People often ask me when the swimming season is in Japan. This is difficult question because nearly every beach and pool opens at a different time.
The swimming season officially starts when the Shinto priest holds Umi Biraki (opening of the sea) ceremony. In this ceremony, the priest purifies the sea and water, making it safe to swim. Where I live, on an island in Western Japan, Umi Biraki is always held on the first Sunday in July, which seems a little late for a public swimming beach, but the crowds start coming only after this.
Other beaches open earlier. I have heard of some of the popular Tokyo beaches opening near the end of April and in warm Okinawa, they can open in mid—March. . Most Japanese on Honshu will wait until the official swimming season, even though the weather may be warm enough for swimming before then. July and August are generally considered to be the swimming season months as they coincide with the summer school holidays.
This doesn’t mean you cannot swim before Umi Biraki, it just means that you won’t see many Japanese people, if any, swimming so early as they consider it outside of the swimming season.
Much of this adherence to a “swimming season” may be due to the fact that in Japan, going to the beach is a special event, much like we would take a picnic in the West. While we tend to take a minimalist approach to going to the beach packing just a hat, sunglasses, a book and a beach towel, the Japanese will take everything plus the kitchen sink: A tent to keep out of the sun, a large vinyl sheet to sit on, some beach chairs for the adults, their own BBQ and a cooler to store food and drinks. Going to the beach tends to be a family or a group event.
As a result, most families plan to go to the beach once during the whole summer. Therefore, they’d prefer to go when it is really hot outside and they can appreciate a day of cooling off and lounging by the sea.
August 16th marks the rather abrupt end to the swimming season, which is also the last day of the summer “O-bon,” (Festival of the Dead) holiday. The end of the swimming season coincides with the time of year when jelly fish start making their appearance in the waters so it can be dangerous to swim. To discourage children from continuing to swim after O-bon, adults will tell them that there are “kappa” (water nymphs) in the sea that will come up and grab their legs!
Check with the local beach, or the locals who live near there, to find out when Umi Biraki is.
Public swimming pools also have a swimming season but no special ceremony for opening that I know of. The indoor (but not heated) pool where I live is open from June through August, even if it is warm enough to swim before or after these months. Check with the local swimming pool for their times of operation.
Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at http://www.moooobar.com