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Japan’s Hottest Topic

The summer heat wave has Japanese talking weather and crowding coffee shops.

If there’s anyone who isn’t complaining about the heat in Japan this summer, I haven’t met them yet. The temperature in Tokyo hits 35 degrees centigrade almost every day and the most common greeting has been about the weather: ‘Atsui desu ne’ (‘It’s hot, isn’t it?’)

The combination of the strong sun and high humidity has kept most people sweating and talking about the weather wherever they are. But this weather news replacing regular ‘hellos’ and ‘how are yous’ at this time of the year has also actually in a way brought people together—as if we are all united in sharing the same kind of horrendous experience.

There are places to go where you can escape the heat, but work isn’t always one of them. In an effort to save money or energy, many offices (and even some shopping malls) in Japan keep the thermometers set at a barely tolerable 26 degrees and you walk around inside in a kind of muggy stupor. I yearn for the malls of places like Singapore where I can walk around comfortably at a fast pace and sometimes need a sweater because it’s so cold inside.

So, like a large cadre of other people here, I head for my local Starbucks—which are all packed at this time of the year. The coffee baristas do double duty as maître d's and help you stake out a seat among the crowd. I’m at Starbucks several times a week. I go there for the wireless connection, the comparative peace and quiet, the cool temperature and a chance to sample their beat-the-heat drink, the ‘Yuzu Green Tea Frappuccino.’

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If you don’t know what yuzu is, it’s a very tart citrus fruit available in Japan that looks like a grapefruit, but tastes more like a mix between a grapefruit, an orange, a lemon and a lime. Starbucks may have had this drink last year, but I don’t remember it and there’s a big push on now to get you to try it. I was offered a free sample downtown at the beginning of the summer and have been hooked ever since. It’s like a creamy lemon-lime frappe and seems to be tailor-made for Japan’s summer. Take one gulp and it’ll instantly feel as if the temperature has gone down five degrees. It’s a great drink just to sip as you sit and listen to everyone else talk about the weather.

This Frappuccino is just one of the many beverages and snack foods that are rolled out in Japan just for the summer. There are summer beers, an expanding number of new kinds of beers, summer beverages, summer snacks and summer beer gardens, which seem to pop up everywhere, where you can sit on plastic or wicker chairs around picnic tables and enjoy some light food and beer.

These summer beverages, rituals and snacks are almost an art form here. And in my next column, I’ll talk about chocolate, and more specifically, one of my favourite summer snacks.