The land of the rising sun has long been a popular travel destination for foreign tourists, but unlike other destinations, the question of when to visit Japan is particularly important. A trip to Japan will be spectacular at any time of year, but with a multitude of unmissable seasonal attractions, you have to time it just right.
Would you rather make a beeline for the Sapporo Snow Festival, or head out in spring for cherry blossom season? Let’s take a look at what’s on offer at various times throughout the year in Japan.
Spring – From March to May
Being the most favourable time of year to visit, springtime in Japan is a real delight. The top attraction at this time of year is hanami – the cherry blossom (sakura) festival. These delicate flowers cloak the country in a cape of pink and white, and the whole nation goes mad for it. The madness extends even into food with sakura flavoured chocolate, cake and ice-cream. While picturesque and attractive, the cherry blossom festival is not an easy attraction to plan for. It is very much dependent on the weather – a particularly cold or warm winter can change the timing by as much as several weeks. Also, it depends on where in Japan you want to visit – the south of Japan usually sees the sakura in bloom several weeks before they arrive up in the north. But if you time it well, the experience will be unforgettable.
The temperature is usually quite cold at the start of spring but is edging more towards an ‘English summer’ by April / May. It doesn’t tend to rain much at this time of year. This means that spring is a peak season for travellers and everywhere will be crammed. Not only that, but one of the largest national holidays (Golden Week) falls in late April, and so at that time it’s not only the foreign tourists that you’ll be competing with. Plus, you’ll have to pay a premium – flights, trains, hotels are more expensive and often sell out.
So there are big pros, and big cons, to visiting Japan in the springtime. If you’re set on this time of year, my main advice is to try and avoid Golden Week and to book as far in advance as possible.
Summer – From June to August
Summer is usually synonymous with holidays – warm days on the beach, ice-cream, etc. However, many foreigners would probably agree that this isn’t the best time of year to visit Japan. For one thing, the weather is pretty rubbish. You have the rainy season in June, unforgiving heat in July and August (34°C is about normal but it’s not unheard of for Japanese summers to reach 40°C) and then typhoon seasons in late August / early September. The heat is made all the worse by the humidity, which many foreign visitors are unused to. If this kind of weather and temperature sounds like your idea of hell, steer clear of Japan in the summer.
On the other hand, there are plenty of good reasons to visit in the summer too. Japan has a fair number of nice beaches, and popular activities include dolphin cruises, surfing and boat trips. If you like hiking, this is one way to escape the heat – it’s generally much cooler up in the mountains and plenty of hikers head out to Japan in the summer.
Several elements of Japanese cuisine is also well suited to the summer. When you don’t fancy eating anything hot, a portion of sushi and sashimi could be what you’re after. Icy cold somen noodles are popular in the summer heat, as are ‘snack foods’ which can be bought at roadside stalls, including takoyaki (fried octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (known as Japanese pizza). Japanese ice-creams are also well worth trying. Yukimidaifuku is a type of ice-cream ball wrapped in a skin of chewy mochi, and kakigori is shaved ice.
Autumn – From September to November
Temperatures are still warm in early autumn, but soon cool down making it one of the nicest times to visit. Typhoon season in early September brings the threat of rain, but the rest of the season is generally dry.
While Japan wears a pink cloak in the spring, in Autumn it all turns red and orange with the changing of the leaves. This is another beautiful time to visit, popular with photographers and particularly up in the mountains which are awash with glorious colour.
Locals consider the autumn to be the best time of the year for food in Japan, with much seasonal produce appearing on restaurant menus. Plenty of Japanese citrus fruits are cheap to buy at this time of year, such as sudachi orange. For vegetables, pumpkins are popular, as are sweet potatoes, mushrooms and taro.
Autumn is not generally a peak time to visit Japan, apart from the Silver Week holiday in late September. As such, you can expect fewer crowds, cheaper tickets and fewer hotels being fully booked out. If you’re interested in checking out Japanese onsen (hot springs) then this is a great time for that too.
Winter – From December to February
The coldest time of year in Japan, warmer places see a fairly mild winter whereas, up in the north, the temperatures really can plunge after the New Year. In Sapporo, where skiing is popular throughout the winter, highs of 2°C are not uncommon. If you’re not planning on heading that far north, the rest of Japan is a nice enough temperature if you’re wrapped up warmly.
The biggest winter attraction is the Sapporo Snow Festival which takes place every February. Ice sculptures, snow sculptures and other small attractions draw over two million visitors each year.
If snow isn’t your thing, then perhaps the winter food will convince you to visit in the winter. Fugu (Japanese puffer fish) is in season during this time of year, as are citrus fruits such as yuzu and mikan. Japanese hot pot (nabe) is a popular dish in the winter, particularly on a cold day.
Christmas is not a big celebration in Japan so you’ll quite often find that it’s ‘business as usual’ around December 25th. But New Year can be a peak time for travel and so try to avoid that season. From around January 4th to mid-February are some of the quietest times of year to visit, so it is a good choice if you want to escape the crowds.
Why Visit Japan