Japanese culture and lifestyles through the eyes of NHK WORLD personalities
Brian Hughes' early childhood fascination with Japan led to a decision to develop his career in the country. He works as a translator and narrator, drawing upon his university studies of Japanese culture, history and language. Look for him on NHK WORLD's great gear, where he reports on new products from a wide range of industries.
One of the things that most drew me to pack up everything and move all the way to Japan was my appreciation for its aesthetic tradition. There is no shortage of examples, though things like the art, architecture, and cuisine are surely the most well-known. It's a land of the senses; where touch, sound, taste, sight, and smell are all appreciated – indeed the balanced attention to each one is surely what makes Japanese food so amazing – but also in ways that honestly seemed unusual to me in the beginning.
Let's talk about the beginning. My first visit here was in summer. I was a high school student and came here over the summer vacation of my junior year. Before leaving – as this was an exchange program – the organization coordinating the trip sent all the participants to an orientation in San Francisco. And before that, we were given a list of essentials to bring. It was mostly things you'd expect, but one item in particular seemed odd. A handkerchief. "How quaint," was what I thought. But I dutifully picked up a pack of old-fashioned men's handkerchiefs that – it seemed to me – would most likely remain unused. Back to the orientation… When I got there, I felt compelled to ask about the handkerchiefs. Why on earth could we possibly need them? Part of the answer was, "Because of the humidity." There were other reasons too, but this is the relevant one here. Could it really be that humid? In New Mexico – where I'm from – humidity is not really something you worry about. But in the Japanese summer, humid is an understatement! The best way I've ever heard to describe it is, "the air you wear." And a handkerchief is essential for keeping dry as that extra layer of "clothing" makes you sweat your brains out.
So before I end up telling the whole story of my first summer here – although I do plan to bring it up again later – let me get to the point. Having lived in Japan for 11 years now, many strong sensory associations have formed in my mind in relation to the seasons. And as you may have guessed, when it comes to the sense of touch, in the summer, the invisible grip of the swampy summer air is by far the strongest one. It may not sound pleasant. Indeed, it isn’t. But that feeling of moisture in the air as spring ends and the transition into summer begins – via the rainy season in early June – is a powerful trigger for other sense memories of a more pleasant nature.
Things like the sound of chirping cicadas, both mournful and joyous at the same time. My personal favorite is called the minmin zemi, the cicada that goes "min min." When I first heard it – the first summer when I came to live here years after that first short visit – it actually reminded me of a revving motorcycle. It was in my first apartment. Not too far from Tokyo proper, but far enough that it had a bit more rural feeling. And this sound almost drove me nuts. I couldn't sleep a wink. But little by little it began to grow on me, and now I even look forward to it. It's another harbinger of great things to come; a sound that people here most closely associate with the beginning of summer.
For a taste of summer, why not try grilled eel! Or, unagi, as it's called in Japanese. Coated in a sweet teriyaki-like glaze and grilled over a charcoal flame, it's served on rice and seasoned with sansho, or Japanese pepper, which has a lovely citrusy bite. I bet you were expecting something chilled… Well there's lots of that sort of thing here too, but tradition has it that unagi is a great way to cope with the sluggishness brought on by all that heat and humidity I mentioned earlier. And honestly, it is delicious! Not at all fishy; somewhere between fish and chicken is a good approximation. Anago, another variety of eel that's served in a similar style, is also a personal favorite. The island of Itsukushima, home to one of the country's most famous Shinto shrines near Hiroshima, is also famous for this delightful dish.
If it's visual stimulation you're craving – while the food here alone is full of as many vibrant colors as it is tasty flavors – the summer is also the season or fireworks displays. With men and women, boys and girls all dressed up in their brightly decorated yukata (light summer garments similar to kimonos), the fireworks here are not to be missed. My personal favorite is the annual display in Enoshima, about two hours by train from Tokyo. Mostly for sentimental reasons, as it was another first. The colors and variety were amazing. But when I headed out there with some friends to enjoy the show, I was most struck by the sheer duration of the thing. Each volley of fire and color is more vibrant than the next, and the climax left me speechless, as well as a bit sore in the neck.
Having saved the best for last, now it's time to talk about the smell of summer. It's said that the sense of smell is the most closely linked to memory. I have a particular love for a certain aroma that reminds me of what I love best and like least about Japanese summer. Let me explain. Going back to my first visit ever, I remember taking a walk in a park in Chiba, an area near Tokyo where I was staying, and meeting a nice old man who said hello to me in English. We chatted for quite some time and by the end I was literally covered in mosquito bites! Bet you didn't see that coming. Anyway, that's what I like least about the summer here. The mosquitoes are truly vicious. But later on I came across a rather pleasant solution. The mosquito coil, or katori senko as they call them in Japanese. They're pretty common in Asia, but I had never seen one until I came here. And they were actually first developed by a Japanese company over a hundred years ago. Their smell is a strong one; too strong to burn them indoors, which can actually also be a bit dangerous. But for outdoor spaces and activities they're perfect. Their pungent, somewhat sweet aroma reminds me of backyard barbecues with friends and one of my favorite summer pastimes, camping. When I head to one of my favorite spots – like the Okutama area, which is not too far but just far enough away from the city – I never fail to bring a few coils with me, because without them I'd be eaten alive. But I actually do love the smell.
Some of my Japanese friends think I'm a bit strange for doing so. They see them as a necessity, not a pleasure. But for me, when it comes to any of the sensory experiences to be had in Japan, one thread that ties them all together is the importance of the little things. It's the details that matter; every drop of sweat form the swampy heat, every chirp of a cicada, every grain of rice in the unagi bento, every explosion of color at the fireworks show, and yes, even every puff of smoke from a mosquito coil. They all help to weave a tapestry of memories and can instantly evoke a time or a place. And for me, these five things are more powerful than any photograph in bringing to mind the most wonderful Japanese summer.
I was born in the United States, in the State of New Mexico. Since my early childhood, I've always been interested in Japan. In university, I studied Japanese culture, history and language. I currently work as a reporter for the NHK WORLD program, "great gear", where I introduce new and interesting Japanese products and business ideas to the world. I also work as a translator and narrator.