A season-by-season guide to Japan
Japan has four distinct seasons, each with its own charm, so it’s always a good time to visit. Spring is famous for sakura, cherry blossom, summer is known for its fireworks and festivals, autumn is a riot of colourful foliage, while winter’s highlights are snow sports and illuminations.
The country extends from the subtropical oceanic climate of Okinawa in the south to the East Pacific climate of the north, so seasons can vary greatly from one end of the country to the other. One of the charms of Japan is that, no matter when you visit, you can find cooler or warmer climes to escape to. Read on for seasonal inspiration in Japan.
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Spring in Japan
Spring runs from around March to May in Japan. It is one of the most popular times to visit and is synonymous with hanami, sakura viewing. Cherry blossom fever takes over the country, with hyper-localized news reports closely tracking the predicted peak times to witness this fleeting beauty. The most popular sakura-viewing spots can get extraordinarily busy with people vying for photos. Sakura even dominates the season’s menus, snacks, drinks and shop décor; sakura-themed products are everywhere. Experience hanami like a local by bringing a picnic, laying out a blanket under the branches and making a day of it. If you arrive too early for sakura season, you will find plum blossom flowering, instead. A little later in the season, wisteria has its moment.
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Some parts of Japan are still very cold in spring, meaning ski season is far from over. In areas such as Niseko in Hokkaido, Zao Onsen in Yamagata and Nozawa in Nagano, the snow season can run as late as May. If you’d prefer to explore the late-season snow without skis or a snowboard, head to Tateyama Alpine Route. In spring, a path is carved into the deep snow, leaving walls on either side that are more than 10 meters high. Tours can take you through the path so you can witness this extraordinary sight and appreciate the staggering amount of snow the region receives during the winter months.
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As Japan’s snowy mountains slowly thaw, the rivers become fast-flowing, making it a great time for thrill-seekers to go canyoning or rafting in places such as Minakami in Gunma.
Another reason to head to Japan’s colder regions in spring is to witness the spectacle of Hokkaido’s red-crowned cranes performing their elegant mating dance in the snow. Elsewhere in Japan, spring is a good time for whale watching. There’s an excellent chance that on a whale-watching boat tour around Okinawa’s Kerama Islands in spring you will see one of the humpback whales that come to breed here. It’s also a good time to see humpback, sperm, Bryde’s, short-finned pilot and Cuvier's beaked whales around Tokyo’s secluded Ogasawara Islands, which take 25 hours to reach by ferry.
Golden Week, Japan’s biggest holiday, falls at the end of April and the start of May. Be warned that everything might be more expensive and harder to book during this time.
Summer in Japan
Summer in Japan starts around June and ends in mid-September. It’s typically hot and humid and can be a little stifling. Escaping the heat is a popular way to spend summer in Japan. It’s a great time to explore the country’s indoor attractions, such as the major museums and galleries in Tokyo. Mori Art Museum, on the 53rd floor of Roppongi Hills, provides a comprehensive overview of contemporary art and has excellent views of the city. Nezu Museum, designed by renowned architect Kengo Kuma, is an art gallery with more traditional Asian art. There are numerous other galleries and museums worth visiting, including Yayoi Kusama Museum, Ghibli Museum, Tokyo National Museum, Samurai Museum and Yebisu Beer Museum.
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If you’d prefer to be outside, there are plenty of ways to keep cool and enjoy Japan’s landscapes. Canyoning and rafting are less intense in summer than in spring, due to slower-flowing rivers, and are a fun way to cool off. Alternatively, if you want a more subdued way to beat the heat, Japan has lots of caves to explore. You may even find you get a little chilly in these subterranean oases.
Heading north is another great way to escape the heat. Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost prefecture is usually your best bet for a cool summer in Japan. You can hike its mountains, cycle its wide-shouldered roads and see the flower fields of Furano and Biei, where colorful, undulating stripes of flowers dominate the landscape and create an unimaginably beautiful backdrop.
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Aomori, another northern prefecture, is another cooler, less humid spot to enjoy Japan’s summer months. In early August, the Nebuta Festival is unmissable. Giant, colorful lanterns depicting samurai warriors and mythological characters are displayed on floats in the streets. It’s one of the most spectacular festivals of the summer and attracts 3 million people a year.
Matsuri, or festivals, are a big part of Japanese summertime and are worth going out of your way for. Expect dance, traditional outfits, floats, music and processions, depending on the event. Fireworks displays, called hanabi, are also a big part of summer. Some notable displays are Nagaoka in Niigata, Sumidagawa in Tokyo and Omagari in Akita. Make the night extra special by dressing in a traditional yukata, similar to kimono. Rental and dressing services are available in most areas.
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Another summertime illumination you won’t want to miss is Japan’s fireflies. In June and July, there are a few spots in Japan where the water is clean and still enough to attract these otherworldly insects. Hokubo in Okayama is one such place, though there are plenty of other places to find them.
If you want to embrace Japan’s summer sun, head down south to Okinawa to enjoy its beautiful white sand beaches, incredible diving and snorkelling and a culture that is very different from the rest of Japan.
Japan’s heat is the perfect excuse to indulge in kakigori shaved ice, flavored with syrup and condensed milk. These desserts can be remarkably extravagant, featuring delicious local flavors, fresh fruits or even gold leaf.
Autumn in Japan
Autumn is another peak time for tourism in Japan. Autumn runs from September to December and the peak dates for fall foliage (koyo) are tracked by local media outlets.
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Maple leaves (Momiji) usually peak in early November in the north and late November or early December further south. Gingko trees usually peak in mid-November in northern Japan and mid-November to mid-December the further south you go. The good news is that, during autumn, it’s easy to find the beautiful fall foliage Japan is known for.
Some of the most popular autumn sights are around Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto and Fuji Five Lakes area, though Japan’s vermillion red bridges, blue lakes and mountains make for innumerable opportunities to appreciate koyo.
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The appetite for koyo extends beyond just viewing the colors. Maple-themed snacks are popular in Japan during this season, along with chestnut and sweet potato snacks, which are Japan’s alternative to pumpkin spice.
This colorful backdrop and the clement, crisp weather make for great conditions to explore more of Japan’s natural environment. Hiking is popular this time of year. Some hikes are off limits this time of year, such as Mt. Fuji, which will already be getting too icy and dangerous to ascend, but many of Japan’s mountains, forests and marshes will be at their most beautiful and the weather at its most temperate to explore them. Ancient spiritual trails, such as Dewa Sanzan, the Kumano Kodo and Shikoku 88 Temples Pilgrimage are all at their best in autumn.
If you really want to embrace the outdoors this season, there are camping and glamping options all over Japan, from the very basic to the very chic and all-inclusive.
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Winter in Japan
For snow sports enthusiasts, winter in Japan needs no introduction. The season runs from December to February, although, depending on the resort, the season can last a lot longer. Japan attracts skiers and snowboarders from across the world for its legendary and abundant powder snow, incredible scenery and après ski onsen culture, to warm up and soothe aching muscles. Hakuba, Niseko, Nagano and Shiga Kogen are just a handful of Japan’s best-known resorts.
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Another way to explore the snow is by snowshoe, special shoes designed to make walking in snow easier. Snowshoe tours can show you a side of Japan you may never see otherwise. In Nagano you can trek to the frozen Zengoro falls in Norikura, while in Hokkaido you can snowshoe to see ice floes and walk over frozen lakes where fisherman fish through holes they’ve carved in the ice.
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Nobody enjoys winter quite like Nagano’s snow monkeys. Jigokudani Snow Park in Joshinetsu Kogen National Park is the only place in the world where monkeys bathe in hot springs. Japanese Macaques live in large numbers around this area and, to keep warm during the frigid winters, they relax and doze in the warm onsen water.
Make like these macaques and take the opportunity to bathe in onsen while you’re in Japan during winter. There are onsen resorts across much of Japan, and it’s well worth experiencing a few. There are indoor, outdoor, varying temperatures and mineral content, private and public onsen. Etiquette requires you to be entirely naked, so if you’re not comfortable with that, opt for a private experience. Some of Japan’s most famous onsen resorts are Beppu in Kyushu and Kusatsu in Gunma.
Make your winter in Japan a little bit magical by visiting some of Japan’s most beautiful chocolate box villages. Ginzan Onsen in Yamagata is one such town. It’s an onsen resort where traditional wooden buildings buried in thick snow line the river. Alternatively, Shirakawago in Gifu is a pretty village and World Heritage Site where thatched houses covered in deep snow make a picture-perfect winter wonderland scene.
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If dreamy snowy scenes are your idea of a perfect winter, Sapporo’s Snow Festival, where huge and intricately crafted snow sculptures are displayed for a week across three locations in the city. Elsewhere in Japan, winter illuminations, usually featuring kamakura snow huts are popular. Some of these snow huts are big enough to be used like a restaurant booth, where guests are served nabe, a hearty warming hot pot.
If that doesn’t sound cosy enough for you, seek out a restaurant with kotatsu, a low table covered by a heated futon. You’ll often find them in your room too if you book a ryokan in a snowy region.
If you want to skip the snow altogether, head south. It doesn’t tend to snow heavily in Tokyo, and the further south you go, the less likely you are to feel the chill of winter. Okinawa winters are very mild, and you may only need a light sweater.