Back in the day, the customary question among Japanese gakusei (学生, students) around this time of year was “Natsu yasumi dō datta?” (夏休みどうだった？, How was summer vacation?). But that was in the days of no smartphones or Skype, when there was a lot less of this hankering for tsunagari (つながり, connectedness).
When schools let out for the summer, kids resigned themselves to being out of touch with friends and classmates until Sept. 1 when everyone reconvened in classrooms to say hello and swap vacation stories. That first day back felt so shinsen (新鮮, fresh) and new. Oh, we were digitally deprived of course, but on the other hand, think about the stress of needing to know what everyone is up to on an hourly basis, every single day, and having to broadcast one’s own doings as well. Ma, iikedone (ま、いいけどね, not that it matters much).
Some things don’t change though, like the fact that once a Japanese stops being a gakusei, it also signifies the end of their natsu yasumi (夏休み, summer vacation). Unless you’re a student, it’s pretty hard to get any sizable amount of time off and if you’re unemployed, free time will cease to feel like a vacation. Either way, the average Japanese adult rarely gets to enjoy the Nippon no natsu (日本の夏, Japanese summer) in any true sense and zannen nagara (残念ながら, I regret to have to say) that modern life has done much to ruin summers for us all.
A colleague was saying to me the other day: Natsu yasumi no gurēdo ga sagatta (夏休みのグレードが下がった, the quality of summer vacation has gone down) and he was probably voicing the secret kokoro no tsubuyaki (心のつぶやき, inner mumblings) of many Japanese. Consider this man’s natsu yasumi rap sheet. On a July Sunday, he drove a total of seven hours in heavy traffic to enjoy a day at the beach. He spent exactly zero minutes in the water, an entire two hours carrying the barbecue, food and other paraphernalia from his Honda SUV, — which was parked in a massive parking lot — to a tiny spot of unoccupied sand in the middle of a densely crowded beach. He then stood over the smoking sumibi (炭火, charcoal fire), grilling corn and sausages for more than an hour, and passed out in a plastic tent he had set up beforehand (where the temperature rose to 39 degrees Celsius) before packing up and going home.
Chinamini (ちなみに, By the way), the Japanese bābekyū (バーベキュー, barbecue) has become the bane of the nation’s coastline, in perhaps a similar way — albeit on a smaller scale — that genpatsu (原発, nuclear power plants) altered and contaminated the coastal seascape. Mass barbecuing and the subsequent dumping of grease and food trash into the ocean have wreaked havoc on major vacation beaches all over Japan. Zushi in Kanagawa Prefecture — once a renowned seaside resort — took the giant step of banning all barbecue activities from its main beach strip in July this year. The jimotomin (地元民, local populace) heaved a huge sigh of relief but they say a decade will have to go by before the ocean water gets back to pre-meat-grilling standards.
My colleague said he regrets buying his barbecue and the colossal expense that went into it. He considers himself an ocean-lover, so being an unwitting participant in polluting the sea brought him no joy.
“Konnano natsu yasumi jyanai!” (こんなの夏休みじゃない, This isn’t a summer vacation at all) he wailed, though, apparently, his wife and kids loved it. Apart from that Sunday, this man took three days off to drive his family over to his wife’s jikka (実家, parents’ house) in Tochigi Prefecture, and another two days to do the same with his jikka, and both experiences were defined by many, many hours spent on the infamous Kanetsu Jidōshadō (関越自動車道, the Kanetsu Highway) where the obon (お盆, traditionally, this is when most Japanese take a holiday in mid-August week to honor the dead) rush culminates in a gridlock that can stretch over 70 km on every highway going in and out of the Tokyo area.
Indeed, it does seem that for all this early-21st-century richness and prosperity, the real natsu no shiawase (夏の幸せ, happiness ofw summer) continues to elude many of us toughing it out in modern Japan. It’s not just because the Nippo no natsu is getting hotter and more prone to shizen saigai (自然災害, natural disaster) with each passing year, it probably has to do with the fact that we’ve forgotten how to deal with heat and humidity, in ways that once defined the national identity.
Stuff like uchimizu (打ち水, sprinkling water on streets and alleyways), eating kakigōri (かき氷, shaved ice) and suika (すいか, watermelon) in the shade, wearing a yukata (浴衣, a thin, summer kimono) to the sentō (銭湯, public bath), the tinkling of a fūrin (風鈴, wind chime) — these all adorned the Japanese summer and made it beautiful. Thankfully, such things are still around. But somehow kakigōri doesn’t taste the same when it costs almost ¥1,000 a bowl and is eaten inside an air-conditioned cafe.
It’s true, the natsuyasumi needs some quality control. And as we kamishimeru (噛み締める, mull over) these thoughts, another summer is about to end.