Staying Cool and Sane (Or: How To Survive a Japanese Summer)

Having experienced a few of Japan’s notoriously hot and sticky summers, I’ve picked up some survival tricks that don’t necessitate cranking up the air conditioner. This was particularly important last summer, when energy-saving measures (setsuden) were in effect following March’s disaster. At the time, I was living in a dense Tokyo suburb that routinely ranks as the hottest city in the country. The heat-trapping effects of concrete and asphalt combined with the suffocating environment of a 15 square meter (roughly 160 square foot) apartment meant I had to devise some creative strategies for staying cool, not to mention sane. (Cold showers, frozen washcloths, and a trusty sensu were all critical components of this endeavor.)

Thankfully, there are quite a few Japanese dishes perfectly suited to such conditions. For sustenance, chilled sōmen noodles and hiyashi chūka are hard to beat, but the real icon of Japanese summer is kakigōri, otherwise known as shaved ice. Unlike the crunchy, granular snow cones sold Stateside, the ice for kakigōri is shaved into fine, feathery wisps that dissolve on the tongue almost instantaneously. A traditional hand-cranked apparatus does the job in no time, though electric versions are of course used, too.

A healthy pour of neon fruit-flavored syrup is de rigeur for kakigōri, but sweet red beans, green tea syrup, and sweetened condensed milk are common toppings as well. In these more complex iterations, kakigōri resembles other Asian ice-based sweets, like the Philippines’ halo-halo and Thailand’s nam kang sai. These desserts are delicious in their own right, but I think kakigōri is best in its most straightforward, syrupy form. As a cooling conclusion to a long, sweaty hike or a raucous, smoky street festival, it’s a simple reminder that summer is fleeting and fast. It’s also sweet, so slow down and enjoy it while you can.

Kakigori

Barley Tea Granita - 麦茶のグラニテ

During a particularly hot spell in what has otherwise been a relatively mild New York summer, I had a craving for something sweet but simple. Prompted by memories of kakigōri and iced mugicha (barley tea, another staple of the Japanese summer pantry), I set about creating this granita. Unlike kakigōri, though, this refreshing treat requires no special equipment to make. Freezing subdues barley tea’s pronounced nuttiness and produces a flavor more akin to frozen maple syrup.

2 bags barley tea (mugicha / むぎ茶 / 麦茶) – hōjicha (roasted green tea) makes a fine substitution.

2 tablespoons sugar, or to taste

Bring 2 cups water to a boil and add the teabags. Steep at least 5 minutes, until very dark. While still hot, dissolve the sugar in the tea. Pour into a wide, shallow pan and place in the freezer. Scrape with a fork every 10 minutes or so to break up any large ice crystals. Spoon into dishes and serve with fresh fruit, such as sliced cantaloupe and raspberries.

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2 thoughts on “Staying Cool and Sane (Or: How To Survive a Japanese Summer)

    • Oops, I should clarify that I did have an air conditioner in Japan but rarely turned it on because of setsuden. Even before the March 2011 disaster, electricity was relatively expensive, so I tried to use the a/c sparingly… Hence, shaved ice to the rescue!

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