When’s the best time to travel to Japan?
People often ask me: “When’s the best time to travel to Japan?”
Actually, this question is hard to answer because each month and season has something great to offer! It depends solely on your personal interests!
Instead of suggesting a “best time” or a “best season”, I thought it might be more helpful to list what you might be able to see in each season – and then you can decide yourself when’s the best time to travel to Japan!
Is Spring the best time to travel to Japan?
Spring in Japan is very popular and well-known for its beautiful cherry blossoms.
Cherry blossoms are without a doubt one of the best things to see in Japan. They do not bloom everywhere at the same time, so plan your trip accordingly!
There are many websites that will show you the current “sakura front” of each year.
In Okinawa you can enjoy sakura in January while the rest of Japan gets them from late March until May, roughly speaking going from Kyushu all the way down to Chubu, Tohoku and then Hokkaido.
The good thing about it is that you can enjoy the cherry blossoms in Tohoku in early May (like I did) if you missed them in Tokyo or Kyoto in April!
However, spring in Japan has so much more to offer!
Cherry blossoms are beautiful for sure, but let’s check out what else you can see in spring:
Plum blossoms in March
Before the cherry blossoms come out, Japan is already tainted in white and shades of pink. On top of that there’s an incredibly sweet smell everywhere thanks to the plum blossoms.
Plum blossoms look very similar to cherry blossoms, but they smell better.
From late March to early April you’ll sometimes be able to see both of them in bloom. It can be hard to tell them apart then.
There are also many spring festivals. One of the weirdest festivals you’ll ever experience takes place in early April, the “Phallus Festival in Kawasaki“.
Azaleas, wisteria and shiba-zakura in May
Once the cherry blossoms are gone, there’s no reason to be sad.
Japan becomes even more colorful after that. The cherry blossom trees turn from a soft pink into a fresh and vivid green and other flowers start to bloom.
Among my favorites are azaleas (躑躅, tsutsuji).
In the photo above you see the “Tsutsuji Festival” at Nezu Shrine in Tokyo (April / May 2013).
You’ll also find wild wisteria in the mountains and some parks, temples and shrines have very old wisteria trees on their grounds.
Wisteria is called “fuji” (藤) in Japanese.
What I was able to enjoy for the first time this year is called shiba-zakura (芝桜). It has nothing to do with “sakura” – the cherry blossoms.
It’s moss pink in various colors. Whole parks are “paved” with it. I visited Hitsujiyama Park in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture, which you see in the photo above.
My highlight was the “Shiba-zakura Festival” in Kawaguchiko, Yamanashi Prefecture, featuring Mt. Fuji in the background.
Avoid Golden Week:
While spring sounds like a great time to come to Japan, please try to avoid Golden Week.
Golden Week is an accumulation of national holidays from the end of April to early May (usually from April 29th to May 6th).
It’s the high season for traveling in Japan. Everything including accommodation and transportation will cost more than usually. Hotels will be booked out far in advance.
It will be crowded almost everywhere in Japan. You’ll need longer than planned, because buses are so full that you’ll have to wait for the next one.
There are traffic jams and long waiting lines. You won’t be able to take good photos, because there are too many people in the way. It’s a lot harder to enjoy the sights and it’s more stressful in general.
I always see so many foreign tourists here during Golden Week and I simply don’t understand why they come during that time of the year!
If you have the choice, do yourself a favor and DON’T COME during Golden Week!
Is summer the best time to travel to Japan?
Summer starts with the rainy season – usually in early June – and ends in mid-July.
After that it’ll get extremely hot and humid. If you’re not used to temperatures over 30°C and a humidity level of 90%+, summer in Japan might be very tough. On top of that there are many creepy and some dangerous insects.
Yet there are awesome things in summer you don’t want to miss:
What to see in June
During rainy season you’ll find hydrangeas (アジサイ, ajisai) everywhere. They come in various colors and are cute and beautiful (see the photo above).
It’s not as hot as in August yet, so if you want to escape the heat, it’s not a bad time to come. And just because it’s called rainy season, it doesn’t mean that it’ll rain every single day!
At the same time as the hydrangeas there are also irises (菖蒲, shoubu).
Climbing Mt. Fuji in July or August
I admit that I’m really not a fan of the Japanese summer, but there are certain things you can only do then! One of them is climbing Mt. Fuji. The official climbing season is from July to August, so you wouldn’t want to miss that chance.
When I climbed it in August 2010 there was still some snow on the top and it was freezing cold!
I’ll write a separate entry about my experience there and how to prepare accordingly, so definitely stay tuned for that.
Summer festivals with fireworks in August
The best thing about summer in Japan is that there are all these great festivals!
Each and every city has their own, so it’s hard to miss them – no matter where in Japan you are. The main season for festivals is “obon” (お盆), the time around August 13th-15th. Please note that this is also another busy travel time as it’s summer vacation for students and most adults have days off during “obon”.
There’s also “Bon-Odori” (traditional dance) all over Japan, but the best one ever takes place in Gujo-Hachiman, Gifu Prefecture. In mid-August the local people dance from evening till morning and anybody can join! I did last year and it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had! I can’t wait to share it with you in a future blog post!
Firework festival in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture (August 2012).
There’s also the great “Earth Celebration” on Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture – that I unfortunately missed by just a few days last year.
Don’t worry if you can’t come in August. There are some great festivals in June and July as well!
To name just one of them: the famous “Gion Matsuri” in Kyoto takes place in July.
If you want to visit Japan in summer, but are not sure if you can take the heat, then you can escape to Hokkaido where it’s less humid and a bit cooler!
Typhoon season in September
September doesn’t really have to offer anything special in my eyes. Usually it’s still very hot and humid, but it’s also known as the typhoon season.
In recent years typhoons have hit all year round, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it.
In fact, there are no long public holidays in September. It’s no “high season”. For that reason it’s a good time to come. There will be fewer people, things will be cheaper – and usually the weather is good.
Is autumn the best time to travel to Japan?
Autumn is one of my favorite seasons in Japan! The heat of summer is finally gone. Normally the weather is great for travelling (especially in October and November) and the beautiful autumn colors are something you shouldn’t miss!
Just like with the cherry blossoms, there’s a “momiji front” in Japan which simply means that the leaves won’t change colors everywhere at the same time. Again there are many websites that let you check where you need to go if you want to catch the “color peak”.
Usually the leaves turn red first in colder regions like Hokkaido and Tohoku, then go down to Chubu and will finally reach southern Japan. While you’ll find cherry blossoms on Okinawa, there aren’t any autumn colors like in the rest of Japan there.
The peak for popular destinations like Tokyo, Kyoto or Hiroshima is usually in late November.
I would say that the bright autumn colors are the highlight of autumn, but there are other things you might be interested in:
Cosmoses, red spider lilies and killer hornets
Cosmoses are very beautiful and are a common sight in autumn, especially in October and early November.
Higanbana (彼岸花), the red spider lily, is seen as weed, but I’m fascinated by those flowers. You’ll run into them very often as they just grow everywhere.
One thing I don’t like about autumn is that it’s the time when the killer hornets (known as “suzumebachi”) are most active.
Please be careful, especially if you go to rural areas or hiking into the mountains!
No high season in autumn, but:
While there are no long vacations in autumn, popular spots can get very crowded on the weekends during the autumn color peak!
Especially Kyoto can be crazy, so try to avoid the weekends during that time!
Is winter the best time to travel to Japan?
Compared to the other seasons winter can be rather boring. Especially in regions with no snow. Japanese gardens are not very beautiful during that time. Most trees have lost their leaves, so landscapes are quite monotone.
However, in regions with a lot of snow you can enjoy a beautiful snow scenery!
Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture in January 2011.
Another problem with winter is that most tourist facilities close earlier and the sunset is around 5pm! Nevertheless there are some reasons why you might want to visit Japan in winter:
Illuminations in December and January
Illumination at JR Hakata Station in Fukuoka (December 2012).
Snow Monkeys of Nagano
One thing you can only fully enjoy in winter are the snow monkeys in the mountains of Nagano who love bathing in the hot springs while tourists have to freeze. It was certainly one of my highlights and I recommend you go there during winter time!
Hot springs – Onsen
Onsen are great at any time, but especially in the cold winter months they’re a great way to warm up.
One of the “hells” of Beppu in Oita Prefecture, Kyushu, in December 2009.
While you can’t climb Mt. Fuji in winter, it might be the best time to take great shots of the holy mountain. Winter days are very cold, but clear, so chances are high that the shy mountain won’t hide behind clouds!
I recommend the area around Lake Kawaguchi (Kawaguchiko) in Yamanashi Prefecture. There are also a few onsen there.
Yuki Matsuri in Sapporo in February
Another highlight (although I’ve not been there myself yet) is the snow festival in Hokkaido that takes place in the second week of February.
Awesome and huge snow sculptures can be observed. There are other snow festivals as well in winter. Or you could try to visit the “snow monsters” in Yamagata Prefecture.
Enjoy a warm winter in Okinawa
If you don’t like cold weather, then Okinawa is a good alternative.
It will be too cold for swimming or snorkeling, but you won’t need a winter coat.
Just don’t make the same mistake that I did. Don’t go during late December / early January. The weather was horrible almost every single day!
Going in early December or late January seems to be a better idea.
Cape Manzamo on Okinawa’s main island in December 2012.
From around December 29th to January 4th it’s not the best time to travel. Most Japanese people have days off and try to go home to visit their families. It’s another “high season“. Accommodation and transportation will cost more and you should book well in advance!
Also, a lot of institutions (museums, castles etc.) will have closed during that time – so please plan accordingly!
On the other hand it’s a great chance to observe “hatsumode” – the first shrine visit of the year – or to celebrate “omisoka” (New Year’s Eve) and “shogatsu” (New Year’s Day) with the Japanese.
What do you think is the best time to travel to Japan?
What’s your favorite season in Japan and why?
Was there any time when you had a bad experience in Japan and wouldn’t recommend others to come to visit?
Please share your experience with us!
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Events in Jan/Feb 2017:
- Jan 15: Matobakai (Kumamoto)
- Jan 15: Toh-shiya (Kyoto)
- Jan 17: Bonden-sai (Akita)
- Jan 28: Yamayaki (Nara)
- Feb 3: Setsubun (nationwide)
- Feb 3-12: Otaru Yuki Akari no Michi
- Feb 6-12: Sapporo Snow Festival
- Feb 7-12: Asahikawa Winter Festival
- Feb 15-16: Yokote Kamakura Festival
- Feb 17-19: Tokamachi Snow Festival
- Feb 18: Naked Festival at Saidai-ji (Okayama)