In his 14th-century work, “Tsurezuregusa” (“Essays in Idleness”), Buddhist monk Yoshida Kenko observed that “houses should be built with summer in mind.”
Japanese summers are as hot and humid now as they were then, and good ventilation was essential to comfort long before air conditioning.
A whole culture evolved around ryo — ways of mitigating the heat that are as much a frame of mind as an actual lowering of the ambient temperature.
A timeless wisdom that can be appreciated with all five senses, ryo is still very much alive in the aesthetic of our modern lives.
In response to the high, bright sun, traditional Japanese homes are kept purposefully dark during the summer months. Interior spaces are wrapped in shadow to shield their occupants from the relentless glare outside.
Sudare blinds shut out hot rays while admitting breezes, and the view of the world outside through their rustic weave evokes an air of mystery imbued with a fascinating play of shifting shadows and light.
Wind bells hung beneath the eaves announce the arrival of each welcome breeze. Mats, cushions and other furnishings made of rattan and bamboo are not only cool to the touch, their glossy surfaces carry the very look of coolness.
It’s still hot after sundown, but relaxing in yukata (light cotton kimono) on the edge of the engawa veranda to enjoy the gentle evening air of yū-suzumi is one of the finer pleasures of a Japanese summer.
For many Japanese, the scent of a burning mosquito coil brings to mind the dusky twilight of summer — the time of day to sit outside in hope of catching a soothing breeze. Today’s urbanites living in air-conditioned modern condominiums don’t have much use for this insect-repelling incense. Even so, its iconic spiral shape and wisps of heady smoke, when encountered, remain memory-stirring touchstones of summers past.
Likewise, as summer draws to an end, a chorus of chirping insects attunes us to the steadfast approach of autumn. Appreciation of insects’ calls is recorded as far back as the court poetry of the Heian Period (794-1185). The rhythmic thrum of gossamer wings is itself a cooling murmur of ryo to all who hear the music of the seasons.
First of a four-part series on ryo that focuses on traditional ways to mitigate the heat of a Japanese summer