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The wonderful thing about Japan is that this is a country that is highly seasonal and we are not just talking about the weather. Depending on the time of the year, there are different things to do and foods to eat.
So, the best time to explore the country really depends on what you are looking for.
No one wants to tour a place when it is scorching hot or being soaked in pouring rain. So, picking a season to travel to the Land of the Rising Sun according to the weather is a good place to begin.
If you want to pack in your itinerary, a dry, cool climate is ideal. That would be during late spring (March to May) and late autumn (September to November). Both seasons are perfect for enjoying Nature. In Spring, the weather would have thawed from the chill of Winter and there are cherry blossoms that clothe the country in pink. In autumn, Japan is drenched in warm tones of amber and gold, and there are legendary autumn leaves or koyo to admire. The weather is also milder after the heat of Summer.
Summer (June to October) is the hot and rainy season with plenty of strong winds. Early June to mid-July is peak Tsuyu season (rainy season). Avoid this period if you can. Typhoons and monsoon rains usually whip around in late Summer (September and October), with September bearing the brunt of it. The heavy rains and winds can lead to floods and landslides as well. But read on because while the weather may not be the best in this season, Japan gives you other reasons to visit the country during these muggy months.
When you go to Japan also depends on where in Japan you want to visit. If Southern Japan - Kyushu region and the southwestern islands such as the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa being the largest) – is your destination, there are two good periods to visit.
Most of Japan may be sweltering in Summer but Southern Japan, with its subtropical weather, is great to visit between July and August. This is the best time for diving and snorkelling. There are gorgeous coral reefs and diving spots all around Okinawa. For endurance sports, try Okinawa in mid-winter between December and February. The Okinawa Marathon takes place in February.
Central Japan includes Honshu, the largest island. The best time to visit is during Spring (late March to May) and Autumn (October and November). During these months, the temperature is a lovely 20 degrees Celsius. Exploring Tokyo with its parks and sleek urban landscape during this time would be ideal. If skiing is what you are looking for, Honshu in winter (December to early March) should be on your itinerary.
In Northern Japan is the island of Hokkaido, famous for breathtaking swaths of Nature, snowy slopes, fresh seafood and, of course, dairy products, the most notable of which is milk.
Hokkaido is another Summer vacation spot in Japan. While Tokyo is sweating it out, temperatures up north is an acceptable mid-20 degrees Celsius. Summer is also when Hokkaido’s nature is in full display. Flowers – lilacs, begonias, lavenders, roses, marigolds, sunflowers – bloom, making hiking in Hokkaido particularly scenic. It is fishing season as well. Salmon, mackerel, squid and sea urchin are at their succulent best in Summer.
Another season to visit Hokkaido is during Winter. You can indulge in many forms of winter sports such as skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling and snow tubing; and winter fun including watching drift ice, ice fishing and admiring the winter light-up in the streets of Hakodate.
Visiting Japan at different times will not just let you enjoy the country’s varied seasons, it will also allow you to participate in its various festivals.
This is the country’s largest winter event. Spectacular snow and ice sculptures, some of them depicting life-sized buildings and structures, go on display at Odori Park. There are large snow slides for some Winter fun, too.
The Naked Man Festival in Okayama is a 500-year-old festivity that centres on luck and happiness. During the celebration, thousands of near-naked men dressed only in white loincloths and socks spend an hour or two running through the temple grounds and a fountain in icy Winter weather to purify both body and soul.
They then jostle each other for scented wooden sticks (shingi) that are tossed into the crowd by priests. If they manage to snare a shingi, they can expect good luck for a year. In addition, another 100 lucky items are up for grabs. While not imbibed with as much good fortune, they are still highly sought after. The sight of the rowdy crowd of locals in a nation usually thought to be reserved is not one to be missed.
The event is opened to all, not just locals. Simply register in advance and purchase your own loincloth at the temple. It is a men-only activity, though.
Avoid this week at all costs. The exact dates vary each year but this is the period where Japan celebrates four national holidays: the late emperor Showa’s birthday, Constitution Memorial Day, Greenery Day and Children’s Day. This means a whole week off work for the Japanese which translates to many businesses being closed, higher prices for transport and accommodation as the locals travel, and generally more crowds at major attractions.
The most famous of Japanese festivals, Gion Matsuri or the Festival of Yasaka Shrine takes place in Kyoto in July. This more than a thousand-year-old festival began as a purification ritual to appease the gods during natural disasters. Today, the festivities include a grand procession of floats (hoko). Each hoko is a mammoth affair measuring as tall as 25 metres. At night, food stalls and markets line the area around the Kamo River.
One of the major fire festivals in Japan, this one takes place in the Kumano mountains of Wakayama Prefecture and centres around the Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine. Celebrating the return of the god of the shrine to the Great Waterfall of Nachi, the country’s highest waterfall, it involves lighting 12 giant pine torches.
Each torch, close to 50 kilograms and representing the spirits of the 12 gods living in the Kumano mountains, is carried from the shrine to the Great Waterfall of Nachi. The torches are meant to purify the path from the sins of the past year. There are also 12 six-metre high mikoshi or portable shrines decorated with fans and mirrors that are set up in front of the shrine to represent the Great Waterfall. The sight of these torches against the ink black rural sky is both mesmerising and memorable.
Obon is a Japanese Buddhist custom where people return to their hometowns in the countryside to visit family and pay their respects to their ancestors. During this three-day holiday in mid-August, places of ancestral worship will have traditional dances and, on the last night, lanterns and fires will light the night sky to guide the spirits of their departed loved ones on their return to the world.
Be warned, though, because of the volume of travel during this time, prices of transport and accommodation will be higher, and getting a train or plane ticket and a place to stay may be harder.
The Pole Lantern Festival in Akita involves impressive kanto (long bamboo poles) balancing skills. Each kanto has an assortment of paper lanterns lit with candles attached to one end. They come in different sizes, the largest measures 12 metres and weighs 50 kilograms with as many as 46 lanterns attached.
As drums and flutes are played and the crowds lining the nearly one-kilometre-long stretch chant “dokkoisho”, the poles are placed on the performers who balance them on their heads or bodies. The night parade lasts 90 minutes and at the end of the event, onlookers can take photographs with the performers and try their hands at hoisting a kanto. In the day, there are also kanto competitions
What started as an autumn harvest celebration in the late 16th century has become a cultural showcase in Nagasaki. There is are dragon dances, parades and floats in the streets that reflect the city’s colourful history throughout the three-day event.
The first week of April in Tokyo and Kyoto is the best time to admire Japan’s cherry trees in bloom. But, if you cannot make it then, you can try for mid-January in Southern Japan or May up North in Hokkaido. The blooms in pink, rose and white that fill the country are a stunning sight.
As beautiful as the cherry blossoms are, they also draw large crowds vying for the best viewing spots which make the peaceful act of hanami (flower viewing) quite impossible. So, if crowds are not your thing, opt to admire plum blossoms instead.
These flowers that also come in hues of pink and white signal the beginning of Spring in February and March. A bonus is that ume blossoms are very fragrant, unlike cherry blossoms which are scent-less.
If you want to see a sea of purple flowers, go to Hokkaido during lavender season which stretches from early July to early August. Fresh from romping among lavender, you can visit the sunflower fields. Sunflower season (late July to mid-August) in Hokkaido overlaps with lavender season.
July is the start of the season for climbing Mount Fuji. Several trails open from then to early September. For a quieter trek, early July before Summer vacation begins is best.
From December to February, Hokkaido and Nagano are lovely for Winter fun. You can soak in outdoor onsens (Japanese hot spring), watch snow monkeys frolic and enjoy winter sports. Japan’s famous powdery snow is ideal for skiing as well.
You can also see the snow monsters of Zao in the mountains of Yamagata Prefecture. It is one of only a few places in Japan where juhyo or ice trees can be seen. Due to heavy snowfall and freezing winds, the trees, capped in thick snow that twist them into terrifying forms, take on almost monstrous shapes.
Scuba dive in Okinawa from June to August. The city has some of the world’s most beautiful diving spots. Spy hammerhead sharks and manta rays as you venture into the sparkling waters .
Wrestling season in Tokyo is in September. In Fukuoka, you can watch this ancient sport in November.
The kimono-clad mistresses of Japanese arts known popularly as geishas but called geiko or maiko (geiko in training) in Kyoto are notoriously difficult to spot. There are only about 100 geikos and a similar number of maikos in the city.
From April to late May and then again in early November, though, you catch geisha dance performances in Kyoto. These are organised by each of the five geisha districts in the city and usually run for a week with multiple shows a day.
If you love Japanese hotpot and snow crabs, visit in Winter. That is when strawberry season begins as well.
In Spring, you can enjoy kusa mochi or grass mochi, a seasonal mochi. Spring is also when hanami dango are eaten. The tri-coloured rice balls in pink, white and green are made in the colours of the cherry blossoms and eaten only during the season.
Summer is the season for kakigori or shaved ice, watermelon and eel.
Autumn is when nashi pears, chestnuts, persimmons and sweet potatoes are harvested. Expect these to turn up in different desserts.
In Summer, you can watch fireflies flit through the night. Japan has 45 species of fireflies although only 14 of them actually glow. The Kugayama Firefly Festival in Tokyo takes place in the first weekend of June. Besides watching these glow-in-the-dark bugs, you can enjoy festival eats like yakitori and cotton candy.
If you happen to be in Hokkaido, go to the Kushiro Shitsugen National Park. In this natural setting, you can get up close to the fireflies.
Flights and accommodations are cheapest between July and August, and again in Winter from late November to mid-March. Another reasonable season is September to October. In general, avoid the peak periods like the Golden Week or cherry blossom season if you are budget-conscious.