Best time to visit Japan | Rough Guides

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Autumn leaves at Kakusenkei Gorge

The best time of year to visit Japan really depends on where in the country you’re headed and what you’re looking to include in your itinerary. But broadly speaking, if you want to avoid a monsoon drenching, spring and autumn are ideal. A trip in spring is also the best time to see the splendid cherry blossom bursting into bloom throughout the country. Japan’s world-class ski slopes are a magnet for snowsports enthusiasts in winter, while summer signals beach hopping and watersports, alongside great mountain hiking.

Weather and climate in Japan

The weather is one of the most important things to consider when deciding when to go to Japan. The country’s diverse geography causes enormous variation in weather patterns: from sub-arctic in the north to subtropical in the far south. The main influences on Honshū’s climate are the mountains and surrounding warm seas, which bring plenty of rain and snow.

Winter weather differs greatly, however, between the western Sea of Japan and the Pacific coasts. The former suffers cold winds and heavy snow, while the latter tends towards dry, clear winter days. But if you’re in Japan for the legendary skiing, you’ll be delighted with the regular heavy snowfalls in the mountains.

Skiing and snowboarding at Niseko © Shutterstock

Here are some general guidelines to help you decide when to visit Japan:

  • Winters are cold and snow is common.
  • Summers are hot and humid across the country.
  • Summer is also typhoon season, although these tropical storms usually affect southern Japan worse than other areas.
  • As with other countries located in the northern hemisphere, January is the coldest month and August is the hottest.

When is the monsoon in Japan?

In the weeks leading to summer, monsoon rains sweep through Japan from south to north. The season lasts about a month and a half, although you can never be entirely sure when they’ll hit, as timings vary from year to year. But wherever you are, the rainy season (tsuyu) is over by mid-July. Usually, the monsoon lands in the Okinawa archipelago in May, and then moves north, arriving in Kyoto and Tokyo in early June. Western Japan gets the heaviest rains.

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo © Shutterstock

When is the best time to visit Japan?

This is a country of extreme differences in terms of weather: chilly winters versus scorching and humid summers. And to complicate things further, the country’s weather varies from island to island, especially during the winter months. This means there’s no single best time to travel to Japan. For example, while winter temperatures in Hokkaido (Japan’s northernmost island) drop below zero, they remain in the 20s °C on the southern island of Okinawa.

That said, unless you’re planning to hit the ski slopes, March to May and September to November are the best months to visit Japan – it’s warm and dry and most activities are on offer.

When to visit Japan in winter

Winter temperatures drop to an average of 5°C across central Japan and fall below zero in the mountains and the far north. Yet it’s not all bad news: although undeniably cold, it’s mostly dry, and clear skies and sunshine are common. So if you’re wrapped up, the weather shouldn’t hold you back.

Heavy snowfall rules out outdoor activities, such as hiking and cycling, but it’s what makes Japan a world-class, rather underrated, skiing destination. Also, fewer visitors to Japan in winter means transport and accommodation prices are slashed – making this the best time to travel to Japan for travellers on a budget.

Visiting Japan in December – February

Between December and February, snow brings a magical stillness to mountains and rural areas. Picturesque mountain villages, such as Biei (in Hokkaido), Ine (north of Kyoto), and those along Nakasendo Trail, are particularly enchanting at this time of year. The Japan Alps, a mountain range in central Japan, are a dream for skiers at this time of the year, and there are other excellent ski resorts within easy reach of Sapporo.

Winter weather also brings the highest chances of getting a clear view of the spectacular Mount Fuji. For winter comfort you could stay at one of the many ryokans nearby. These traditional Japanese inns offer a way of experiencing first-hand the legendary Japanese hospitality.

Jigokudani Monkey Park is another top winter destination and an easy day trip from Tokyo. Combine it with a relaxing onsen stay – there are hundreds of these hot spring resorts all over the country.

December is also perfect city break weather, a way to mix the great outdoors with indoor activities. You can visit museums and anime shops, discover great ramen and sake spots, take in tea ceremonies – and let loose during a karaoke session, without which, a night out in the city just isn’t complete.

The bristling cold also brings the perfect excuse to indulge in seasonal treats, made with persimmons, chestnuts, or sweet potato, with each region having its own speciality.

Tea ceremony © Shutterstock

When to visit Japan in spring

Spring brings cloudy and wet weather to Japan and morning and evenings can be chilly. But this can be one of the loveliest times to visit Japan, when the weather reports chart the steady progress of the cherry blossom, from warm Kyūshū in March to colder Hokkaidō around May. Sakura season is world-renowned and the Japanese cherry blossoms are a big draw for tourists. But with this comes a spike in the cost of accommodation, which gets booked up quickly – so plan ahead.

The busiest time of year, though, is Golden Week, extending from late April to early May. With four national holidays during this period, locals seize the opportunity to take time off to travel around the country. So, expect transport and accommodation to be fully booked.

When to see the cherry blossoms in Japan

Sakura season runs between April and May, so this is generally the best time to go to Japan to see the lovely cherry blossom. However, it comes earlier to some parts of the country – in Fukuoka and Hiroshima, these delicate flowers are already on display in late March.

Cherry blossom sites in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Ōsaka will be crowded, but there are plenty of other spots where you won’t have to battle crowds and their selfie sticks. Here are our suggestions:

• Showa Memorial Park, a 30-minute train ride from Tokyo.

• Taking a boat trip along Meguro River, in Tokyo for a different perspective of the flowering trees.

• Shukeien Garden in Hiroshima.

• Tsurumi Park in Ōsaka.

• Nikko national park, only 90 minutes away from central Tokyo.

Cherry blossom in Ōsaka © Shutterstock

Visiting Japan in March – May

Although technically spring begins in March, this is one of the coldest months in Japan.

Conditions are still good for skiing and other winter sports at the beginning of March, but it gets noticeably warmer towards the end of the month – making this a great time to visit Japan.

Although Japan’s cherry blossom is star of the show, it’s worth seeing the nemophila flowers come into bloom, which turn Hitachi Park in Ibaraki into a sea of blue blossoms.

Arashiyama bamboo forest near Kyoto is another great spring attraction, and other worthwhile sights in the area include the numerous hot springs and imperial villas.

When to visit Japan in summer

Japan in summer is hot. Temperatures rise from the mid-20s °C to high 30s °C and high humidity can make it feel hotter than it really is, especially in densely built urban areas. But since Japan consists of several islands, you’ll never be too far from a beach where you can take a dip and cool off. Having said that, if you head to the mountains, it’ll be significantly cooler – making for ideal hiking conditions.

Three things you’ll want to consider if you’re planning a trip to Japan in the summer:

• There’s a major holiday in mid-August, so major landmarks will be busy with Japanese travellers.

• Monsoon rains can be heavy and make their appearance suddenly during June and July.

• Typhoon season peaks in August. These tropical storms can disrupt travel plans.

Visiting Japan in June – August

Despite its great coastline, Japan flies under the radar as a beach and watersports destination. Okinawa’s tropical beaches are world-class, and if you really want to get off the beaten path, fly to the Yaeyama Islands – you may think you’re in Polynesia.

If you don’t have the time or resources to plan a getaway in southern islands, there are other beaches easier to reach. Izu peninsula, not far from Tokyo, comes with rugged coastal scenery and is great for beach hopping and wildlife spotting.

Also, just an hour away from Tokyo is Okutama, a paradise for watersports and adrenaline lovers. Here you can hurtle down river rapids, plunge into waterfalls, or test your balance with stand-up paddle boarding.

July and August are the best months to climb Mount Fuji. But if that sounds a tad strenuous, there’s no shortage of things to do in the surrounding area, such as cable car excursions, boat trips, and museum visits. This is also a great time to explore the hiking trails in the Japan Alps, or the volcanic wilderness of Daisetsuzan National Park.

Mount Fuji reflected in Lake Yamanaka © Shutterstock

If you’re here during the summer and want to escape the monsoon, you could head north and explore one of the country’s least-visited islands. Hokkaido boasts breathtaking nature, few tourists, extraordinary cuisine, and is barely affected by the monsoon.

When to visit Japan in autumn

For many travellers, especially nature lovers (and who doesn’t love nature?), the autumn is the best time to visit Japan. Foliage begins to change colour in the north in September, and gradually the wave of beautiful red, yellow, and copper shades makes its way down south. And considering that forests cover nearly 70% of Japan, photo opportunities are pretty much everywhere. There are even foliage forecasts, which are updated every year to help you plan when to go where.

Average temperatures stay in the mid to high 20s °C in September, while October is mostly dry and relatively warm – good news for outdoor enthusiasts. But while November sees temperatures drop, it’s still usually dry.

Visiting Japan in September – November

Train rides are a fantastic way of seeing the spectacular autumn colours. Recommended train trips include Kyoto to Arashima, Tokyo to Nikko, and the Kurobe Gorge Railway.

Japan is a dream for shopaholics – but that’s hardly a secret. Between September to November, many stores launch their summer clearance and autumn sales, so this is the time to bag a bargain and check out the Japanese shopping scene – a cultural experience in itself.

If you’re a foodie and haven’t yet decided when to go to Japan, book your trip in September or October. Kyoto welcomes the Plum Wine Fair in September, and there are craft beer events all over central Japan. October is the best month to travel to Japan to indulge in ramen. The Tokyo Ramen Show at the end of the month brings expert noodle makers from all over the country to the city, giving you a chance to sample dozens of regional specialities in a single place.

Jogakura Ohashi Bridge in autumn © Shutterstock

Festivals and holidays in Japan

Please note that the current coronavirus situation means some events may be postponed or cancelled. Check individual events before booking your trip.

Japan has festivals (matsuri) throughout the year and it’s worth attending one during your visit – it could be a highlight of your stay. Often steeped in centuries’ worth of tradition, these celebrations are usually full of colour and exuberance, and they offer an unmatched insight into Japanese culture.

Music festivals in Japan

Late July and August in Japan is the time for rock and popular music festivals. One of the best is the Earth Celebration on Sado-ga-shima, where the famed Kodo drummers collaborate with guests from the world music scene.

If you want to catch up on the latest in Japanese rock and pop then schedule your visit to coincide with the most established event, as far as foreign bands is concerned, Fuji Rock. This huge three-day event hosts a wide range of top-name acts covering musical genres from dance and electronica to jazz and blues on multiple stages. It takes place at Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata prefecture, easily accessible from Tokyo via Shinkansen. It’s possible to visit for a day, camp or stay in the hotels that in winter cater to the ski crowd.

Attracting an audience of well over 100,000 and simpler to get to is Summer Sonic, a two-day event held in Chiba, just across the Edo-gawa River from Tokyo. This festival showcases a good mix of both local and overseas bands and has both indoor and outdoor performances.

Rock in Japan, focusing on domestic bands, is usually held in August at Hitachi Seaside Park, north of Tokyo in Ibaraki-ken (accessible from Ueno Station).

Calendar of festivals and events

For an idea of the best month to visit Japan to take part in one its many festivals, check out our calendar of events for some of the best, and lesser known ones. Note that Christmas Eve, rather than New Year, is the time to party and a big occasion for romance – you’ll be hard-pressed to find a table at any fancy restaurant or a room in the top hotels.

If any of the following public holidays fall on a Sunday, then the following Monday is also a holiday.

January

  • Ganjitsu (or Gantan) - January 1. On the first day of the year everyone heads for the shrines and temples to pray for good fortune. Public holiday.
  • Yamayaki - January 15. The slopes of Wakakusa-yama, Nara, are set alight during a grass-burning ceremony.
  • Seijin-no-hi (Adults’ Day) - Second Monday in January. 20-year-olds celebrate their entry into adulthood by visiting their local shrine. Many women dress in sumptuous kimono. Public holiday.

February

  • Setsubun - February 3 or 4. On the last day of winter by the lunar calendar, people scatter lucky beans round their homes and at shrines or temples to drive out evil and welcome in the year’s good luck. In Nara, the event is marked by a huge lantern festival on February 3.
  • Sapporo Snow Festival (Yuki Matsuri), a week-long event known for its impressive ice sculptures.
  • Otaru Snow Light Path, also in Hokkaido. The glittering light of lanterns set along the river adds a touch of warmth and charm in winter.

March

  • Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival) - March 3. Families with young girls display beautiful dolls (hina ningyō) representing the emperor, empress and their courtiers dressed in ancient costume. Department stores, hotels and museums often put on special displays at this time.
  • Cherry-blossom festivals Late March to early May. With the arrival of spring in late March, a pink tide of cherry blossom washes north from Kyūshū, travels up Honshū during the month of April and peters out in Hokkaidō in early May. There are cherry-blossom festivals, and the sake flows at blossom-viewing parties.
  • Higashiyama Hanatouro in Kyoto. Thousands of lanterns illuminate the city’s top landmarks creating a magical scene, especially in the evenings.
  • Inabe Plum Festival. A great alternative if you can’t make it for cherry blossom season.

April

  • Hana Matsuri April 8. The Buddha’s birthday is celebrated at all temples with parades or quieter celebrations, during which a small statue of Buddha is sprinkled with sweet tea.
  • Wisteria Flower Festival in Ashikaga Park. A striking display of vibrant purple flowers. This festival usually coincides with Golden Week.
  • Takayama Matsuri April 14–15. Parade of ornate festival floats (yatai), some carrying mechanical marionettes.

May

  • Kodomo-no-hi (Children’s Day) May 5. The original Boys’ Day now includes all children as families fly carp banners, symbolizing strength and perseverance, outside their homes. Public holiday.
  • Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival) May 15. Costume parade through the streets of Kyoto, with ceremonies to ward off storms and earthquakes.
  • Kanda Matsuri Mid-May. One of Tokyo’s top three matsuri, taking place in odd-numbered years at Kanda Myōjin, during which people in Heian-period costume escort eighty gilded mikoshi through the streets.
  • Tōshō-gū Grand Matsuri May 17. Nikkō’s most important festival, featuring a parade of over a thousand costumed participants and horseback archery to commemorate the burial of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1617. There’s a smaller-scale repeat performance on October 17.
  • Sanja Matsuri Third weekend in May. Tokyo’s most boisterous festival takes place in Asakusa. Over a hundred mikoshi are jostled through the streets, accompanied by lion dancers, geisha and musicians.

June

  • Otaue June 14. Ceremonial planting of rice seedlings according to time-honoured techniques at Ōsaka’s Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine, accompanied by dance and song performances.
  • Sannō Matsuri Mid-June. In even-numbered years the last of Tokyo’s big three matsuri (after Kanda and Sanja) takes place, focusing on colourful processions of mikoshi through Akasaka.

July

  • Hakata Yamagasa July 1–15. Fukuoka’s main festival culminates in a 5km race, with participants carrying or pulling heavy mikoshi, while spectators douse them with water.
  • Tanabata Matsuri (Star Festival) July 7. According to legend, the only day in the year when the astral lovers, Vega and Altair, can meet across the Milky Way. Poems and prayers are hung on bamboo poles outside houses.
  • Gion Matsuri in Kyoto, the city’s most important cultural event. The festival runs for the entire month of July and is known for its lavish floats and paper lantern displays.
  • Hanabi Taikai Last Saturday in July. The most spectacular of Japan’s many summer firework displays takes place in Tokyo, on the Sumida River near Asakusa. Some cities also hold displays in early August.
  • Mitama Festival in Tokyo’s Chiyoda area. You’ll see traditional dancing, pretty lanterns, and the beautiful yukatas (summer kimonos) that many people wear for the occasion.

August

  • Nebuta and Neputa Matsuri August 1–7. Aomori and Hirosaki hold competing summer festivals, with parades of illuminated paper-covered figures.
  • Tanabata Matsuri August 6–8. Sendai’s famous Star Festival is held a month after everyone else, so the lovers get another chance.
  • Obon (Festival of Souls) August 13–15, or July 13–15 in some areas. Families gather around the ancestral graves to welcome back the spirits of the dead and honour them with special Bon-odori dances on the final night.
  • Awa Odori August 12–15. The most famous Bon odori takes place in Tokushima, when up to eighty thousand dancers take to the streets.

September

  • Yabusame September 16. Spectacular displays of horseback archery (yabusame) by riders in samurai armour at Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shrine in Kamakura.
  • Sapporo’s Autumn Fest, one of Japan’s biggest food festivals, offering gourmet and traditional dishes, along with generous amounts of sake and other local spirits.

October

  • Okunchi Matsuri October 7–9. Shinto rites mingle with Chinese- and European-inspired festivities to create Nagasaki’s premier celebration, incorporating dragon dances and floats in the shape of Chinese and Dutch ships.
  • Kawagoe Grand Matsuri October 14–15. One of the liveliest festivals in the Tokyo area, involving some 25 ornate floats and hundreds of costumed revellers.
  • Jidai Matsuri October 22. Kyoto’s famous, if rather sedate, costume parade vies with the more exciting Kurama Matsuri, a night-time fire festival which takes place in a village near Kyoto.
  • Sawara Grand Festival, which has been celebrated for over 300 years. The streets of Katori come alive with music, chanting, and floats carrying mythological figures.

November

  • Shichi-go-san (Seven-five-three) November 15. Children of the appropriate ages don traditional garb to visit their local shrine.

December

  • Ōmisoka December 31. Just before midnight on the last day of the year, temple bells ring out 108 times (the number of human frailties according to Buddhist thinking), while people all over the country gather at major shrines to honour the gods with the first shrine visit of the year.

Header image © Shutterstock

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updated 5/19/2021
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