Setsuden article in The Japan Times, plus suzumi or 'keeping cool' the traditional way

In my Japan Times article this month, I talk about setsuden or cutting down on electricity use, a critical topic this summer in Japan due to so many power plants (both nuclear and otherwise) being offline temporarily or permanently. This is not just in the devastated Tohoku region, or the Tokyo-Kanto region that TEPCO covers, but nationwide. With daytime temperatures nearing 40 degrees celsius already, it may be a long and difficult summer in Japan. Hopefully the article will give some ideas for making setsuden a bit easier, and even a little fun. (Incidentally, I'm sort of hoping setsuden becomes a widespread word; it's so compact and descriptive, much better than 'cutting down on electricity use', isn't it?)

Since my Japan Times article is in the Food section, I do focus on things you can do in the kitchen, but there are other low- or no-electricity ways to keep cool too. As I mention in the article, many department stores in Japan have set up suzumi or "keep cool" product sections, where they sell a lot of traditional items that help you feel a bit cooler. These range from things like fans, absorbent towels, bedding and handkerchiefs, to more aesthetic things like fuurin or wind bells. I bought the one pictured here and in the Japan Times article in Asakusa, Tokyo. They're called Edo Fuurin, and they have been made in the Asakura area since the feudal Edo period. (Yep, even in modern Tokyo some traditional crafts are kept alive.) It's very thin handblown glass, handpainted with irises. They had other summery designs too, like morning glories, hydrangeas, and goldfish.


Goldfish are associated with summer because they are, or at least used to be, a ubiquitous part of any summer festival or omatsuri. I remember trying to catch those elusive goldfish with wire rings lined with the weakest ever paper. If I managed to catch one, I would carry it home proudly in a little plastic bag of water, and dump it into a bowl...where it would live for a week or so at most before dying (I had no idea about filtering the water, etc.) and I had to give it a fishie burial.

Here's another suzumi item - a little strap or netsuke to hang from a cellphone or, in this case my coin purse. It's shaped like a tiny glass eggplant-shaped fish bowl, and it has a miniscule goldfish and a gold coin inside. It doesn't physically cool you, but looking at such a cool, cute item does perhaps make you feel a tiny breath of imaginary cooling air. It's resting on another traditional item that helps to keep you cool, a woven cotton cloth called a tenugui, which is used in all kinds of ways, including just to wipe off sweat.


In any case, if you happen to be visiting Japan this summer, do be aware that trains and stores are not blasting the air conditioning as much as usual. You may want to carry a little fan with you to keep cool. Japan has terrific absorbent handkerchiefs, made of toweling and cotton gauze and things like that, which are great for mopping your brow with. And why not look for little, cool suzumi items too? You may learn a little about Japanese traditions as you combat the hot, sticky weather.

Filed under:  summer philosophy japan writing elsewhere japan times earthquake japanese culture energy saving

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Because of a medication I have to take, I am allllllllllways too hot & unpleasantly sweaty. I never knew how to handle this with grace having moved to the air-conditioning-free San Francisco bay area from super-hot but always frigidly cooled Oklahoma. I used a lot of napkins and shirtsleeves (gross!) to mop my brow when I got hot and/or it got hot here at first.

I spent a lot of time at the Japan Center when I first moved (loooove it) and started to notice Japanese ladies with fans and hankies. DUH. These things seemed southern, victorian and kitsch to me in AC cooled OK but here they're lifesavers! I get them at Daiso, Ichiban Kan or other dollar/100yen shops and have no compunction taking one or the other out to use.

I've always been met with "how smart!" and "I need one! Where'd you get yours?" at concerts and the like when I'm the only one not melting. I've only gotten one crappy comment that my fanning was annoying, by an equally annoying woman at a Berkeley event.

Those pocket tissues that we buy here, but are given out in Japan (do they still do that?) also come in very handy when it's hot. The moistened ones (wet-wipes) are nice too, especially minty ones.

I also have found that being super pale and super prone to sunburns, another Japanese summer brilliance I take advantage of are sleeves for blocking the sun. They keep you from getting that "driver's tan" when stuck in sunny summer San Francisco traffic with the windows down.

When I was in Japan last year, the cool air from the shops kept hitting my ankles, which actually wasn`t as pleasant as it sounds. Hopefully, with the current setsuden, that problem is also solved. Maybe less people will get a cold now in summer as well, because of the constant switching from extremely hot to extremely cold when going in and out of shops.

I`ve been following the setsuden news quite a lot, and I like most of the ideas brought forward. The rest of the world would do well to follow as well, in my opinion. Wouldn`t hurt much, would it?

It would also be great if the rest of the world started using the word setsuden, just as it would be great if we`d all start using mottainai ^^ .

I still wish I brought some wind bells from Japan last year )=

The only thing I don't miss from my 15 years of living and growing up in Japan is the humidity!

My tricks for setsuden relief are: lots of mugi iced tea and going to Kamakura temples and sitting on big stones for a cool break.

Sounds wierd--but the stones in the temples are always chilly:)

I would love to see your goya recipes!

Could you please post a link to your article? Thanks

Oops, I forgot to link ^_^ The link is in the article now, or right here:

I must say that, although the current power-saving is totally understandable, I do hope that this tragedy isn't exploited by the eco-nuts as a "beneficial crisis" - i.e. not using aircon or lighting on a permanent basis to reduce "carbon" emissions or whatever hocus pocus they believe in. Aircon and lighting are not "decadent" or "wasteful" - they're a testament to Japan's contribution to our quality of life through the hard work of its electronics firms. Japanese people already put up with enough discomforts such as their cramped housing and hellish work schedules without the hair shirt brigade haranguing them into continuing to commute on dingy, un-airconditioned trains even when Japan's power generating capacity has recovered.

Having visited Japan already this summer (and many times before the earthquake) I really noticed the difference - even short train journeys were miserably hot, and after the brief blast of colder-than-outside-but-not-really-that-cold air wore off when entering shops and other buildings, it soon became horribly stifling again. What with the humidity indoors, the missing lightbulbs in stations, the bleak unlit neon signs at night, at times it really looked and felt to me like a ghostly, broken, third world country. This whole situation is very sad, not just for those who lost their lives, homes or loved ones, but also those brave people I saw getting on with life in rather primitive conditions in Tokyo. I was also a bit surprised to see TV adverts almost "bragging" about how Japan needed and received the rest of the world's help - I can't help thinking the Japan I first visited in the eighties would have been far too proud and self-sufficient (misguided though that may be) to look outside for help, in this almost helpless, Live Aid-ish way. Didn't Japan refuse Korean or Chinese assistance during the last big earthquake? It would appear Japan has changed in that respect. For the better? I don't know. I just hope the country gets back on its feet after this tragedy. Anyway, lovely tips: I think it will be an uncomfortable summer and these are bound to make it that little bit more bearable.

"I`ve been following the setsuden news quite a lot, and I like most of the ideas brought forward. The rest of the world would do well to follow as well, in my opinion. Wouldn`t hurt much, would it?"

Further to my previous comment, yes, it *would* hurt to follow Japan in this respect. At the moment it's a necessity in Japan, but it's not a desirable way for the Japanese or any other country to live. Trust me - I was in Japan last week, and it was miserably uncomfortable and eerily dark. If in the past humankind had responded to technological problems by scaling back or giving up, we'd never have had the car, the aeroplane, the refrigerator and so on. Please can we give the eco preaching a rest and just support Japan with its real problems: recovering from the tsunami.


I think what you say might be taken more seriously if you didn't use American neocon/limbaugh/beck loaded buzzwords. I kept expecting you to spout something about "political correctness". If people stop using so much ac, good on them. growing up in Texas, I think all that AC makes for fat, sedentary asthmatics. I don't think it would hurt people to get out and sweat a bit doing the things they need to do. For the majority of people heat is nothing more than an inconvenience.

Hair shirt brigade? Eco-nuts? Really? What would be wrong with Japan recovering from the tsunami in a way that didn't cost an arm and a leg? What if they could do it without outside assistance, but by using methods that had been used in the past?

FWIW, I don't think the majority of people are facing the setsuden crisis with a negative mindset. The lack of lighting is a big issue, but all in all people are just 'getting on with it' as it were.

Actually, one positive thing (IMHO) about the setsuden is that it's shown that the Japanese society as a whole can really hunker down and do what it has to do, from businesses changing their operating hours and so on to private individuals cutting down on air conditioning. This is even before the mandatory fines against business who over-use power came into effect as of July 1st.

The current lack of power is a problem, that has to be solved somehow - and I am sure it will be.

Finally, I don't think that Japan was bragging about receiving aid - rather, it was happy (and a bit surprised in some cases) at the outpouring of concern shown by the rest of the world. I believe I remember there was a similar reaction after Katrina by some people. People helping each other - is that not a good thing?


I'm not American so I don't really know who or what "neocon/limbaugh/beck" are, but I wasn't trying to be party political. Nor was I describing everyone who is concerned about the environment as an "eco-nut". I used that term to refer to people who would stoop so low as to use a tragedy such as the tsunami to impose emergency power saving measures even when they are no longer necessary in order to push the climate change agenda. I can just imagine, when the power saving is no longer necessary, that some people will try to keep the aircon and lighting switched off - "We managed without it before so..." You've got to admit, exploiting a crisis in this way is pretty nutty (pretty disturbing), isn't it? And I felt that Charlotte's "the rest of the world would do well to follow as well" comment was suggesting just such a thing. I wanted to explain the uncomfortable reality of setsuden, having experienced it while in Japan recently. It's not something to aspire to in any way.

And maybe "bragging" was the wrong word. I certainly think it's a good thing that other countries wanted to help Japan, but I just felt that the way Japan so readily accepted this help, and almost revelled in it, was a change from how Japan used to be. In the past I would have expected Japan to have given a "thanks for the offer of help, but we can handle this by ourselves" or "we don't need your money, but thanks anyway" kind of response. So I was surprised that people, myself included, were sending so much money to Japan (and Japan was accepting it) as if it were a developing country rather than one of the richest in the world. I'm not saying this is good or bad (and in my original message I suggested that maybe Japan shouldn't be too proud to accept help) but I do think it's evidence of change, of a loss of confidence perhaps.

anon, after the Kobe Awaji earthquake, Japan was heavily criticised by some, both domestically and internationally for not accepting help offered. It was even suggested that the slowness to accept help led to people losing their lives unnecessarily. So, now you criticise the Japanese people for accepting help, in your view, too readily.

I suppose it's impossible to keep everyone happy all the time.

As far as setuden goes: I am old enough to remember when Japanese culture was not as power-consumption hungry as it has been since perhaps the mid-80s or so. Most of Japan has always been hot and muggy in the summer, but it has not always "had to" rely on air conditioning to survive either. I remember spending the summer of 1980 at my grandmother's with no air conditioning, sweat dripping from my face even when sitting still, and still loving being there.

The point of my article was to show that Japanese people have been able to stand the heat and humidity of the summer before, and at least some are looking to the past to see how it was done pre-air-conditioning. It's one way of getting on with it. If the current setsuden necessity leads to general energy saving measures, I see nothing wrong with that whatsoever. But then again, I hate negativity.

Of course, there are plenty of people who choose to take the negative approach, and just bitch and criticize. Those seem to be in the minority, fortunately. There's nothing at all constructive about that approach.

maki, I think that's a little unfair. I did make it clear that, while I do admire Japan's self-sufficiency in the past, I wasn't saying it was necessarily a bad thing that Japan accepted help so readily this time. At worst I'm ambivalent about it. Of course I think it's lovely how people have wanted to help, but I do think it's valid and noteworthy to point out the change in attitude among the Japanese towards outside help this time.

Nor am I "bitching about and criticising" setsuden. I just wanted to make it clear to the commenter who blithely said that Japan's power saving was an example to follow that the reality of setsuden, having experienced it, is uncomfortable and that it would be distasteful to exploit the crisis to impose setsuden-style measures even when they're not needed. I'm just a bit sick of people being made to feel guilty for driving their cars, cooling or heating their homes or lighting their spaces. And, as I said, I totally admire the way the Japanese are getting on with things in primitive conditions. No "negativity" here, thank you.

How are you doing?
This is Tong from We Are One Japan.
We Are One Japan is a voluntary, event-organizing group that connects internationally-minded individuals in the Kansai area through a wide range of smoke-free events and activities.

I have read your blog and I really like it as it shares interesting information about Japan. We are starting a new website recently and I wonder if you will like to share your blog entries on our website. We will certainly give an acknowledgement and include a link to your blog, so that our members can read more of your blog entries.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best regards,


You mentioned in the article that a crowded fridge operates inefficiently; I would have thought otherwise. Doesn't a full fridge/freezer hold its temperature better? I imagine a frozen hunk of meat would stay cooler, longer than an equivalent volume of air, not to mention that air is easily displaced every time you open the door (which of course should be minimised by planning, and not staring at an open fridge).

According to the official government setsuden advisory site, a fridge operates more efficiently if air is allowed to circulate freely between items.w


Any idea where I might order one of those lovely wind bells here in the states? Or, just in english, online from Japan? (I'm a struggling beginner at nihongo)

I'd always admired those bells in the movies/anime I've watched (along with the pig-shaped insect repellant holder), and I'm sure I'd be able to talk my husband into buying me one!

Thanks Maki! I really enjoy your blogs, and I really don't get on here often enough! (too much to do in the garden right now lol)

They don't have the type I showed, but J-List/JBox does have several wind bells and lots of other Japanese stuff.

I wish I could enjoy my garden too! (right now more concerned with the major construction going on in the house ^_^;)

Hi Maki,

I've been reading your blog for awhile. Thank you for the posts updating your blog readers about what's going on in Japan, as well those featuring your great recipes.

Regarding the question asking where one can buy fuurin, I purchased some the other day on-line from CD Japan. Under the "Cool Japan" tab they list some merchants, and one of them makes the traditional fuurin. I find that the site has very reasonable shipping rates. I can't comment on the quality of the product, as they are in transit. I hope they are as pretty as the one shown in the photograph you took.

Keep Cool!

Maki-san, I haven't read your article yet, but speaking of hot weather and food, here's what I remember from Japan:

1) Zarusoba and other cold noodles.
2) One summer in Kyushu, I was helping my neighbors get the Omikoshi cleaned up for the upcoming matsuri. We were at a small jinja, and the ladies cooked up several huge pots of kimuchi-nabe. I was already sweating like a draft horse when I sat down to eat, but they all said eating hot stuff in hot weather cooled you off (didn't work for me).
3) Along the same lines, eating unagi in hot weather. Tastes good, but doesn't make me feel cooler.

Still, I liked summer, especially during the matsuri when I could slip into a cotton yukata and only get called "hen na gaijin" maybe four or five times in an evening. I always kept a fan (courtesy of Docomo) in my obi in the back. I miss the buckets of ice where you could fish out a frosty ramune. And I never thought I'd say it, but I miss the semi waking me up every morning (not sure I spelled that correctly -- I meant "cicada" and not "18-wheeler.")


So excited to realize (finally!) that the JT girl & the JH girl are one & the same (you!).
Living just outside Tokyo, I think setsuden is great. The lower lighting on the trains is comforting, especially compared to the usual hyper-brightness. I don't use AC & sometimes my house hits 37 degrees, but those are fine times to hit the rivers & cool off naturally.
Also, while sometimes the heat is unreal (but it is every summer & setsuden or not the heavy reliance on outdoor transport--walking/biking to stations, especially--means you'll sweat your way at least through the end of O-bon) it's not impossible. And as time passes, more & more people sheepishly admit to setting their aircon in the low 20s and shops still blast AC with the storefronts wide open. Life here can hardly be described as Draconian.
There's a subtle anxiety in the air when it comes to food & water purity & the long-terms effects on farmland, and a sorrow that stirs at least on the 11th of every month; public buildings are a bit dimmer & warmer than usual & midday train schedules sparser. But, truth is it's uncomfortable every single year & if I have to choose between dealing with another crisis on this scale or dealing with the present 'primitive' conditions, I'll take the latter, thank you very much. The rest of the world would do very well indeed to rethink the ways in which we use energy & dial back our needs a bit.
To the person who commented that having experienced setsuden they wouldn't advocate it as a model to follow, maybe it's a different story if you live here. I'd say it was much worse in March freezing my butt off during rolling blackouts & voluntary power usage reduction, but if it means Japan can recover even just a little bit more quickly from all of this, I'd gladly do it ten times over.

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