Hot in the city: scorching Kumagaya

Exploring new ways of dealing with the heat from a city in Saitama that certainly knows a thing or two about keeping cool

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

“Everybody, talks about the weather,” author Mark Twain famously remarked, quoting his friend Charles Dudley Warner, “but nobody does anything about it.”

Japan may be an exception. Try to imagine, if you will, the following hypothetical conversation:

“Say, did you go anyplace for your summer holiday?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I went to Kumagaya.”

“Eh? Come again?”

“You know, the city in Saitama.”

“Ah-ha-ha! Kumagaya? You’re pulling my leg, right?”

“No, I’m serious. I had a great time. Gonna go back again one of these days.”

“Geez …” (Shakes head in bewilderment)

Overpowering summer heat is certainly no joking matter. And Kumagaya, a green city of approximately 200,000 located 60 km from Tokyo, has been known for a lot of things, but these days mostly for its reputation as one of the hottest places in Japan.

On Aug. 16, 2007, when the island of Honshu sweltered under an oppressive heat wave, Kumagaya, along with the city of Tajimi in Gifu Prefecture, registered a peak temperature of 40.9 degrees Celsius — breaking a record for the hottest temperature in Japan that had stood for 74 years.

That previous record, 40.8 degrees, was set in the city of Yamagata back in July 1933, when the local newspaper reported, “The heat was so intense that asphalt streets melted and a horse pulling a wagon suffered a heart attack.”

Skipping forward to 2007, did those roasted, toasted Kumagayans turn up their air conditioners full blast and flop on their sofas until the heat subsided? Did some flee permanently to cooler climes?

It appears that most of them took their city’s steamy status in stride, going so far as to adopting the spirited slogan “Atsui zo, Kumagaya” (“Kumagaya, damn hot!”), along with spinoff goods and a fiery mascot.

And, as I will subsequently relate, they also came together as a community to work out proactive common-sense ways to avoid heatstroke and get through the summer while keeping discomfort to a minimum.

Kumagaya’s record, however, was to last only six years. It was superseded in Aug. 12, 2013, by one-tenth of a degree, with the city of Shimanto in Kochi Prefecture becoming the new king of the mountain with a scorching 41 degrees.

Nevertheless, there’s no disputing that Kumagaya’s summers are still plenty hot. Its daily highs in summertime are typically two to three degrees hotter than Tokyo’s.

The city took or shared first place in reporting the highest number of mōshobi (“days of extreme heat,” in which the temperature exceeds 35 degrees) in 2008 (28 days), 2010 (41 days) and 2012 (32 days).

What’s more, it still boasts the country’s temperature records for the months of June (39.8 degrees in 2011) and September (39.7 degrees in 2000).

‘We’re just over an hour from Ueno Station by the JR Takasaki Line, but if you take the Joetsu Shinkansen it’s only 40 minutes,” said Moriichi Uchino, an acquaintance of 25 years whose family has lived in the Kumagaya area for many generations.

I’d been procrastinating on a long-promised visit, and he was excited to show me why he loves his hometown, its reputation as a hot spot notwithstanding.

While willing to take his word for it that Kumagaya’s a nice place, I was fortunate enough to visit during the rainy season in early July, on a day when the highest posted temperature was only 25 degrees — one degree lower than Tokyo’s on the same day.

I was met at the Shinkansen exit. Our first stop was the visitor sightseeing counter on the ground floor, where I picked up a city map and armload of tourist brochures.

On our way, Uchino gestured upwards to an atomizer device on the ceiling that was spraying passers by with “dry mist” — one of the city’s various measures to help inhabitants, quite literally, chill out.

Next we headed for the Yagihashi Department Store, located on the famous old Nakasendo, the inland thoroughfare connecting Kyoto with Edo (modern-day Tokyo).

Outside the store’s main entrance is a 5-meter-high thermometer — not a real one, but with a sliding indicator that’s set manually — emblazoned with Kumagaya’s slogan, “Atsui zo!” and is changed daily to display the temperature.

We then took the escalator to the seventh floor, where the Public Lounge restaurant serves a local delicacy: an icy confection known as a yukikuma that is one of the ways Kumagayans cool off in summer.

For summertime visitors to Kumagaya, eating a yukikuma is almost obligatory — the equivalent of taking a tour of Venice in a gondola.

Readers might be familiar with another popular ice confection called kakigori, which consists of a scoop of crushed ice over which a sweet-flavored syrup is squirted — referred to by Americans as a “snow cone” (and nicknamed a “Hard Times Sundae” during the Great Depression).

But a yukikuma is impressively large and fluffy — like loosely packed snow — lacking the crunchy consistency of crushed ice and flavored not only with liquid but also solid condiments.

There are yukikuma pretenders that go by other names, but to qualify as honmono (the real thing) as defined by the local association, it must be made of ice produced from Kumagaya’s local underground water, the ice must be shaved so as to produce a fluffy consistency, and original syrup and flavoring must be used.

Uchino chose one prepared with azuki (sweet red beans); I went for an orenji miruku (orange milk) for ¥750. Made from a puree of freshly mashed orange pulp and peel, with a sweet cream sauce poured on top, it was indeed tasty and of satisfying volume. The ice’s contact with my molars also produced shivers down my spine.

On the way to the parking lot, we passed two yukikuma specialty shops outside of which a dozen or so people were waiting patiently in line.

First thing Monday morning, we headed for Kumagaya’s City Office, passing the “Cool Share Oasis” inside the main entrance — one of the innovative anti-heatstroke measures adopted by the city (more on that later).

Ryo Hosoe, a young employee in the city’s planning section, walked me through a 22-page presentation containing the latest facts and figures on what his city has been doing to make things more tolerable for residents.

Kumagaya, Hosoe says, has five ongoing projects that span environmental measures such as the promotion of planting greenery, reduction of pollution, and keeping the public informed and alert. As of May, these have spawned no fewer than 11 separate initiatives.

Last year, he said, the city began distributing free “cool scarves” composed of microfiber that retains water by resisting evaporation to 38,900 mostly elderly residents.

Kumagaya also teamed up with the Meteorological Agency to establish the country’s first heatstroke warning system, rated on a scale of from 1 to 5, with an advisory kicking in at level 3 (over 25 degrees), a warning at level 4 (over 28 degrees) and a danger alert at level 5 (above 31 degrees), at which point warnings are broadcast from loudspeakers posted at points in the city and delivered to cellphones.

One of the most city’s most interesting efforts at combating heatstroke while conserving electric power is the “Cool Share” project, which runs from June 1 to Sept. 30. During these four months, a total of 217 participating organizations, including City Hall and other public offices, banks, restaurants, museums, bookstores, beauty salons and so on set aside a designated “Cool Share” space by which anyone who’s starting to wilt in the heat can sit down, relax and in many cases enjoy a complimentary (or discounted) beverage and snack.

Another brainstorm, Hosoe told me with obvious enthusiasm, was the city’s sponsorship of an art competition to create murals of cooling scenes that would help people “imagine” it’s cooler.

One of them, by Ayano Nakabayashi, shows a young girl seated beneath a tree while soaking her feet in a stream. A larger version of her drawing was painted on the steps of the main entrance of Kumagaya Station, where it will remain until the end of September.

“We also produced an 18-minute DVD that explains how to avoid heatstroke,” said Hosoe.

As Japan’s summers get hotter, other cities in have begun to look to Kumagaya’s multi-pronged approach to safeguarding their residents from heatstroke while conserving resources.

Too far inland to receive the cooling effects of the ocean, Kumagaya and several cities in neighboring Gunma Prefecture are situated in a basin ringed by mountains in which heat collects, and on any given summer day, the temperatures there tend to be two or three degrees hotter than that of Tokyo.

Another factor that has caused temperatures to soar is that Tokyo itself generates artificial heat from its concrete surfaces, motor vehicles, air conditioners, etc., and winds from the southeast carry that metropolitan heat all the way to Kumagaya.

“Think of an enormous frying pan (the Kanto plain), in which the raw egg starts to roll out from Tokyo,” explained Kumagaya Meteorological Office Assistant Manager Takashi Iwasaki, moving his hands in a tumbling motion. “By the time it gets to Kumagaya, it’s a hard-boiled egg.”

The Kumagaya facility, one of about 50 meteorological offices situated around Japan, deserves credit for putting Kumagaya on the map, at least as far as the weather is concerned. It’s located in a residential area just a few minute’s drive from the city’s center, and is open to visitors by prior appointment. On short notice, Iwasaki very graciously spent time explaining what weather forecasting and monitoring is all about.

In the grassy yard next to the building, protruding out of the ground, can be seen a precipitation sensor, a device that gauges the amount of rainfall, a thermometer, a hygrometer to measure humidity and a device that measures accumulated snowfall.

On the building’s roof are an instrument for the measurement of wind speed and another to gauge sunshine. Inside the building are a barometer to measure air pressure and a seismograph. The human element is also involved, as several times a day a staffer climbs to the roof and reports on visibility. (If typhoons were not enough, Kumagaya has also been hit by several tornados, one as recently as last September that wreaked considerable damage.)

I was also invited to peep into the inner sanctum on the ground floor, where some of the 30 employees could be seen tapping at computer keyboards, squinting at monitors and scrawling data by hand on several whiteboards.

Temperatures and other data are updated at one-minute intervals, with forecasts issued three times a day, at 5 a.m., 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. This and other weather data is processed by a supercomputer located in Kiyose City, Tokyo, and forecasts are subsequently generated.

It appears that the weather forecasts you see on your TV news screen are based on complex equations and historical weighted averages for any given locale.

“When the pattern of data is exactly the same as similar data that was registered previously, then we can expect the results to be the same as well,” explained Iwasaki, who told me he had missed the excitement in 2007 when Kumagaya broke Yamagata’s 74-year-old record, as he’d had been working at that time at the Osaka Regional Headquarters — “where it’s also pretty hot.”

Last August, when Kumagaya’s six-year record fell to Shimanto, an unnamed city official was quoted in the media as saying, “It’s probably better for us to concede the title of Japan’s hottest city. We can only use the high temperature to appeal to people the first time it happens. Over the long run, however, it’s unlikely to result in any economic benefits. We’ve got to find attractions other than just the temperature.”

I was able to take in some of those attractions, although I stayed home to complete this article on July 20-22, during the city’s famous Uchiwa Matsuri (fan festival). Still, there are plenty of places to see. On any must-see list is the Menuma Shodenzan Temple, designated a national cultural treasure. First constructed in 1179, the inner hall is festooned with elaborate ornamental carvings, making it a photographer’s dream.

For sports enthusiasts, meanwhile, the sprawling Kumagaya Sports Culture Park has its eye on opening up three rugby grounds to visitors from abroad when Japan hosts the World Rugby Cup in 2019 (www.parks.or.jp/kumagaya/information/rugby.html)

After more than four decades in Japan, I’m still having fun discovering new terra incognita so accessible from home.

And here’s another hot tip for you: Prices in Kumagaya are so reasonable that even with shinkansen fares added to local hotel accommodations, the cost of seeing Saitama on a shoestring is equivalent, or even less, than what you’d pay just for a hotel room in central Tokyo. Which is why, after the heat subsides, I’m looking forward to a return visit.


Protecting yourself from heat stress

Heat stress, from exertion or hot environments, places everyone at risk for illnesses such as heat stroke, heat exhaustion or heat cramps. Protect yourself during the hot summer months by avoiding heavy exertion, extreme heat, sun exposure and high humidity whenever possible. When these cannot be avoided, take the following preventative steps:

• Monitor your physical condition and that of your co-workers for signs or symptoms of heat illnesses.

• Wear light-colored, loose-fitting, breathable clothing such as cotton.

• Avoid nonbreathable synthetic clothing.

• Gradually build up to heavy work.

• Schedule heavy work during the coolest parts of day.

• Take more breaks when doing heavier work, and in high heat and humidity.

• Take breaks in the shade or a cool area.

• Drink water frequently. Drink enough water that you never become thirsty.

• Be aware that protective clothing or personal protective equipment may increase the risk of heat-related illnesses.

This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional.

Source: U.S. Embassy American Citizens’ Services