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Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2010

Saitama town thinks it's still hottest stuff


Staff writer

KUMAGAYA, Saitama Pref. — It was Aug. 16, 2007, and Minoru Tajima felt something strange in the air.

News photo
Saitama when it sizzles: Minoru Tajima (left) and Yutaka Hatori, city officials in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, show off "Atsuizo Kumagaya" (It's hot, Kumagaya) campaign goods, while a woman walks by a giant thermometer featuring the city's campaign mascot Atsube earlier this month. JUN HONGO PHOTO
News photo

"I still remember the day clearly, it was a Thursday. I had the day off. It was hot, but on a much different level. It was hard to move," said Tajima, an official in the city of Kumagaya in northern Saitama.

That day Kumagaya, along with Tajimi in Gifu Prefecture, saw the temperature hit 40.9 and edge out the old record of 40.8 set in 1933 in Yamagata. Kumagaya's heat claimed two lives and ambulances were dispatched 47 times to attend to heatstroke victims.

But while the record-breaking day three years ago gave Kumagaya recognition as the hottest place in Japan, Tajima said it was the morning after that really put the city on the map.

"Reporters were everywhere the next day, filling up the city and rolling their cameras. That's what I remember the most from the incident," the 34-year-old official said.

To capitalize on its sizzling reputation, Kumagaya has since ramped up its "Atsuizo Kumagaya" (It's Hot, Kumagaya) campaign, launching projects that included creating a logo and deploying a perky mascot, Atsube. "We felt like we needed to use the record-breaking heat in a positive way for the city," Tajima explained.

Kumagaya was known for its scorching heat before 2007 due to its geography and the influence of Tokyo's "heat island" effect.

High temperatures in the greater Tokyo area — abetted by the concentration of concrete and asphalt — ride on Pacific winds to Kumagaya some 70 km to the north, Kumagaya says on its Web site.

The Chichibu Mountains also play a role, with their hot, dry foehn winds descending on the city to further send the mercury soaring.

The intense heat and humidity stagger people the moment they step off a train at Kumagaya Station. Even breathing is difficult.

City official Yutaka Hatori said Kumagaya is looking for ways to offset the punishing heat, especially since it is proving so deadly.

"When I was young, there weren't many days that saw temperatures rise above 35," the 50-year-old said. "We still had paddies around and that helped. With the city surrounded by concrete buildings, it's difficult to keep the temperatures lower."

Kumagaya has experimented with measures to cool off its overheated streets, including setting up mist sprays at the entrance of the station.

According to the city, the constant mist mitigates the heat by about 3 degrees. The city also provides e-mail alerts on the temperature and dangers of heatstroke.

But Kumagaya at the same time considers its high temperatures a "valuable resource," and in 2005 launched the "Atsuizo Kumagaya" drive. "This is a project initiated by the city in order to enjoy the summer heat, and give a positive effect to promote Kumagaya," Tajima said.

The city has distributed the Atsube logo and "Atsuizo Kumagaya" slogan for local events and projects. For example, a local fireworks festival joined hands with the city and agreed to promote Kumagaya's appeal as the hottest city during a fireworks event Saturday.

The city lets local venders use the Atsube mascot, with some printing it on T-shirts. Atsube masks were also created by the city, and sold for ¥1,000.

When the temperature hit 40.9 in 2007, it was a great push for the campaign.

Letting the media attention cool off without first taking advantage of it was not an option, according to city officials.

"The following year, we sold 10,000 T-shirts," Hatori said, adding the campaign has added vigor to the city. Projects on a larger scale have been launched, with the J. League soccer team Omiya Ardija agreeing to play a match in Kumagaya and promote the slogan.

"We believe the 'Atsuizo Kumagaya' campaign is helping the city enjoy the summer heat," Tajima said.

A life-long resident of the Kumagaya area, Tajima said he has even learned to survive the heat without air conditioning. The key is putting as many paper fans as possible in every corner of the house, he advised.

"I personally don't like using the air conditioner, but in the heat it really helps to be able to fan yourself anytime and anywhere," he said.

Asked if he would like to see his hometown set a new record — especially with this July being the hottest ever in history — Tajima was surprisingly sober.

"Oh no, 40.9 is enough. We don't need to go above that," he said.



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