I am not a big fan of the summer in Osaka. June-Sep over here is like living in a sauna or in a nightclub with no air conditioning. I am a Finn, and like most Finns I like sauna, Finland’s national pride. I am talking about voluntarily going to a pine board covered room, throwing water on the kiuas (a stove-like apparatus with hot stones) and enjoying the hot humid air rising to about 100 degrees centigrade on the top bench in the room. And I am a badass when it comes to heat in saunas; I can take pretty hot temperatures and still lift my hands up during a particularly hot wave of heat so that my fingertips, which are touching the ceiling, feel like they are burning. Funnily enough, I (and many of my fellow Finns) find the experience of sitting in this hot room with a cold bottle of beer or cider relaxing. I also like (or more realistically: liked) going to nightclubs, regardless of whether or not they are/were air-conditioned. So, what is there not to like about in the summer of Osaka you might ask? The thing is that I can take 15 minutes of extremely hot sauna or a couple of hours in a sweaty nightclub but living in those kinds of conditions for four months solid is not my idea of fun.I suppose, four months of sauna is good for one’s complexion – no moisturiser needed, and the heat keeps your pores clean – but any positive effects of the humidity on my complexion is counterbalanced by the constant grimace of discomfort on my face. Furthermore, I am hot and sweaty. I stink. My hair is also sweaty and looks like a rat’s tail – or to be more honest, a mouse’s tail. Backcombing is futile in these conditions. So I’m not a happy bunny (or a mouse).
I should really mention that the grimace of discomfort on my face is not actually constant. You see, Japan is a bit like Finland when it comes to adjusting the temperature indoors. In Finland, all shops, shopping centres, private homes etc. are well insulated and well heated. So even when the thermometer is showing minus 35 degree outside temperatures in February, people indoors are warm, enjoying approx. 24 degree room temperature when admiring the crisp winter morning sun on the banks of snow. Japan is similar to Finland in that when the thermometer is showing 35 degrees in July, many shops and offices have the air conditioning set for low or mid 20s. In Japan they not only adjust temperatures in spaces like trains, shops and offices, but also on subway and train platforms. They have huge air conditioners there whose lovely cool air I embrace whenever I have an opportunity (see photo at the start of the page).
Even though the opposite room-temperature related phenomena in Finland and Japan are great – each relevant for the country’s climate – these can also be somewhat unpleasant. You see, in February in Finland you leave your home wearing a kick ass down coat, mittens and a woolly hat to find yourself in the local shopping centre sweltering because down coat, mittens and a woolly hat are way too hot for 24 degree temperatures.
Osaka is the opposite. In August, when it is 40 degrees outside (with 95% humidity) and you leave your home wearing practically nothing, sitting next to the air-con on the train while your eyebrows are turning white with frost is not what you had in mind when you chose the sleeveless dress to wear. More than once have I been on the train or in a restaurant where I’ve had extreme goose bumps. And it is not just me, because I have seen many Japanese people wear a small bath towel around their shoulders or on their legs when sitting on a particularly well air conditioned train or office. Yes, this means that many Japanese people carry with them a bath towel. Don’t ask me why. My best guess is that they jump into a shower any chance they get and on the off-chance are armed with a bath towel wherever they go.
Not all Japanese people wear minimal clothing during the extremely hot and humid summer of Osaka – unlike most Europeans. Many Japanese women cover themselves up. For instance, they usually wear long sleeved tops or cardigans however hot it is. If they aren’t wearing a long sleeved top, they wear leg warmer like sleeves on their arms (see photos). For simplicity let’s call these ‘arm-warmers’.
Importantly however, the function of the arm-warmers is not to keep one’s arms warm, but (a) to keep the arms cool, because the thin arm-warmer material blocks the sun and heat and leaves a barrier of cool air in between the person’s skin and the arm warmer, and (b) to prevent the wearer getting a sun tan. Sun tans are not seen as something desirable in Japan. Not only do Japanese ladies cover their arms in the sun, most women walk around (or cycle!) holding a parasol and/or a hat armed with UV protected perspex to block the sun on their face. (See photos – it makes them look a bit like sheet-metal workers).
Having fair skin is what Japanese ladies like, and presumably also Japanese men, which drives the ladies’ preference for not getting tanned. Having fair skin is not only achieved by blocking the sun during summer, but a popular beauty product in Japan seems to be ‘whitening’ cream, which – as states in the product label – whitens your skin.
This is of course the opposite to what is desirable in Finland. In Finland where most people have extremely fair skin the tanned look is what everyone is after. And I can understand why! White legs, even if skinny and toned (I’m not unfortunately referring to my legs) are not a pretty sight. I can’t help but think uncooked chicken drumsticks, or if particularly skinny: two strings of spaghetti. So, yeah, a tan is a must for Finnish legs.
Many ladies in the UK have a somewhat different view as to what looks good. And with this view they live in a world of their own. It’s off the scale, exaggerated beyond anything that looks natural. I mean white, slightly tanned, or even very tanned legs are plausible options for a Caucasian skin colour palette. Many British women’s skin colour – vibrant orange – does not, in my opinion, belong in this palette. I can’t understand why for the best part of the year (or in the case of Newcastle all of the year), many British young ladies choose to look like a satsuma. Perhaps it is because many British men (my husband included) think that the colour of a ripe tomato is the name of the game and the aim for a successful early summer Sunday spent on the Brighton beach. Perhaps the British women are simply trying to co-ordinate their colour to complement that of their husbands’ or boyfriends’.
It is not only hot in Osaka during the summer, it is also very humid. Therefore, all Japanese people carry with them a small face towel or two, which they use to wipe the sweat off their face and neck (see photo). You can observe men and women doing this wherever you are: on the train, at work, cafes, in the park. When I asked my work colleagues and students what the thing with the towels was they were stunned that I didn’t carry one with me and could not believe that face towels are not the norm in Finland or England. I had to repeat it to my students several times that noone carries with them a towel unless they are at a gym or are doing some other form of physical exercise.
My colleagues went and got me two face towels – one posh one and one for everyday use. I feel like a Japanese person when I use my towel in public places, and I am convinced I get many approving looks from Japanese people when patting my sweaty forehead with my pink leopard print Givenchy towel.
The only place in Finland where they have had sauna like conditions this summer has been… erm… in the saunas. So when we go there on holiday in a couple of weeks, I will not need to take my face towel with me, unless I want to use it as a towel underneath my bum when sitting in a communal sauna (then again, it might only be of use for the west wing of my bum and not the east wing).
In addition to being armed with face towels, many Japanese people – women as well as men – carry with them a fan. They are commonly those Spanish señorita type fans. Men here don’t have an issue carrying one of those with them and using them. Because those fans looked cooling, I bought one. And I have to say, they are great! (see photo).
July the 17th marked an important day for us. We had been resisting turning the air-conditioning on in our apartment for about 7 weeks until this day. My view was, and still is, that once you turn the air-con on, there is no going back (it’s easier to tolerate oven like temperatures when you have been slowly acclimatised to it, but once you’ve got used to the wonderful 23 degree room temperature switching the air-con off would feel like you are a Christmas ham being slow cooked in the oven). So, for most of May and July and all of June I had been holding (and hiding) the remote controls for the air-con, the reason being that most people we know in Osaka have told us that having the air-con on continuously will set you back about €200 per month! I am Finnish and therefore tight with money. To avoid any particularly nasty looks from my friends when we go to Kotka (my home town on the south coast of Finland) in a couple of weeks on holiday, I might need to add that: Not all Finns are tight with money. But most of them are – at least in Kotka. You Brits try holding a straight face when you go for a meal with your Finnish friends in a restaurant in Kotka and your Finnish friend wants to split the bill to the last penny. I’ve heard people state: You own me 20 cents. And they mean it. They will remind you the next time they see you. English people are very different in this respect. My guess is that most English people would be less offended if their company at dinner fell asleep mid dinner conversation rather than anyone quibble about splitting the bill.
I got sidetracked (again). The point was that I do not want to spend €200/month on (cold) air unless I absolutely have to. Most British people reading this can understand where I am coming from, right? With you it is just the opposite. Your biggest nemesis is the heating in the winter – to the point that the temperature indoors is often not much higher than outside. For some reason, I am happier to spend money on hot than cold air; during the winter I am the first one to turn the heating up a notch. And my husband nags about the fact that in my household the heating stays on pretty much all day, all winter. You Finns reading this may be perplexed as to what I am saying here, so a clarification might be in order. The thing is that most British households only have the heating on for an hour or two in the morning and another couple of hours in the evening, even if there is a family member at home during the day. I can understand that it is economical, ecological and plain common sense to turn the heating off during the day when everyone is at work – I mean I wouldn’t leave the air con on when I leave my apartment even for short periods of time, but I have experienced many British homes where the heating is not on even when the family is at home. Counter-intuitively, I have to assume that the Brits can take cold conditions much better than the Finns.
The reason I managed to resist the air-con for a nearly two month period is because we live on the 24th floor, and we have big balcony doors on two sides of the living room. We open the doors and a couple of windows in the bedrooms and create a draft. The photo below illustrates what I mean. Not only does this make you have a nice breeze in the flat, but you get a free blow dry on the side. But on 17th July my husband and son returned to Osaka from a 4 week stay in the UK and as soon as my husband stepped into our apartment he was in agony. I tried to persuade him to tolerate the heat for a couple of days, but less than 3 minutes into his stay the air-con was on, full blast, in every room. I shall remember this in the winter when he moans about me having the heating on.
Living on the 24th floor has its benefits, like managing without air-con for two months during the summer in Osaka. However, there is a downside to it as well. You see, I feel I am wasting my 3 years in Japan by spending a relatively big part of it in the lift. The journey up to the 24th floor or down to the ground floor from the 24th floor in the lift takes about 1 minute, plus any time that I am waiting for the lift to get to the floor where I am. So, if we assume that, on average, I leave my apartment twice a day, it means that excluding the waiting time for the lift, in our 3 year Japanese experience I will have spent approx. 3 days in the lift in my building. Our house in Brighton, UK, has three floors, and I used to swear like my friend Raisa when I forgot something on the top floor and had to go and get it. Now, if I’ve left something in the apartment when I get down to the ground floor, I practically want to kill myself. I just can’t bear wasting another 2 minutes of my Japanese experience (and my life) in that bloody lift.
Just to clarify, Dad, no need to ring me in a state of panic, I don’t really want to kill myself – this is just an English expression.