April 17, 2018

'Tis the Season!

Many tourists ask when is the best time to visit Japan. Unfortunately, there is no good answer because every season is a great time to come!

A visitor to Japan purifies her hands before visiting a shrine

When is the best time to visit Japan?

Truth be told, I must get asked this question at least once a week. I still don’t have a good answer. You see, Japan is amazingly beautiful year-round; each of the four seasons celebrate its own unique charms, experiences, and cuisines. Though it may seem like no big deal to those traveling from distant shores, having multiple seasons is actually not the norm for greater Asia. Nevertheless, the Japanese take immense pride in their four distinct seasons as anyone who has been here for awhile will sarcastically tell you.

In addition, to these diverse seasons, Japan also boasts a very distinctive biome. While many may consider Japan a relatively small chain of islands, the country is roughly as long as the state of California. From snowy Hokkaido in the far north, to the subtropical Okinawa in the south, Japan has some phenomenal biodiversity for nature lovers to explore. All in all, there’s just so much to regard and experience in Japan, it’s really hard to go wrong. Should you favor a particular type of climate, simply plan your visit accordingly. With that said, what follows is a breakdown of some of my favorite seasonal activities and attractions to help you decide.

Visiting Japan During Winter

Snow falls on Gassho-zukuri houses at Japan’s vilalge of Shirakawago

When it comes to winter, the weather will vary widely based on your location. Tokyo and Osaka rarely get heavy snowfalls whereas much of Northern Japan regularly gets blanketed. Overall, most of Japan’s heavily populated areas are situated in places that receive relatively moderate snowfall. In general, winter runs from December through to February or March for most of the country. In parts of Hokkaido, the cold and snow can stretch well into late April or even May.

As you might imagine, winter attracts ski and snowboard enthusiasts from around the globe. Japanese ski resorts are beloved for their blankets of fresh powder snow. Australians travel in particularly large droves and some popular ski resorts are partially staffed by Aussies. This is good news for travelers as it means English is widely spoken in popular skiing areas. The most notable choices are Niseko and Hakuba. The former is located to the far North in Hokkaido while the latter sits amidst the Japanese alps.

As for other attractions, one of the most famous draws for winter sightseeing in Japan would be the Sapporo Snow Festival. This week-long festival happens every February and showcases exquisite sculptures made entirely of ice. In addition to this amazing display of art, the air in winter tends to be dry, crisp, and clear. These conditions make for a perfect adventure to the top of Tokyo’s sky-rises. Many have observation decks which will provide you with an expansive view. Unlike with the humid summers, it is even possible to see Mt. Fuji in the distance at this time.

Wildlife enthusiasts will love Hokkaido’s winters as they offers a chance to catch a glimpse of some spectacular species. The red-crowned crane is widely regarded as a symbol of Japan. Sadly though, this magnificent bird nearly went extinct after their Imperial protection was abolished more than a century ago. These days, the cranes are now completely absent from mainland Japan yet smaller populations have managed to hang on in sections of Hokkaido. In February, the cranes gather at feeding areas near the towns of Kushiro and Akan in preparation of mating and nesting. If you time it right, you can witness the cranes “dancing” against a backdrop of white snow. It’s quite a demanding journey into the wilderness to view these elegant birds yet the reward is well worth it for nature lovers.

In addition to the cranes, Hokkaido is also home to the “kita-kitsune,” a subspecies of red fox that differs from the mainland Japanese variety. Their coloration is more vivid, and they develop a signature fluffy coat in the winter time. In contrast, foxes from the south are smaller and have coloration similar to that of a Shiba-inu. If you don’t want to travel all the way to Hokkaido just to catch a glimpse, head instead to Zao Fox Village near Sendai. It’s a park where you can get up-close and personal with these adorable critters. All of the foxes housed there are of the Hokkaido variety and this means that in winter, they are all in full on fluff mode.

When it comes to good-eats, many find the Japanese winter cuisine to be the year’s best. Try warming up from the cold with some steaming hot “nabe” hot-pots or “oden.” Seafood lovers will rejoice as this is also the best season for crab in Japan. Adventurous types will delight that “ankimo” (monkfish liver) and “fugu” (pufferfish) are, also in season. Yellowtail, known as “buri” in Japan, is also at its best in winter. Young “kan-buri” (winter yellowtail) is popular as sashimi and sushi with leaner cuts. The older, fattier fishes tend to make for better cooked dishes.

Are you a foodie that just has to try everything? Well, I have just the delight for you. Known as shirako, this dish comes in season in winter. Without any sugar coating, straight up this dish is actual fish sperm (usually from codfish). If you can’t eat it, don’t fret: many Japanese also dislike eating shirako and maybe for good reason! If you REALLY insist on trying EVERYTHING though, be sure not to miss this unique seasonal gastronomy.

Finally, know that winter is a great time for a dip in an onsen. I’ve covered the rules and etiquette behind visiting an onsen in detail, so rather than repeat myself, I’ll just direct you to this post. Bathing in the nude can no doubt give rise to some anxieties so don’t venture about unprepared and further exacerbate your experience!

Visiting Japan During Spring

Cherry blossoms bloom against the backdrop of Japan’s iconic Mt. Fuji

Spring in Japan is ushered in by the appearance of one of Japan’s most iconic symbols: the fabled cherry blossoms. The Okinawa trees often flower as early as February but the blossoms can appear as late as May in the far northern regions. Most areas will be in full bloom sometime between March 20th and the first week of April though. Due in part to the volatile spring weather, the delicate cherry blossoms are often very short-lived so time your visit wisely if you hope to experience them. Recently, there have been English forecasts published online that should be easily searchable with a Google query.

As anyone who has experienced this spectacular seasonal event will tell you, a visit to Japan during spring is not complete without “hanami” (meaning cherry blossom viewing, but it is so much more than that). You can take a leisurely stroll down a cherry blossom-lined riverside or meander serenely through a park. The best hanami experiences, however, are more like a picnic celebration. Groups of friends, family, or colleagues will stake out a spot beneath the trees. This can be in a public park or by a riverside. Claim your space with a plastic sheet to sit on, bring your food and drinks, and let the fun begin. It’s basically an excuse to get embarrassingly inebriated under a tree!

After the long winter, the spring weather is finally just warm enough to enjoy being outdoors again. What better way to celebrate than with booze, food, and buddies? Beer and sake are the common drinks of choice. Some wine and sake brands also sell special editions with cherry blossoms afloat at this time of year. As mentioned, it’s fine to get totally sloshed at these gatherings, just try not to bother other groups (see this post for more info on what to expect). Oh, and DEFINITELY make sure that you clean up your garbage afterwards!

If you miss the cherry blossom season, you can catch another special dazzling blossoming later in the spring. Known as “Fuji-no-hana” (wisteria in English), these flowers are a striking sight to behold. The ancient capital of Nara is draped in these fantastic purple blooms. The blossoms tend to peak around late April and early May. Oh, and by the way, Wisteria are actually edible. If have the opportunity to indulge, be sure to give wisteria tempura a try!

Lastly, a gentle warning. Golden Week, which stretches from the end of April through early May, is a hectic time for travel. Due to a string of closely timed national holidays, it often seems that the whole country is on vacation. It can be hard to secure reservations on flights, bullet trains, or bus routes at this time, let alone hotel bookings. If you are traveling in Japan during this period, reserve everything well in advance!

Visiting Japan During the Rainy Season

A woman holds a red umbrella during Japan’s rainy season

Despite the claims about Japan’s four distinct seasons, the country also has an unofficial fifth season called “Tsuyu” (meaning rainy season). Tsuyu typically begins in early or mid-June lasting through mid-July. This month-long period is generally marked with frequent rain as well as the appearance of vivid hydrangeas. The rain during Tsuyu can be heavy at times yet actual typhoons and severe storms are rather rare. Note that Hokkaido typically does not experience Tsuyu, making June a popular month to visit.

While it can be wet, one of the best features about Tsuyu is the lush vegetation and dazzling flowers. This makes for an especially stunning time of the year to visit parks as well as shrines and temples. Just make sure that you bring an umbrella and proper clothing. You can buy the ubiquitous clear plastic umbrellas from any convenience store but be careful as umbrellas are often treated like public property in Japan. Don’t be surprised if your umbrella is missing after you leave it in a storefront rack!

If the rain bothers you, then Tsuyu is a good time of year to visit Japan’s many indoor attractions. Tokyo has some magnificent museums that are worth checking out. Alternatively, on the pop-culture side, shopping, arcades, and indoor music events are other alluring options. If you would like to purchase a yukata, this is the time of year when most shops begin to stock them in preparation for the summer festival season.

Lastly, nature lovers may want to consider heading out after dark during this season. Why you ask? Well, late June is when you have the chance to spot fireflies! While you’ll be hard-pressed to find any fireflies in urban districts of Tokyo, Osaka, and other major cities, you can capture a glimpse at parks and riversides in the less densely populated areas of Gifu, Hyogo, Nara, and other prefectures.

Visiting Japan During Summer

A surfboard is left on the beach at Enoshima during the months of summer in Japan

OK, let’s not beat around the bush. The summer months in Japan are oppressively hot and humid. If you don’t do well with “swamp ass” and terribly sweltering conditions, it’s best to consider another season. That said, some of the best annual attractions and celebrations occur during summer. Indeed between the likes of festivals, fireworks and beaches, you’re really rather spoiled for choice if you can manage to cope with the heat. Considering summer is often the easiest time for many to travel, you might just need to bear with the humidity but luckily there’s plenty on offer to reward yourself.

According to the calendar, summer officially begins sometime in June but most Japanese don’t consider summer to really start until Tsuyu ends in early July. The season kicks off with a bang with Kyoto’s famous Gion Festival which takes place between July 17 and July 24. Though it is often hailed as one of Japan’s best traditional festivals, its notoriety brings along hordes of spectators, both foreign and local alike. Truth be told, I’d warn anyone who doesn’t do well with legions of people to avoid this one entirely.

Looking for something a little less high profile? Why not hit up the Awa-odori in Tokushima prefecture. Held every year from August 12–15, it is a stark contrast to the typically somber Obon Festivals taking place around the country at the same time. Much like Golden Week in spring, the weeks before, during, and after Obon tend to be peak travel times for Japanese. Because of this, accommodations can often get a little pricier. That said, if you can’t make it out to Tokushima, Tokyo’s Koenji has its own version of the Awa-odori for you to check out.

In addition to the Awa-odori, there are two other festivals I’d like to note. The first of these is known as the Yosakoi Festival. This famed annual happening in Kochi prefecture is known for its distinctive traditional-meets-modern style of dance. Alternatively, up north travelers will have the chance to see the awesome Nebuta Festival in Aomori prefecture. This parade of festival floats is the biggest of its kind in Japan and always draws a crowd. Be sure to book your hotel well in advance as rooms go quickly. The Aomori area is pretty rural and is simply not able to accommodate the huge swaths of travelers that visit every year for it’s legendary festival.

Don’t think the summer fun is limited only to festivals. While what I’ve given thus far is but a mere sample of Japan’s annual traditional events, there’s numerous other fun activities to experience as well. For one, summertime is the perfect time to dawn a yukata and enjoy one of Japan’s many dazzling displays of fireworks. Throughout all of July and August, there are many such events to enjoy. Tokyo Bay, Chofu, Yokohama, Enoshima, Sumida River, and Tamagawa are some of the most popular fireworks viewing spots in the greater Tokyo area. However, Atami, an easy day trip from Tokyo, has one of the most unique views though. Here, the fireworks are launched over the ocean giving off a mirrored image reflection.

No matter where you go, be sure to show up early to secure a good place to sit for all fireworks. Some groups will send out one person frighteningly early to claim a spot for everyone else by putting out a plastic sheet to sit on. Note that is is also totally OK to bring food and drinks to these dazzling displays as well. As with hanami and other festivals though, be sure not to litter and take your garbage with you if there is no public trash on site. After all, it only takes one overly intoxicated or forgetful moron to cast a negative light on all other foreign visitors.

If you are excited about wearing a yukata to other venues you can also don one at a boat party. Most of the Tokyo and Yokohama Bay boat parties are private affairs and the whole ship is reserved by groups of friends or colleagues. That said, some boats offer parties open to the public for a reasonable entrance fee. They usually feature music on board while the boat cruises around the bay for 3 to 4 hours. Of course, alcohol is served on board and some provide finger foods as well. Due to the nature of the party, most boating excursions require attendees to be 20 years of age or older.

If you actually want to get into the water, know that Japan has no shortage of beaches. It IS an island nation after all! Sure, the beaches near many of Japan’s major urban centers aren’t anything to write home about but they are sufficient for some summer fun. While you won’t discover pristine tropical vistas, the likes of Enoshima and Yuigahama are popular beach locations for Tokyoites. Here you will find a plethora of unique sites and historical places to explore when you tire of the beach scene. Both of these site are located in or adjacent to the historical seaside town of Kamakura that was once the military capital of Japan from 1185–1333.

If you’re a stickler for your beaches, you’ll need to venture out a little further. Okinawa’s Miyakojima and Ishigakijima are postcard-perfect destinations but you don’t need to travel that far to find a suitable place to get your tan on. About 3 hours southwest of Tokyo lies Shirahama on the southern tip of the Izu peninsula in Shizuoka. Here, turquoise-blue waters and white sand await you on the main stretch of the beach. This area tends to be less crowded than the popular beaches mention above.

If you’re interested in getting even further off the beaten path, Shimane and Tottori prefectures on the Sea of Japan have some gorgeous beaches. Alternatively, up north in Aomori prefecture you will discover one of the most breathtaking coastal views in all of Japan. Here, ancient volcanic activity and erosion over the years have blessed remote Hotoke-ga-Ura with an otherworldly beauty. Reaching this area can be difficult and costly and hence I only recommend this for people looking for something extraordinarily unique.

Of course, summer comes with its own seasonal fare as well. Due to the oppressive temperatures, cold noodles are some of the most popular dishes. Both chilled soba and udon noodles are served with dipping sauces in a style known as “zaru-soba” or “zaru-udon.” These make for a perfect cooling off strategy when coupled with a refreshing glass of tea. Alternatively, try some “Chuka-soba” or Chinese noodles. As the name suggests, the noodles are of the yellow Chinese noodle variety. They are served in a plate with thinly sliced veggies and pork in a light sauce infused with vinegar and soy. Chuka-soba is one of the most common summertime dishes.

If you are a fan of lighter-tasting fish varieties, summer is a good time to try some sushi and/or sashimi. The fish at this time of year are less fatty than those caught during autumn and winter. Most of the summer’s catch offer white fish. Lean bonito is also popular as sashimi in summer. What’s more, the many summer happenings will also give you a chance to sample some local street-foods from the festivals’ stalls. Don’t expect anything healthy, but it will certainly be memorable and tasty!

Lastly. when it comes to summer, know that this is the ONLY time of the year that you can actually attempt to summit Mt. Fuji. Simply put, the conditions are too dangerous during the remainder of the year. As Japan has grown in popularity over the years, the number of climbers has exploded meaning that that you should expect company on your ascent. I mean they are even offering free Wi-Fi on the sacred mountain these days!

Visiting Japan During Autumn

A deer grazes at Nara Park against the backdrop of Japan’s autumn foliage

Honestly, it can be a real challenge to pinpoint exactly when autumn begins and ends when we’re strictly talking about the weather. Unlike in North America, September is still quite warm across most of Japan however the weather gradually starts to cool toward the end of the month. Additionally, winter’s chill can start to creep up as early as November or as late as Christmas. Lastly, fall’s frequent typhoons often hurl the temperature changes even further out of whack. Expect the unexpected during fall.

Despite the unpredictable changes of manic Mother Nature, autumn is by far my favorite month of the year. For starters, it is far less humid that summer though still generally warm enough to feel comfortable. The real treat of autumn though is the fall leaves which come ablaze around the middle of the season. This is something I’ve written about at length before here so again, rather than repeat myself, I’ll just direct you to that post instead.

Compared to peak travel times in spring and summer, autumn is actually comparatively quite cheap. Many people simply do not take time off from work during this period meaning that prices are far more affordable. Furthermore, many of the major attractions are similarly less crowded than they might be during cherry blossom season or during school summer vacation. Okinawa, in particular, is very reasonably discounted at this time of year despite still being warm enough for swimming as late as October.

September is a fun month for music events as the weather is still welcoming and there are a number of public holidays. The popular outdoor rave Labyrinth is held in Nagano every September. On the more commercial side, Tokyo hosts Ultra Music Festival Japan around the same time too. Rock and metal fans can look forward to Loudpark in October. This epic music festival annually showcases some of the most respected names in domestic and international heavy metal music.

Many local, traditional festivals also celebrated between September and November and coincide with traditional harvest times. It is very much possible for one to stumble across these festivals by accident. One of my favorite autumn events is none-other than the Kawagoe Festival. Held every year on the third Saturday and Sunday of October, the major highlight of this event is its behemoth sized floats that engage in musical duel-offs.

Additionally, autumn also hosts the ideal weather conditions for both camping and hiking. While you unfortunately cannot climb Mt. Fuji during this season for safety season, you CAN enjoy a pleasant hike up the likes of Mt. Takao. Here you’ll find a stunning view of Mt. Fuji at the summit as well as free Wi-Fi to boot. Mt. Takao can be reached in under and hour from Shinjuku and makes for the perfect autumn day trip.

When it comes to food, traditional autumn fare in Japan is notably heartier than the rest of the year. A variety of yams and potatoes come into season, as do chestnuts and pumpkins. In mid-autumn, grilled mackerel becomes widely popular. In general though, autumn cooking methods revolve more so around stewing, steaming, and grilling techniques to produce nourishing dishes. Fall is also one of the best times to relish Japanese apples and pears. Persimmons also begin to come in season.

One of the hallmarks of autumn is the appearance of the yaki-imo trucks. These are much like North America’s summer ice cream trucks except for the fact that they sell freshly grilled sweet potatoes instead of frozen delights. As you explore Japan, keep an ear out for the sound of one these trucks rolling the streets. They are easily identifiable by the sound of tacky traditional music and repetitive utterances of the word yaki-imo.

Finally, if you’re in Japan during the end of October, be sure not to miss out on Halloween. Especially for those of you in the Tokyo region, the experience in areas like Shibuya or Roppongi is the stuff of legend. Trust me when I say that it is entirely worth the hangover!