Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Over 35 but After the First

Although there's a tentative but welcome breeze blowing through the Tokyo area today (apparently brought by a typhoon approaching slowly from the south and west), the heat wave persists and is expected to do so for at least another week or so. Several records have been broken around the country, and the unusually fierce and long summer heat  has been a constant news item for many weeks. In fact, it has become even more newsworthy now that it's September, and we should theoretically be experiencing the beginning of autumn weather. Except for that breeze, no such luck: the nights continue to stay above 25 degrees Celsius, and the daytime highs are above 35--and sometimes close to 40--all across the country.

Thus, I was somewhat surprised to see, in a TV  news story last weekend, that the still numerous visitors to Shonan beaches were complaining about the umi no ie (literally "ocean house(s)" or "house(s) at the sea") having stopped operation and indeed being dismantled. These temporary but sturdy structures house restaurants/bars and often offer showers, changing rooms, and a place to rest, along with rentals of beach chairs, umbrellas, inflatable boats, and the like.

When the weather is good, these places do a lot of business, particularly--but not only--on weekends and public holidays. They're often the only practical place for beach-goers to get a cold drink, a bowl of flavored shaved ice, or something to eat. Unless you bring your own umbrella, they can be the only place to get a little shade, too. They set up each year at the landward edge of the beach, quite a few of them on any reasonably large and popular beach, and operate throughout the summer season.

The tricky term is "summer season". The report I saw, with thirsty bikini-clad girls complaining in the foreground and umi no ie being rapidly dismantled in the background, was filmed on the fourth or fifth of September. The temperature was 37 or 38 officially in the area, which means probably at least three degrees higher at the beach in the sun. But it was after the first of September, so the summer season was over.

I don't know just what sort of financial arrangements these establishments make with the local government (and probably the local yakuza as well) for permission to set up shop on the beach. Their existence is beneficial in providing a service to the visitors and in doing a lot to prevent heat stroke cases, and the local government gains financially as well.

It's not unreasonable to imagine that someone would have thought to arrange for a couple of weeks' extension, since the sun, the heat, and the beach goers are still very much around.

Someday maybe I'll look into just what sorts of permissions and charges are involved in operating an umi no ie, but for now I'll just remain bemused that they are being taken down even though the only indication of the end of summer is gradually shortening days and the numbers on a calendar.

I am bemused, but I can't honestly say that I'm surprised. I spent several years early in my stay in Japan living near the beach. In those days, I found it odd that virtually nobody--except for a few surfers, anglers, and die-hard sailboaters--went to the beach until the first of July, and they all disappeared at the end of August. The local Shinto priests would have a beach opening ceremony (they do such rites on popular mountains and hiking trails, too), and the next day the beach would be covered with glistening, reddening people. Come September, the crowds would melt away. This was pretty much regardless of the weather, although in then-typical years it used to start to become noticeably brisk toward the beginning of September, especially in the morning and evening. Typhoons would start to proliferate around then, too.

Recently, however, both the weather and people's leisure patterns have changed considerably. It's hot--very hot--earlier in the year, and it stays that way later in the year. People tend to do things in smaller groups and travel a lot more by car than by train. And, for various socio-economic reasons, many people--especially young ones--have more spare time on their hands whether on weekdays or weekends.

It no longer makes much sense to close down your beach-side business at the beginning of September, particularly when there are still hordes of potential customers watching you do it.


Anonymous said...

I read your blog about these places and wanted to comment. On Monday My wife & I took a drive along the coast and indeed most of them are in various stages of dis-assembly.

But also, there is a historical angle from all this plus a fairly strong 'local reaction' to them in the local papers.

Originally when they were conceived (maybe back in the 50's) in fact they did provide a valuable service because, at the time, the Shonan area was becoming the Tokyo resort area particularly during school holidays. But there were very few local residents and almost no facilities for getting the services they provided. Basically they thrived but only during school holidays and only during daylight hours which was when people came to the beach.

Now the Shonan area is a true resort styled area with all the modern facilities one could hope for. So the beach-houses mutated into mobile disco & bar areas that catered mainly for the younger 20's crowd and less to family groups. They tend to be heavy on the booze, loud on the music and stay open to all hours which doesn't sit well with the now very large and mostly middle aged local community.

So there is an ongoing debate in local papers about how these places should be policed, licenced, allowed to operate or whatever. I think that is one of the reasons why they are not given any latitude regarding when they can operate. They are basically seen as a necessary evil now rather than providing a useful service to the beach-going public. Although, considering most of the beach-goers tend to be young and looking for fun it's probably debateable about their value to the summer beach culture.

A Shonan resident

Balefire said...

Thanks for the very informative comment from the perspective of a local resident!

The area has unquestionably changed since the '70s when I lived there. I agree that it has become much more of a real resort area than it had been, and that facilities, including hotels, restaurants, shops, etc., have dramatically increased. So has the year-round resident population, based on empirical evidence.

I can see that the local people wouldn't be too enthusiastic about crowds of noisy folks in their teens and 20s partying 'til all hours.

On the other hand, even with the much higher number and distribution of more permanent establishments (such as some excellent cafe bars and restaurants), I believe that they'd be overwhelmed by the hordes of summer visitors if it weren't for the beach houses taking up a lot of the slack.

I'm not surprised that there's an ongoing debate, and I'll be following events with interest to see how (if?) the issue is worked out.

Thanks again for the enlightening comment.