Japan's Summer Traditions

Japan's Summer Traditions

In Summer, heatwaves and sunny days seem to be more and more common in the UK, so looking for ways to keep cool and make the most of the hotter months are more important than ever. In Britain we are not used to intense temperatures, and therefore are more equipped for the cold and rain than blistering sun. Japan however, is infamously known for its hot and humid summers which have led to a number of traditions and activities that help one cool down or enjoy the cooler moments of the summer months.

Yoshiiku Utagawa, Summer Party at Ryogoku, Fireworks

   Firework displays have been popular summer activities since the Edo period, the display on Tokyo's Sumidagawa (Sumida River) dating back to 1733, the oldest recorded in Japan. Yoshiiku Utagawa’s print displays a feast for the eyes, with streams of red and orange fireworks exploding as revellers relax in their boats. Yoshiiku’s design is from the Meiji period, when pigments for fireworks began to range into a variety of different colours with imports from the West. However through the Edo period, fireworks were limited to shades of orange as depicted here. Set in Ryogoku by the Sumidagawa where the Ryogoku bridge still stands today, this was a popular spot for fireworks and evening summer parties. Watching fireworks over the river gives a brief sense of refreshment, with crisp, bright colours reflecting in the water below.

   Enjoying the cool of the evening did not have to be such a riotous affair. Throughout the hotter months, it has long been tradition in Kyoto to relax along the Kamogawa (Kamo River), running from North to South through the city. In Hiroshige II’s print, the focal point is a group lounging on what looks like decking. These are called Nouryou-Yuka and they are a staple sight along the banks of Kamogawa. This open air seating is still a strong part of Kyoto’s summer tradition, with 85 establishments along the Kamogawa offering a place for people to eat, drink, relax and generally enjoy the evening.

   While most will be keeping out of the sun as much as possible, the pull of the seaside will have people at the shoreline throughout the day. Clam digging is a seasonal activity known as Shiohigari that is done with family or friends until about the end of June.

Hiroshige II Utagawa, Enjoying the Evening Cool at Shijo in Kyoto

Nowadays, beaches are their most crowded in Golden Week, with groups trying their luck to dig for their dinner. Clearly, not much has changed since the Edo period, with Chikanobu’s print depicting a boat of beautiful noble women making a stop on the shore to dig for clams. The figures behind show a variety of people from parasol-ed ladies to workers clad in simple cotton kimono.

Chikanobu Yoshu, Clam Digging, Noble Ladies in the Tokugawa Era

What all of these activities have in common is that it’s all done by the water. Water isn’t just cooling when taking a dip, just being by or looking at water helps the body and mind feel cooler and more at ease. While we in the UK may not have the open buildings that offer shade and let in the summer breeze like Toyokuni III’s print elegantly shows, we have the imagery to transport us to that place. Whether that’s relaxing by a lake gazing at Mount Fuji, floating in the sea on a boat, or simply enjoying the summer breeze while laid out on the tatami, all these triptychs transport us to a cooler state of mind.

Nobukazu Yosai, The Courtesan of Muronotsu, Snow, Moon, and Flowers of Genpei

Kunisada II Utagawa, Sunset with Fuji

Toyokuni III Utagawa, A Scene of Young Leaves in the Fresh Summer Breeze


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