Rainy Season is Upon Us!
The month of June in Japan inevitably means the rainy season. Known as tsuyu or baiyu in Japanese, the literal translation of this season is “plum rain” because it coincides with the ripening of plums in Japan. Lasting from the beginning of June until the middle of July, most of the country experiences a prolonged period of rainy and cloudy weather. That’s not to say that everyone suffers through torrential rain all the time； the weather pattern may differ from year to year. Some years may be worse than others, just as some days may bring brief showers while others none at all. The only region barely affected by the rainy season is the northernmost island of Hokkaido. The southern islands of Okinawa experience their rainy season a month in advance.
Although understandably, this season brings with it the annoyance of sticky and humid weather, as well as difficulty moving from place to place amidst the rain, tsuyu can also offer some positive sights and opportunities. Tsuyu is indispensable to rice cultivation and a prime blossoming season for some flowers. In particular, rainy season is known for the blossoming of hydrangeas as well as irises. One of the most famous sites for hydrangeas—known as ajisai in Japanese—is in Kamakura, outside of Tokyo. These pastel colored bundles of flowers and the soft drizzle of rain makes for an enchanting sight.
The rain may also provide a captivating backdrop to various other sites only to be found in Japan: the local shrines and temples are one—add to this the aforementioned beguiling sight of hydrangeas and your classic rainy-season-in-Japan scene is complete.
Also, if you don’t mind a few showers during your journey, rainy season is a good time to hit up some otherwise crowded tourist spots. The lines at Disneyland and Disney Sea in Tokyo at this time of year are sparse compared to high season. It may also provide an ideal excuse to see some indoor activities and events, such as a Kabuki performance, or explore exhibitions at the local art museum.
Now that you’ve accepted the brighter (pardon my pun) side of the rainy season, however grudgingly, what about dealing with the realistic challenges that this season brings to daily life? Most people’s first thought during June is to keep dry, and to do this requires investment in an amagappa, or rain coat, some rain boots and a sturdy umbrella.
In the past few years, long insulated rain boots have come back as something of a fashionable item among young women, available in an array of bright colors and designs, and for men, there are more masculine hunter green and black boots available as well. Though their cumbersome nature may cause some hesitation, dry feet during the rainy season is well worth the effort of pulling them on in the morning.
Umbrellas of all different shapes and sizes exist in Japan, but what many people don’t realize (or choose “not to remember”) is that riding a bicycle with an open umbrella is against the law in Japan. Known as kasasashi unten, it’s hard to tell this is an illegal act by the number of Japanese who use an umbrella on their bicycles, but it is prohibited. It should be kept in mind however tempting it may seem during tsuyu, although instances of police taking vigilant action against you, if you do, are rare. In fact, any action that impairs the ability to operate a bicycle, for example, talking on a cell phone, is against the law. It’s best to have an extra umbrella on hand in case you forget yours somewhere or to get a collapsible umbrella which can easily fit into a bag to be carried with you.
With the increase of moisture in the air, mold can also become a problem during this season. You should make sure that rooms are aired out sufficiently and invest in a dehumidifier if need be. Also be aware that mold grows quickly during this time of year, so keep an eye on your food to make sure it does not spoil. Prepare yourself for some difficulties in drying your laundry and note the weather forecast before you put your laundry out to dry.
Another way of warding off the rain, rooted in folklore, is to hang a teru teru bozu from your window. A teru teru bozu (fine weather priest) is a hand made doll created from tissue paper or white paper and tied in the middle with stuffing to make a head. It is supposed to act like a charm to ward off the rain and bring good weather and somewhat resembles a ghost with a neck. They are popular among children who hang them up in the hopes of keeping the sun shining.
Teru teru bozu are said to have started when farmers began to hang them up to bring good weather or prevent a rainy day. During the Edo period, it became popular in more urban areas as children readily took up the practice. Teru means to shine in Japanese while bozu means Buddhist monk or bald head in modern day slang. Conversely, if the doll is hung upside down with its head facing downward, it is a plea for rain. Most Japanese children also know the nursery rhyme associated with teru teru bozu which can be equated to singing “rain, rain go away” in English.
Keep in mind, rainy season is just that—a season, and so it will not last forever and eventually make way for the humid summer months of Japan. But the rainy season does not have to be synonymous with shutting yourself indoors and bemoaning the weather； with just a few precautions and an optimistic outlook, the rainy season need not hold you back from exploring and enjoying life in Japan.