31° degrees Celsius. 88° degrees Fahrenheit. 70% humidity. Welcome to Kyoto in July.
Or, to be specific, Kyoto in July 2018. In Japan’s ravishing old capital, and across most of Japan, a heatwave was sweeping through, the worst since records began. And there I was, on holiday with my brother.
I’d had big reservations about visiting at the hottest time of year but he was backpacking round Asia and it couldn’t really work outside summer.
We knew it would be uncomfortably hot, scorching even, but it was the humidity that floored us. From dawn until dusk, walking anywhere outside was like battling through a sauna, with a fever. Even armed with an umbrella, cold water, cotton clothes, sunglasses, hats and copious slatherings of sun lotion, the heat was so pervasive, so brutal.
Midway through our stay in Kyoto we decided to visit 400 year old Nijo-jo Castle. It was built in 1603 on the orders of the powerful first Shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, a symbol of the beginning of one of the longest periods of peace and stability in Japanese history.
Fast forward to 1867 and within the walls of the castle’s Ninomaru-goten Palace (pictured), the 15th Tokugawa Shogun announced the end of the Shogunate, returning political control to the Emperor and fatefully restoring imperial rule to Japan.
In other words, the sort of place you’d be silly to miss on a first trip to Kyoto.
The 33 rooms of the palace are treasures in their own right, garnished with thousands of golden wall paintings, including the famous tiger and bamboo paintings in the Third Room. Then there are the so-called Nightingale Corridors that sound like birds chirping as you walk through them. It’s caused by the nails in the floorboards, rather than a way to ward off intruders, despite the myth.
Unfortunately all of this was somewhat lost on me that day. You see, I was having a bit of a meltdown.
A packed day
It wasn’t our first attraction of the day, not even our third. That’s how we Crowthers roll.
We got up early to visit the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove (underwhelming and overcrowded if I’m honest. The bamboo groves above Fushimi Inar-taisha Temple are much quieter) and then, as the sun continued its violent ascendency towards midday, we climbed the steep hill of the popular Iwatayama Monkey Park (discovering new meanings for the word ‘sweat’) to watch Japanese Macaques contentedly dive in and out of their pond, cooling down as we could not. Then, the striking Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion northwest of the city. I vividly remember the purple irises dotting the shoreline of the lake, whitened by the sun’s rays.
We ran out of water at this point.
Near the exit, we thought we’d found a fountain, like a mirage in the distance. As we got closer we realised it was a hose for watering the foliage. And it was being closely guarded.
By the time we made it to the grounds of Nijo-jo, it was mid-afternoon, the sun in its zenith and our 7-Eleven lunch bags untouched. (Incidentally, the humble 7-Eleven convenience store was a revelation to me. It’s like a Pret, Itsu and corner shop rolled into one. My brother, on a shoestring backpacker budget, practically lived there.)
For someone whose life mostly revolves around mealtimes, ‘hungry in a heatwave’ was not a good situation to be in.
We walked through the entrance at Higashi Ote-mon Gate and carried on straight, in zombie fashion, not consulting a map. I’m not even sure I picked one up at this stage. A massive mistake, as we walked straight by a turning for the main (air conditioned) rest area in the whole site.
I won’t fill you in on the colourful language I aimed at my brother for insisting we go straight in without having lunch first, but suffice it to say, we had an argument. Stomping through the castle grounds and garden, I couldn’t see facilities anywhere. Resigned to just eating our lunch on a quiet bench somewhere, the penny dropped that we wouldn’t find any.
If you’ve ever toured any gardens in Japan, you’ll know that they’re so meticulously kept, and often considered so sacred, that eating in them is considered taboo. In fact, eating outside in general is not really the done thing.
But we were getting desperate.
I’m not proud to admit that in a fit of heatwave rage that did my body temperature no favours, I resentfully consented to sit on some shaded (but still volcanically hot) steps to eat. I did cheer up a bit when we found a cold drinks vending machine. They’re everywhere across Japan and often have bins and seating around them, as it’s also considered rude to walk with drinks. I must have bought at least three cans of Fanta in that moment.
The sun must set
So by the time we entered the Ninomaru-goten Palace, with its painted walls, its bird song and all that historical significance, we were knackered.
There was understandably no air conditioning inside the delicately decorated rooms, but few fans either. We had to keep moving along with the steady trickle of visitors and I’d be lying if I said I was taking much in. I kept thinking, ‘this would be so wonderful if I could concentrate’.
Sooner or later, however, day must make way for night. In July, the sun sets between 7-8pm so we had just enough energy to stick around and enjoy the grounds as the golden hues of the setting sun blended into shadows. We discovered outdoor sprinklers you could walk through (why aren’t they everywhere?!), before I rewarded myself with a giant matcha ice cream in the café.
And from that day onwards, we paid more attention to visitor maps…
‘Impossible without global warming‘
I couldn’t write about my experience without expanding on the implications and impact of the heatwave.
It was only when I got back to London that I realised how unprecedented it was. It got worse as July. Tens of thousands of people across Japan were hospitalised, while 1,000 died. Coupled with damaging heavy rains and mudslides in late June and early July, 2018 was a year of suffering for the people of Japan.
In 2019 a team of scientists at the Japan Meteorological Agency used a burgeoning technique called attribution science to assess the likelihood of a heatwave in 2018 in a climate-changed world versus a world without global warming and compared the difference:
‘The deadly event of the previous summer could not have happened without human-induced global warming… in a sense, these people are the first provable deaths of climate change’
Like everyone else, I hope the 2021 Olympics go ahead in Tokyo next July, despite this year’s pandemic. But I also hope that we don’t lose sight of what has to be our number one global priority – tackling the climate change emergency.
With the heat here to stay for now, I put together ten tips for staying cool in extreme heat. Some are very common sense, but as I didn’t follow half of them myself when I arrived in Asia, they seemed worth including.