Traditional Japanese strategies for combatting natsubate, or the dog days of summer

IMG: sleeping cat.

A cat of our acquaintance's natsubate strategy: All-day naps in the shade.

August is particularly bad in the Tokyo area where I'm from, as it is in most parts of Japan except for the northern parts of Hokkaido. It gets really hot, and the high humidity makes everything and everyone moist, sticky and generally nasty. There's a bit of relief in the form of a brief evening thunderstorm (夕立 ゆうだち yuudachi) most days, but the respite is temporary. Getting a decent night's sleep without air conditioning is pretty much impossible.

The term to describe the stage of lethargy and fatigue brought on by this hot, humid weather is 夏バテ (なつばて natsubabe; literally 'summer fatigue'). Japanese people have devised various ways of combatting it. Some are food related, and some aren't, but here are some of my favorites.

Eat and drink very cold things

An obvious strategy perhaps! It does mean that there are lots of delicious cool drinks and snacks in Japan. My favorite cool summer drink is mugicha or roasted barley tea.

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Other quintessentially Japanese summer drinks include ramune, a lemony drink that traditionally came in a glass bottle stoppered with a marble (the word ramune is derived from the English 'lemonade'); iced coffee, which can be served black, with sugar, or with milk and sugar, and is a popular vending machine item; and Calpis, a fermented, sweet milk-based drink (more about Calpis in another post!) Ice cold beer and sake are very popular too. Surprisingly perhaps, iced green tea is a fairly recent invention, promoted by bottled drink manufacturers.

To digress: Ice cube culture!

In Japan, cold drinks are usually served with lots of ice, either cubes or crushed. The same goes for the U.S. But here in Europe, cold drinks are often served with no ice cubes at all. Even places like McDonalds (which are all over France, especially in this area) only include 2 to 3 measly ice cubes in their drinks. When I ask people here about this I get two explanations: Ice cubes dilute the drink; or ice cubes are bad for your digestive system. (But if ice cold things are so bad for the tummy, why all the ice cream?) I love to crunch down on ice cubes when it's hot, so I feel deprived!

Anyway, back to the subject...

A traditional ice cold snack is of course kakigouri (かき氷 かきごうり) or shaved ice, topped with sticky-sweet fruit flavored syrup. Here's a Hawaiian version that I had in November...

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Ice cream is popular too, though not exactly traditional. Nowadays rich, creamy brands like Häagen-Dazs (ハーゲンダッツ in Japan) are all the rage, but the ice cream I remember eating growing up was thinner and lighter, more like ice milk. It either came in little paper tubs, or as monaka, in a waffle-shaped wafer covering. (Yuki daifuku, an ice cream filled dumpling, is a fairly recent invention from the 1980s or so.)

Other cool snacks include mitsumame (みつ豆), a sort of fruit cocktail with cubes of kanten (agar-agar) and cooked azuki beans; anmitsu (あんみつ), soft rice dumplings (called shiratama) with sweet azuki beans (an) and fruit; and kureemu anmitsu (クリームあんみつ), animitsu with vanilla ice cream. Here's my very derivative version of kureemu anmitsu, using strawberries in balsamic vinegar instead of sugar-syrup. Below is a more traditional kureemu anmitsu by yumiko tanaka.

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There's even a savory cool snack, called tokoroten(ところてん), thick noodles made from a seaweed called isinglass, with a vinegar-soy sauce sauce, topped with hot mustard and other things. Tokoroten is almost no-calorie if you use the eastern Japan style vinegar sauce. (In western Japan a sweet sauce is used instead.) The slippery texture may take some getting used to though. Heres a photo by CookieM.

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Other cooling foods, from chilled salads to watery vegetables like cucumbers and eggplants (aubergines) are consumed to cool down the body. A popular easy to eat meal is cold noodles - soba (buckwheat noodles), so-men (very thin wheat noodles), _hiyashi chuuka_, udon and so on.

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Give 'em sutamina (stamina)!

Another way to combat natsubate seems diametrically opposed to the cool, cold food and drink strategy is to eat rich, oily foods, to give the lethargic body sutanmina or stamina, or seiryoku (精力 seiryoku), which can mean energy in general or sexual energy. A quintessential stamina-giving oil rich food is eel (unagi), in the form of unajuu (うな重 うなじゅう), a bed of plain rice covered with filets of unagi in a savory-sweet sauce. Here's a photo from HisashiToday:

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Some assert that sutamina can be gained by eating organ meats. There are little restaurants that specialize in grilled organ meats, called horumon yaki (ホルモン焼き ほるもんやき), literally translated as 'grilled hormone'! Typical horumon yaki ingredients include things like hatsu (heart), motsu (kidney or stomach), hatsu (heart), tripe, and other innards from pigs (and boars), cows, and poultry.

Other sutamina giving foods include garlic, ginger and spicy foods (especially curry).

An umeboshi a day...

I have fond memories of going to stay at my grandparents' during summer vacation. After playing out in the hot sun all day, my grandmother would always insist on my cousins and me having a salty umeboshi each. Umeboshi went a bit out of fashion for a while, due to concerns about high sodium, but they seem to be coming back in style now, since they are supposed to quite good for you, despite the salt.

Homemade umeboshi

Wear a yukata

A yukata (浴衣 ゆかた) is a casual summer kimono. Usually made of cotton or a cotton-linen blend tht is cool on the skin (formal kimonos are often made of silk, wool or similar synthetics), it's most often worn in the evenings after taking a cool shower or bath. (Yukata literally means 'bathing clothes'). A yukata is worn both outside and as sleepwear. (Photo by ori2uru.)

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Traditionally, new yukata are made for each member of the family every summer. In my mother's day, girls would often have to make a yukata as part of their summer vacation homework, by hand. (Yep in Japan they issue homework for the holidays!) In my day this had changed to making anything crafty (I remember making a raffia bag one year, a skirt another); I wish I had learned how to sew a yukata instead. There is a terrific short-story manga by my favorite manga author, Moto Hagio, called "The Yukata That Sayo Sews" (小夜の縫うゆかた), a sweet story about how 14-year old Sayo trying to decide whether or not to use the rather childish dragonfly-print fabric that her mother had bought the year before to make her homework yukata. Her mother had passed away before she had been able to sew that fabric into a yukata for Sayo...

A wind bell (fuurin)

Finally, one of my favorite non-food ways of keeping cool is to hang a fuurin (風鈴 ふうりん) outside the window. A fuurin (literally 'wind bell') is a small metal, ceramic or glass bell, with a little paper tag hanging from the ringer part. When the wind blows, the bell make a small, high pitched sound. This sound is supposed to evoke coolness. Great care is given to choosing a bell with just the right chime. (Photo by r.g+.)

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In principle a fuurin is related to those big, clunky wind chimes, but far more delicate. (Incidentally, one of the most jarring moments for me in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, which is riddled with cultural inaccuracies, was when a fuurin was seen hanging outside in the dead of winter and used as a doorbell. Wrong, so wrong!)

What are you favorite ways of keeping cool?

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