People often ask me about the ideal time to travel to Japan.
While there are many things you should consider, one of them is certainly the peak travel seasons in Japan.
High travel season means that prices for flights and accommodation will skyrocket and everything is booked out far in advance. However, some of these seasons you just don’t want to miss, so after reading this article it’s up to you whether you want to avoid them or not.
1. Cherry Blossom Season / Spring Vacation (late March – early April)
Needless to say that cherry blossom season in spring is one of the most favorite travel seasons in Japan.
Additionally, schools close for spring vacation, so it does get crowded, especially at the most popular tourist attraction (e.g. Kyoto, Miyajima, Tokyo).
Cherry blossoms usually only last for about a week. But there’s something called the “cherry blossom front” wandering from southwest to northeast. If you follow that and travel around, you can enjoy the sakura for much longer.
It’s one of the most beautiful sights, so you shouldn’t avoid it.
Definitely plan ahead of time. Especially in and around Kyoto it’s almost impossible to find rooms if you don’t book far in advance.
Consider less known cherry blossom spots instead.
You can enjoy sakura everywhere in Japan. It’s impressive no matter where you go.
Here are just a few examples to avoid the massive crowds and yet enjoy cherry blossoms:
- Hyogo Prefecture: Izushi (castle town and soba noodles)
- Shiga Prefecture: Miidera Temple, Ishiyamadera
- Shizuoka Prefecture: Hamamatsu, Kakegawa, Atami (nice castles)
- Kyoto: Shoryuji Castle
- Chiba Prefecture: Tateyama Castle
2. Golden Week (late April – early May)
If you can, please try to avoid Golden Week at all costs.
It’s the most crowded time of the year in Japan. There are four different national holidays (April 29, May 3-5) and most companies let the people take off the days in between as well – resulting in one of the very few occasions to take a longer vacation in Japan.
Below you’ll find the exact dates for the upcoming years.
- Golden Week 2018: April 28-30 + May 3-6
- Golden Week 2019: April 27-29 + May 3-6
That being said, it’s a nice season to visit, because you can still catch cherry blossoms in Tohoku and Hokkaido or enjoy other flower such as azaleas, wisteria or “shibazakura”.
Simply go a few days before or after Golden Week and you’ll be fine.
Especially the well-known spots will be insanely crowded.
There are less crowded, hidden gems, but those might not be the first choice for first-time visitors.
Also, prices tend to be much higher during high season in Japan, so simply just avoid it if you can.
As I used to live in Japan, I had no other choice but to travel during Golden Week. That’s when we all get our time off.
If you’re interested, you can read about my Golden Week 2013 and Golden Week 2014.
3. Obon and Summer Vacation (middle of August)
Summer is extremely hot and humid in Japan and comes with a lot of monster insects.
It might not sound like it, but it’s still a good time to visit. Only then can you climb Mt. Fuji and a lot of great summer festivals take place – including fireworks!
There’s a short time span in August called “obon” where people usually travel back home.
It can also become crowded, but in my experience it’s not as bad as during other seasons.
In 2018 the peak is to be expected during Aug 11 – 19.
There are certain destinations that are extremely popular among Japanese people in summer such as Hokkaido or Okinawa.
It will be crowded there and prices will also skyrocket during that time, so you might want to avoid these destinations from late July to mid August.
4. Silver Week (end of September)
“Silver Week” is a rather new term in Japan and is derived from the more popular “Golden Week”. The term became popular in 2009 when 3 national holidays followed a weekend, resulting in a really long vacation for many people.
Unless such a rare occurrence happens again, “Silver Week” is usually not a big deal at all.
In 2018, the only national holidays in September are both on a Monday, namely Sep 17 and 24. So, some people will certainly travel during those extended weekends, but it’s nothing to worry about if you consider visiting Japan during that time.
The reason I mention “Silver Week” here is because the term has gained popularity and some people are worried if they should come to Japan during that time.
5. Autumn Foliage Season (esp. end of November)
Almost as popular as cherry blossom season is autumn when the leaves change colors.
For the main tourist regions (Hiroshima, Kyoto or Tokyo) that peak is usually from the end of November to the beginning of December.
Other parts of Japan get autumn colors as early as September. Tohoku, for example, is thus quite popular in October.
You also don’t want to miss the peak of the foliage, so make sure to check the status, e.g. by following the japan-guide autumn color reports.
Certain spots can be crowded, hotels might be booked out way in advance and prices might be higher than usually.
Don’t avoid this season! It’s the most beautiful time of the year.
But try to at least avoid visiting popular sights during the weekend. Don’t even think about going to Kyoto during that season on a weekend! Be aware that because of a public holiday in November, there’s sometimes an extended weekend at the end of November – which you should avoid at all costs! In 2018 that’s Nov 23 – 25.
Again you can avoid the crowds by going to less known places.
6. Nenmatsu (= time around New Year’s Eve / Day)
Most Japanese get days off from Dec 29 to Jan 4. That’s another travel peak time.
The majority of people spend their time with their families, but some also use that time to travel within the country.
It’s usually not that crowded, but be aware of “Hatsumode” (the first visit of a shrine in the new year on the first few days of January).
Shrines might be insanely crowded. It’s a nice experience, but not if you wanted to enjoy the shrine itself and take photos there.
If you decide to come to Japan during that time, it’s a good chance to experience Japanese New Year’s Eve. Just don’t expect loud parties and fireworks.
It’s also a great time for discount shopping! In the first few days of January many department stores will sell “lucky bags” (fukubukuro). People will line up to grab these from early in the morning. So it does get very crowded in many department stores and shops.
Also, keep in mind that a lot of sightseeing spots, especially museums, will be closed during that time (~ Dec 29 – Jan 4), so plan your trip accordingly.
How to Survive Peak Travel Season in Japan?
One of the most important things to keep in mind is that you have to book everything you need far in advance (accommodation, rental car, domestic flights etc.). This is especially true if you want to visit the most popular tourist regions (e.g. Kyoto, Hiroshima).
For Kyoto in particular travel experts suggest to book up to 6 months in advance for cherry blossom and autumn foliage season!
Otherwise you’ll only find hotels far, far away. You’ll only lose money and time that way.
As for train reservations (Shinkansen), I wouldn’t worry too much. Usually you always get a seat. I’ve rarely experienced any issues – and I never reserved a seat.
Please consider that post offices and banks will be closed during public holidays, so you won’t be able to withdraw money at ATMs. Especially during Golden Week with so many consecutive public holidays, this could become a problem. So make sure to plan accordingly.
This is all I can think of based on my personal experience.
Don’t be shy and share your experience with travelling during high season in Japan!