Updated: May 10
These Letters are a seasonal collaboration between Japanese-American writer, journalist, and author of Japanamerica, Roland Kelts, and the Japan Society of Boston.
It’s always quieter in Tokyo during the August Obon holidays. Most offices are closed and the kids are out of school, many visiting hometowns around the country to honor ancestors with their families. But this summer the city feels especially mute.
Not long ago, Japan was the fastest growing tourist destination in the world. In 2019, Japan welcomed a record high 32 million visitors. But so far this summer, with Covid restrictions and requirements still in place, only about 8,000 have come. Other records are being broken instead.
There’s a sense of fatigue in the air. Former Prime Minister Abe’s shocking murder last month was followed by a seventh wave of Covid-19 infections that shows only slow signs of abating. During the first week of August, Japan saw the highest number of new cases in the world, and the fourth-highest number of deaths.
As elsewhere, inflationary prices are taking a toll on household spending, travel, leisure—and any other kind of summer fun stuff.
They don’t call these the “dog days of summer”—the hottest, stickiest stretch of the season—for nothing, but this year those days arrived earlier. Tokyo and several other regions recorded their shortest ever rainy season, soothing June showers and mists rudely interrupted by a brow-busting heat wave that saw temperatures explode into the upper 30sC/100s F.
To feel squashed by the sun and strangled by humidity during the very first month of summer was maddening and perplexing. And like Covid, the mercury has continued to spike. Mid-August in Tokyo is always oppressive, but now it feels like this year’s June and July all over again.
In recent years I’ve spent late-July and August elsewhere, usually at US retreats in New York and New England, abandoning Japan to escape the heat. But this year everything is different. I broke my shoulder in the spring and got sidelined for a while, albeit in a friend’s beautiful house in storybook Carmel, a town in north central California. Family medical emergencies (not mine) sucked up much of my summer in the northeastern US. Now I find myself back home in smothering Tokyo, August 2022.
To be sure, there were many pleasures to be had once I readjusted to the humidity and ventured out, fully masked and twice boostered: Lunch with an editor at Café Kanetanaka, pondering Hiroshi Sugimoto’s sleek, plangent sculpture garden; sunset walks through the park surrounding Meiji Shrine that have become mind-clearing therapy since Covid struck over two years ago. Sometimes I take them with friends, but usually I go alone. Ambulatory conversations can be bracing but they distract from solitary strolls, whose impressions ripple slowly through the mind and linger there, lapping at its edges.
I find myself staring at numinous flowers and simple signs: “Please clean up after your dog poos.”
This week I went to Jiyugaoka for Access Bars and Reiki therapy treatments arranged by my girlfriend to help heal my shoulder and a molar that broke while I was stressing over my family’s health. The five-minute walk from the station to the clinic pooled me in sweat. Afterwards we prayed at Kumano Shrine, a slight breeze drifting through its cedars. The sizzle of cicada on the verge of death reminded me that fatigue and pain are signs of life: endurance, persistence.