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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Rainy Season

梅雨

HydrangeaIt's official. The weather man on NHK announced two weeks ago that the rainy season has arrived in Honshu. And only four more weeks to go till the "relief" of Japan's high summer. People in Kyoto say that "tsuyu," or rainy season, starts in early June, and ends just before the onset of Gion Festivalon July 17. Japanese are also proud of pointing out they are blessed with four seasons--as if this were a uniquely Japanese phenomenon--but in reality, there are five: spring, rainy season, high summer, fall, and winter. (One wag has argued that Japan has yet another "season": night.)

HydrangeaPrior to coming to Japan, my image of a rainy season was more akin to what probably happens in the tropics: heavy, daily downpours that punctuate searing heat. In Northeast Asia, it isn’t like that at all. Nights and mornings can be cool and refreshing; afternoons are usually stifling. Rain comes and goes, but with little regularity. For days on end, there might be no rain at all—just sweltering humidity. Some days are even perfect for an outing: blue skies with low humidity and temperatures that are not too uncomfortable. Of course, however, the rains will and do come. And with them unpleasantness.

Laundry does not dry (laundry is hung outside on balconies), futons get moldy, the house fills with insects, bodies reek. We fill our closets and drawers with little sacks purchased at a drug store that act as mini-dehumidifiers; otherwise, things start growing in your shirts and underwear.

It isn’t all horror and heat, though. On train platforms, men still pull out elegant fans to cool themselves. Women use sun parasols Shirakawa Riverto keep their skin beautiful and sweat-free. Young girls and women wear yukata at festivals. Another feast for the eyes are the hydrangea, which come out in all their glory in June. Fed by the rains, blue and purple and pink “ajisai” dot Kyoto.

Last Sunday, I was near Higashiyama Station on the east side of Kyoto and took a few pictures of the two types of hydrangea and of the lovely Shirakawa River. Children were in the water up to their ankles, looking for crayfish and beetles. Nearby, in front of an old storehouse, a large hydrangea bush stuck out over the wall (above right). The white behind it is the whitewashing of the old wall.

I'm counting the days until the start of Gion.

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