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Go beyond the air conditioner with traditional Japanese cooling crafts

The Japan News

Miwako Suzuki places maple leaves on an ice block while relaxing on a yuton mat during a “keep cool” event hosted by the Hibachi Club in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo. At left is a large wind chime made from iron hibashi chopsticks.

By Steve Mauro / Japan News Staff WriterIt’s difficult to imagine life before air-conditioning. Tokyo’s sizzling summers drive most people to the shelter of artificially cooled interiors for a good portion of the day. But of course people did find ways to stave off the heat before electricity, and a Tokyo-based group called the Hibachi Club is on a mission to preserve the traditional crafts that helped them do it.

On another hot day in August, the group was holding a “noryokai” — a casual get-together to enjoy cool things on a hot day — and I was intrigued, especially after reading promotional materials claiming near-magical properties for the old-school crafts.

The event took place at the Shimazono Residence, a stylish old house in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, that blends Japanese and Western designs. The day was cloudy and humid with a light rain that only added to the stuffy feeling.

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  • The Japan News

    Steve Mauro keeps cool in front of an ice block, and cold loquat tea is served at the event.

  • The Japan News

    Kanji characters are visible on scrap washi paper that makes up the reverse side of a yuton mat.

  • Courtesy of Myochin Honpo

    Wind chimes made from iron hibashi chopsticks

Group representative Yuri Nakamura, who is also a freelance TV director and scriptwriter, met me at the door and quickly ushered me to a Japanese-style room.

The room was a feast for the senses — visual, aural and tactile. A large block of ice bedecked with clumps of green maple leaves sat in the center of the room. A light breeze entered through a Japanese garden, causing several large wind chimes to ring with a clear, bright sound that seemed to go on forever. The sound of wind chimes is traditionally thought to have a cooling effect, and these chimes looked cool to the touch as well, as they were made from black metal chopsticks used to tend hibachi braziers.

And below my feet on the floor was a traditional yuton paper mat, one of the crafts I had read about. It is said to have the power to “cool a room just by laying it out — a mechanism still not understood today.”

According to Nakamura, yuton are made by pasting together Japanese washi paper using thin applications of glue. Each layer is repeatedly tapped with a brush — as many as 10,000 times, it’s said — before the next piece of paper is added. A varnish of perilla oil is added as a final step, lending the mat its name (“yu” means oil and “ton” comes from “futon”). It takes three artisans more than a month to create a finished product.

I had been expecting something about the size of a zabuton cushion, but this mat covered the entire room. It was also thinner than I had thought, with a caramel color and glossy sheen, and it was cool to the touch.

“The sheen is meant to make it easy to wick away sweat, so that it won’t soak into the tatami mat and damage it,” said Nakamura.

I sat around the ice block, drinking cool tea and snacking on umeboshi pickled plums provided by the host. Nakamura plucked off a maple leaf and stuck it to the ice block to create a design on its surface — though she added that such aesthetic pursuits were beyond the means of the commoner in the Edo period, when blocks of ice had to be hauled down from the mountains.

Was all this keeping me cool? Well, the cumulative effect of the wooden house, the garden, the singing chimes and the yuton was a far cry from my air-conditioned Tokyo apartment. I was starting to get more relaxed, even though I was still sweating.

I asked two other visitors for their impressions — Shinnosuke and Tomoko Onishi, a couple who came from Chiba Prefecture and were dressed for the occasion in Hawaiian shirts.

“I expected the yuton to be harder, closer to the feel of a board, but I like the soft feel,” said Shinnosuke. When I asked if he thought he could make do with traditional tech instead of air-conditioning in the summer, he said, “Maybe at around 30 C I could manage, but anything over that would be impossible.” I could agree with that sentiment.

What’s more, these traditional goods don’t come cheap today. Nakamura said a one tatami-size yuton costs about ¥150,000. Miwako Suzuki, a visitor from nearby, said with a laugh, “Enjoying the traditional ways of summer is more expensive than electricity for air-conditioning.”

Another visitor, Chizuko None from Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, learned about yuton on a TV program more than 10 years ago. Since then, she has always wanted one for her home. A friend told her about this event, and she decided to come and see them for herself before deciding whether to buy.

“I like antiques, so I prefer used yuton to newer products that have a pale white color. If I find a good used yuton, I might buy it,” said None.

Yuton were once made in shops all over Japan during the late Edo period — picture binders would make them during the summer offseason — but today only one shop is said to produce them, Beniya Koyodo in Sabae, Fukui Prefecture. Yuton are reputed to have a 100-year shelf life, with the glossy finish becoming more mirror-like with age. The poet Kyoshi Takahama even penned a haiku about the yuton’s reflective qualities: “The pillar’s shadow/ is even reflected/ in the yuton.” Haiku poets often used yuton as a seasonal word to evoke the feeling of summertime.

During the get-together, I decided to take a walk around the house to admire the Western-style room upstairs, though I quickly found myself wanting to get back to the comfort of the yuton and ice blocks.

In his history “Tokyo: From Edo to Showa 1867-1989,” the American scholar Edward Seidensticker wrote, “Summer, most oppressive season for the salaried middle class of the new day, was for the Edo townsman the best of seasons.” He described it as a time of revelry and increased freedom.

Though it’s hard to make a direct comparison in this age of rising temperatures, I can see how people in the past could enjoy a summer evening with helpful tools like yuton and wind chimes on hand. The trick, I learned, is in playing on all of your senses — a combined effect that is more difficult to achieve than simply switching on an air conditioner. I don’t know if magic was involved, but these crafts are certainly worth holding on to.

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