Surviving a Japanese summer

After watching World War Z last weekend, I stepped out of the air-conditioned cinema into my very own post-apocalyptic desert of doom.

At least, that was what it felt like. As soon as the building's glass doors slid open, the broiling air outside closed in on me like the hot, damp breath of a fevered zombie. (In case you're wondering if zombies really breathe, the answer is yes. The Zombie Research Society says so.)

I ventured two steps out and felt my pores lose their feeble struggle to stay closed. Three more steps and the first pearls of perspiration pebbled forth.

In the five minutes it took me to walk to the road and hail a cab, I was sweating as much as Brad Pitt had been during the movie's zombie-filled climax.

"What, can't take a bit of heat?" I hear you snort. "I sweat every day just leaving the office for lunch."

But this was not your typical midday-under-the-tropical-sun scenario in Singapore. It was well past 3am in Tokyo, the sun had been down for eight hours but the concrete pavements were still seething with enough heat to cook a chawanmushi (steamed egg custard).

Even in the dark, the temperature was 30 deg C. It had risen to as much as 37 deg in the afternoon, and would do so again the next day.

Generally speaking, hot weather has never really bothered me, since I'm one of those freaks who are always freezing cold. In the office, I often wear a jacket over my cardigan over my dress, and shiver while holding my steaming cup of tea.

In any case, like all born-and-bred Singaporeans, I always thought I had the market cornered on the endurance of unspeakable heat. But that was before I encountered the fiery furnace of a Japanese summer. Thirty-three deg C in the Orchard Road shade?

That's practically skiing weather in Tokyo. Fish-head curry at an open-air kopitiam?

The Japanese lining up under the sweltering sun to wolf down steaming bowls of ramen would scoff if they weren't panting for breath.

This month, temperatures in some Japanese provinces hit a record high of 41 deg C, triggering heat warnings from the Japan Meteorological Agency. ("Please avoid strenuous exercise and stay in air-conditioned areas," one said, as though tailored to suit my favourite activities.)

Heatstroke has already killed almost 80 people in Japan and sent another 40,000 to the hospital since May.

And Japan is not the only country feeling the heat. In China, trees and billboards have reportedly spontaneously burst into flames amid the worst heatwave in 140 years. South Korea's government has been forced to turn off power in its buildings so residents can take refuge in air- conditioning in their homes without causing an energy crisis.

But if there is such a thing as a good country in which to have a heatwave, Japan would be it. A people who regularly immerse themselves in blistering onsens (hot springs) like so many boiling lobsters have developed their own unique way of staying cool.

For one thing, no matter what the temperature, you will never see a Japanese woman above the age of 22 walking around with her legs or arms bared. The hotter it gets, the more layers they pile on - during the 37 deg C weekend, several were kitted out in hats and elbow-length gloves.

I recently asked a Japanese friend why women here insist on long sleeves and stockings throughout the year.

"Oh, because they want to protect their skin," she said, wilting slightly in her designer jeans, black tank top, black ruffled shirt and black cardigan as we strolled around in the morning sun.

"But it's so hot here!" I said, fanning myself in my breezy sleeveless dress.

"Yes it is, isn't it?" she replied, doggedly cheery and completely unhelpful.

But the Japanese are not completely insensible. This year they launched a "Super Cool Biz" campaign to promote sweat-proof make-up, breathable clothing and deodorising detergents to keep their women cool.

I have to say it's working. Japan in the scorching summer smells infinitely better than almost any other country in the numb-nosed dead of winter.

This could also be due to Japan's numerous summer traditions: eating eel to keep the heat at bay; distributing paper fans instead of flyers; selling little coolers you can wear around your neck to blow refreshing air into your chin; or telling summer ghost stories in the hope of literally chilling your friends' spines.

One thing is for sure: I will never again complain about how hot Singapore is.

Better to reserve that energy for saving the environment. The zombie apocalypse may never come, but I wouldn't want global warming to end the world either. That would be the ultimate in not cool.

fiochan@sph.com.sg

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