyoto plain. Time slows and moments seem like lifetimes of breathlessness. In our east-facing apartment we awake once around 4 a.m. drenched in sweat to turn on the air conditioning. We can usually doze until 6 a.m. and the room is assaulted with the blazing sun and a cacophony of cicadas and rajio taisou (Japanese radio exercises) in the little park nextdoor. Night brings little relief. I sometimes dread going home from my air-conditioned workplace to my sweltering house. Our little air-conditioner is powerless against the relentless heat and humidity. This situation continues for about two-and-a-half months in the summer. Every year, the TV announces the hundreds of people who are admitted to hospitals for heatstroke and the number of poor old farmers carried off by the hottest days. The only relief is in the form of typhoons, which bring lower temperatures as well as heavy rains and winds that can be devastating. 

For most of us, activity, jobs, and life must be continued despite the aggressive weather. I must often put on clothes, leave the air-conditioned and de-humidified delicious artificial air and brave The Sticky. 

It can be a lot more bearable if you choose your clothes wisely! Here are four things I have found about wearing clothes in summer in Japan:

Natural fabrics are my friend

If it's got any man-made fabrics at all (polyester, rayon, Spandex, etc.) I leave it in the closet. I don't buy any "summer styles" made with these fabrics anymore.  I've learned my lesson and now only wear cotton or linen clothes, or blends (not blends with synthetic fabrics though). The kanji for cotton is 綿 わた and for linen it's 麻 あさ . If I could find hemp, ramie, bamboo, or other plant-based fabrics I'd love to try them! Cotton and linen are the most common. Recently, big chains like Uniqlo, GU, and H&M are advertising efforts to source these fabrics ethically. It's so worth paying the extra money sometimes, because both cotton and linen have drying, cooling, and deodorizing effects. When humidity is high, if your body sweats to control body temperature the sweat cannot evaporate from your skin easily, leaving you at risk for overheating even if the outside temperature is not very high. I appreciate any drying and air circulation I can get! Uniqlo has their popular Airism line of summer camisoles and bra-tops, which I like for when I need to layer, but they still can't beat natural fabrics in my book. 

Hang loose

When it's really hot out the last thing I want is fabric clinging to my skin. Sweat soaks it and then it's even more clingy, not to mention unsightly. I try to strive for a layer of air between skin and clothes over as much of my body as possible. Loose, flow-y tops and flared skirts, those trendy gaucho pants, and shapeless dresses are the best I've found. It's more ok in Japan to hide your waist and a wear a voluminous silhouette, so I don't feel frumpy. Natural fabrics also generally have a more "crispy" texture that helps lift them off your skin.

More is more 

I used to think hot weather=less clothes, but I've found the next best thing to no clothes at all is actually more clothes! 3/4 sleeves and longer skirts/pants really help shade my skin from the sun which does seem to blaze more directly and hotly here than in my hometown Seattle (there's what a different latitude will do for you). This has a cooling effect naturally, and longer lengths also give me more protection from bloodthirsty mosquitoes (I got four bites in just the 5 minutes it took me to take the photo on the left!). 

Add a hat

Yuya gave me a fun straw fedora hat one year. Not only does it complete any outfit, but again it offers some shade. There's a world of difference between the sun beating down on your unprotected head and the sun not beating down on it. Ha. Some Japanese ladies (particularly the more mature ones) often cover up completely with black gloves and sleeves all the way to the shoulder, visor hats and sunglasses AND parasols. I carried a parasol once but it's kind of too cute for me now although the shade was nice. A hat does the trick. 

So those are the things I keep in mind when I get dressed in the mornings. It's the middle of June now, and things are gearing up for summer. This year, I feel more prepared than ever. Bring it on! It's only 14 weekends until October...

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