by Mike Marklew
It’s here. In Japanese it’s called natsu yasumi. The first word is “summer” and the second, “vacation.” I prefer to think of the period as “nut’s vacation.” You’ve got to be nuts to participate.
For a start, it is only five or six days long.
In most other countries you can spend longer on a weekend fishing trip, including of course, the three “sick” days.
Japan is supposed to be a country of work-aholics. How on earth can they unwind after a year’s hard work in such a short time?
Another wonderful trick: the whole country takes exactly the same days off.
Try a trip to Osaka on the evening before the first holiday. All the Shinkansen trains run at 200 percent capacity, and the fast one takes two hours to reach the first stop. Don’t take any little children with upset tummies, unless you camp in your car with a tearai. Even with Japan Rail’s recent triumphant modernization of their station toilets, I wouldn’t recommend standing in this zone for a couple of hours, even if you have a summer headcold.
For a variation, pack the wife, children and any pets into the family car at around 3 a.m. and join the 40-kilometer-long traffic jam on any freeway leading to the beach. Don’t forget to get some sleep in the car while your family kicks pumice powder at the carpet of people, the motorized lot you came with will be facing the other way on your trip home.
Perhaps you’re a jet-setter. Squeeze aboard the Skyliner and after standing for an hour, shuffle around with 100,000 other travelers at New Tokyo International Airport doing the “Last Call” waltz. On your return, they’ll be so loaded with duty-free goodies and souvenirs, the same number of people will occupy twice the space. The teddy bears and dolls arc getting bigger and if they become any more lifelike, they’ll need visas.
Take a bus tour. Sixty of you, sitting five abreast, all smoking, drinking and talking loudly while a hostess in a hat tells you about the scenery. Or, you may be lucky enough to have someone with a karaoke mike, singing (I use the word loosely) at a few decibels above the threshold of pain. The air conditioner will be cold enough to create goose bumps under your armpits, while you watch the exhaust fumes from the other buses swirling around the stationary traffic alongside you. What fun!
To delight your children, visit Tokyo Disneyland, for Mickey-chan’s 60th birthday party. Don’t be silly enough to drive; you will spend half a day waiting to get into the carpark and a similar period trying to get back onto the freeway when you leave. Book into one of the international style hotels close by and take the shuttle bus. It won’t shorten the queues inside, but after a day standing around, you will sleep so soundly it’ll take more than a kiss from Prince Charming to awake you — even if you are male.
There is one tranquil spot in the height of the holiday pandemonium: Tokyo is deserted. I even got a seat at 8:15 in the morning on the Yamanote Line last year.
One day after all the vehicles depart the city. Mount Fuji reappears through the dispersing pollution and the sunshine becomes strong enough to warrant zinc cream on your nose. It doesn’t seem to matter that the humidity is high enough to bite a mouthful of water from the air, it “smells” so good.
There are special holiday deals at downtown hotels where for about half the normal price you can get a room and meals and, if you are lucky, a swimming pool entry ticket. Still works out at a week’s pay packet per night for most foreigners, but for us Tokyoites, it “feels” cheap.
All the major restaurants stay open and are easy to reserve so if you can afford the prices, you can cat out every night.
It’s the perfect time to pop down to the zoo. You can see 2-year-old panda Ton Ton, who is now almost the size of a sumo yokozuna and take its picture without having to hold your camera over your head. At the time of writing this, his mum’s just had a baby, but you won’t see his sister/brother until winter—if the little mite lives that long.
Take a walk in Hibiya Park. There really is grass there. If you are into the keep-fit thing, jog round it. This is the only time of year you can do so without getting run down, or consuming so much carbon monoxide you feel worse than when you started.
Visit Tokyo Tower for maybe your first real, smog-free look at the city. The only other time you’ll sec it like this is on an odd day or two in mid-winter. I bet you never knew there were so many mountains in the vicinity, did you?
Wander round the department stores in the Ginza while they all take a deep breath, gearing up for the “End of Holiday Sales.” These will be immediately followed by the “70 to 30 percent off” sales which precede a period where many of the stores close down for redecoration. The staff will then whip off on holiday at discounted rates to all the places just vacated by the masses. (Hawaii, Guam, Saipan, Hong Kong, Sydney, Paris, Singapore and even Rio de Janeiro.)
Catch a ferry along Tokyo’s Sumida River. There’s a memory to cherish. Cool drink in hand, cocooned in glass capsule, sliding past places you can’t see as a landlubber. They tell me you can swim in the river.
They tell me. I wouldn’t.
Stick your swimsuit in your pocket and drop into your local ward’s outdoor swimming pool. It will only set you back a few yen. but if you go there at any other time, you’ll have difficulty seeing the water, let alone actually getting into it.
If you are really into the fitness business, you can even get space on a tennis court for an hour in daylight, to whack an ace or two across the concrete.
A mate of mine, (the only unmarried Japanese guy I know) told me his plan for the holiday. He’s laying-in a stock of “cup noodles” and booze and planning to sleep all day and watch foreign movies on TV all night. Don’t know which is more likely to give you a coronary, his plan or a jog in the park. But neither is my style.
I got smart last year and in the middle of July bundled myself and the family off to Yuron, a small coral island just north of Okinawa. A few dozen sunburnt natives were all we found. There was a nightclub/disco, but it only opens for a week in the “season.”
We discovered a tiny coffee house called EI Papaya, run by a Tokyo-jin who had opted out, serving the coldest beer I’ve ever had in Japan and the most magnificent, sweet-cake concoctions for the rest of my brood.
For five days we swam lazily in crystal clear water, watched glorious sunsets over Korea each evening and then returned to Haneda on a plane so crowded, every adult had a child on their lap.
The pre-season rush was on.
No beer, and these days you can’t smoke—can you imagine the inflight frustration?
This year we’ve signed up for a tour to look around a different bunch of islands.
The British Isles.
It’ll cost half the price of last year’s trip and I don’t have to pay for it until Xmas bonus time.