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Thursday, July 10, 2003


Let's all open a window and see what happens

I'm depressed. And hyperventilating. This is because I just came back from visiting my cousin and his wife in their new Tokyo manshon (condo) that boasts among other things, a fully automatic kuchoki (air adjustor) that comes with a year's free supply of shinsenna sanso (fresh oxygen).

Apparently this boxy gizmo is now a prerequisite sabisu (service) feature for a lot of new manshon. So what happens after the year is up -- will they be forced to open a window? My cousin's wife smiled beatifically and replied that they will buy their own tanks of sanso and keep those windows closed, thank you very much.

Well what can you do except make a polite rejoinder and sit listening to the hum of this kuchoki, along with the hum of the reibo (air conditioner) and Eikichi Yazawa on the stereo. It was as if I had suddenly been transported to the confines of a shinkansen (bullet train) that inexplicably played J-pop oldies.

Japan, despite its traditional obsession with kazetoshi (letting the wind through), has become a nation where people live with their windows shut tight. What happened to the maxim of the Japanese home: "Nihon no iye wa natsu wo motte mune to su (The Japanese house must be built to accommodate the summer)," which taught the virtues of sudare (bamboo screens), the absence of flimsy furniture, clean tatami and wide-open doors and windows? Modernization is what happened.

Nowadays we live surrounded by electronic gadgets, imported oak furnishings and yards of thick curtains concealing windows that are never opened. Consequently, Nippon no natsu (the Japanese summer) has become an unbearably claustrophobic affair. Outdoors, we're hemmed in by concrete, asphalt and plastic that trap the heat and unleash it on the streets like the wrath of hell. Inside, we live like fish in tanks, sucking at artificial air, consoled by what our grandmothers abhorred as jinkoteki na suzushisa (man-made coolness) emitted from air-conditioners.

Only two decades ago, not everyone had reibo, even in Tokyo. My mother was an inventive kind of woman who told us to go find a tree and stand under it if things got too hot. Kakigori (shaved ice) concoctions were a delight when eaten in the shade of a few bushes, sitting on an endai (bamboo bench) in a roji (alleyway). Come 5 o'clock, kids were told to go home and ryo o toru (hunt for coolness) by sluicing down with cold showers, changing into thin cotton clothing and sitting down to a dinner of hiyayakko (chilled tofu in a bowl of water and ice cubes) and somen (Japanese vermicelli) noodles.

When the heat made it difficult to sleep, we got together and told kaidan (horror stories) that supposedly chilled the blood and cooled the head but in fact triggered wild and vivid nightmares. Summers were about coping with heat, not shutting it out.

Instead of just pushing buttons or turning dials, people were forced to be creative. My brother and I took turns buying bags of ice, which we emptied into a senmenki (basin). We would then place the basin right in front of our antiquated senpuki (electric fan), place our bodies in strategic positions, and nap. This would feel good for about 40 minutes or until the ice melted, whereupon we would get up, argue about whose turn it was to go out to get more ice, punch each other and then get yelled at. It wasn't the most glamorous way to spend a summer but it was a family fubutsushi (pastime) all the same.

The closest approximation to the furuki yoki (the old and golden) Nippon summers can be experienced in an umi no iye (beach hut) that can be found on every public beach up and down the nation. The umi no iye is a wonderful invention -- offering restroom, shower and locker facilities along with refreshment and a place to chill out. It also has what most urban Japanese homes have lost: natural wind and air.

Flimsily built with plywood and bamboo on a raised floor, there's no air conditioning to speak of. But it opens right onto the water, inviting the entry of deliciously cool breezes. Here one can sit or lie down with sandy feet, order the traditional umi no iye fare (consisting of double grease and sodium on everything), gorge and go right to sleep listening to the waves and shouts of children. Somewhere a furin (wind chime) tinkles . . .

Problem is, the occupants of these huts are almost always in a state of butakomi (herded together like pigs). Anyone for fresh oxygen tanks?

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