May 15, 2018

Braving the Rainy Season

Japan has a "fifth season" that takes place between spring and summer known as tsuyu. While things can get wet, it's also a great time to visit.

A woman with a red umbrella waits at the iconic Shibuya Scramble intersection in Tokyo during the rainy season

Though the Japanese love to opine about their wonderful and distinct four seasons, the island nation technically experiences five. Known as tsuyu in Japanese, this unofficial season loosely translates to rainy season in English. Typically, tsuyu runs from early June through the middle of July. While the start and end times can vary slightly depending on location, this annual period of dread for many is almost upon us. Though I’m a pluviophile who loves his rain (and might be a bit biased), tsuyu has many advantages over the more popular travel dates. With a little bit of preparation, rainy season can actually be one of the best times to visit Japan.

Before diving into my recommendations though, let’s talk a bit more about what to expect during rainy season. As the name implies, rainfall is quite frequent during this period. In most cases, these rainy days are just your typical everyday downpour; typhoons and violent storms are quite rare during tsuyu. Therefore, while by no means dangerous, the weather can sometimes be an annoying inconvenience. Luckily though, there’s still plenty to do and prices tend to be significantly lower than those during non-rainy periods. What’s more, the wet conditions help to chase away the hordes of tourists that often descend upon major attractions during high season.

People with umbrellas cross Tokyo’s iconic Shibuya Scramble intersection during the rainy season

With that said, let’s now look at how to deal with the rain. If you’re in any major urban area on a rainy day, you’ll immediately notice two things. First off, the Japanese always take cover from the rain. It’s rare to see anyone just say screw it and get wet. And, this brings us to the second observation, EVERYONE will tote an umbrella. Forget to pack one? Fret not! You can snag a universal clear plastic one at any convenience store for under 500 yen. This particular style has the added bonus of allowing you to navigate the sea of opaque umbrellas that often resemble a Greek phalanx. Anyone game for attempting to plot a route through the crowded Shibuya scramble crossing with an unwieldy umbrella in hand?

As with all things Japan, there are rules and proper etiquette surrounding umbrella use. If you’re carrying one, and plan on entering a shop or restaurant, it’s common courtesy to leave it in the umbrella rack. These are usually located just in front of the entrance. Additionally, some venues such as onsen, sento, or izakaya provide locked umbrella racks. After inserting your umbrella, you’ll be able to take the key. The reason for this is simple. While theft is quite uncommon in Japan, this rule doesn’t seem to apply to umbrellas. Indeed, it’s not uncommon to find that your umbrella has mysteriously vanished. One reason explaining the disappearing gadgets has to do with the fact that most carry similar type umbrellas making it a challenge to tell them apart.

Note that many larger stores such as department stores and some grocery stores do not have umbrella racks. What’s a polite visitor to do? Well, in these cases, you’ll be given what the expat community here in Japan has dubbed an umbrella condom.” These marvelous plastic sheaths slip over your umbrella and prevent it from dripping all over the place. As comical as this sounds, using the “umbrella condoms” greatly reduces the amount of excess water that drips onto the floors while keeping the stores safe and dry.

Constant rains from Japan’s rainy season soak the pavement in Tokyo

What about those for whom umbrellas just aren’t their thing? Well, in these cases, you can purchase clear vinyl hooded ponchos and pants from any convenience store. Simply put this gear over your clothing and you’re sure to stay dry. You’ll notice a good number of cyclists employing this approach because it’s actually illegal to ride a bicycle while holding an umbrella. Of course, many still do it but unless you want to have an awkward chat with the cops, opt instead for an umbrella holder on your bike or the aforementioned poncho.

Moving right along, if you plan to visit Japan during the rainy season, you need to consider proper footwear. To the extent possible, remember to pack waterproof or water resistant shoes. Also, keep an extra pair of good socks on your person too just in case. Of course the miraculous convenience stores that helped me lose over 10 kg also stock socks and dry underwear in case of an emergency. That’s right folks! 7-Eleven and such stores are actually convenient in the land of the rising sun!

OK, so now that we’ve covered our bases, let’s talk about what makes tsuyu so great. While the rains may seem discouraging at first, as mentioned above, this can be one of the most affordable times to visit Japan. The swaths of tourists that tend to visit during cherry blossom season and the latter half of summer are all but nonexistent during the rainy season. Furthermore, since the weather tends to get warmer around this time, you can often visit a coastal town and have the beach all to yourself. After all, it’s not like it rains EVERYDAY during tsuyu!

Tsuyu falls right between Golden Week (a week of national holidays in Japan where many people travel) and the summer high season for inbound tourism. This means hotels are often in a bit of a low point in terms of bookings. Come tsuyu, the spike in domestic tourism from Golden Week is over and few Japanese will be traveling. Given the summer high season has yet to kick off, you can snag a hotel room for a fraction of what you’d pay otherwise! For this reason, tsuyu is particularly the ideal time to visit Okinawa or Hokkaido. These locations are generally less affected by the rainy season than other parts of Japan. In fact, Hokkaido is almost entirely exempt from the common rains that dampen the rest of the country.

The entrance to Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Taisha during the Rainy Season

If you don’t mind braving the rain though, tsuyu is the perfect time to do some sightseeing. Popular places like Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto are a lot less crowded than usual. Hell, you might even be able to snap a pic of the endless torii gates without anyone in the frame if you arrive early morning. The Nikko area too is especially charming in the rain. Often times, the dampness will give rise to an eerie mist that envelopes the area’s numerous mountain valleys. It’s truly a sight to behold!

More so than in dryer periods, Japan’s shrines and temples take on an even more spiritually ethereal ambiance. As you meander around their grounds, you can actually feel the sacredness deep within your very being. Likewise, traditional tea houses also evoke a similar vibe, especially when the buildings themselves are historic relics. As you might imagine, tsuyu is a great time for shutterbugs as you can capture some extraordinary shots. Whatever you do though, just stay clear of places like Asakusa’s Senso-ji. During the rainy season, the tight quarters combined with the urban sprawl, can turn attractions like this into a never-ending sea of umbrellas.

On the modern end of the spectrum, know that Tokyo Disneyland, Disney Sea, and Universal Studios Japan all operate throughout tsuyu. Though the parks are by no means deserted, they are far less crowded than other times throughout the year. If you’re hankering for a visit to any of these amusement parks, the rainy season is a great time to do so. While I suspect this is true of any location during inclement weather, I find the prospect of a rainy day tends to chase away all but the most enthusiastic visitors.

A woman in Japan walks with an umbrella during the rainy season

If you’d rather stay dry, know that Japan has plenty of indoor activities to keep you entertained. For starters, the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Ryogoku makes for an excellent rainy-day excursion. Here you’ll learn all about the history of the world’s biggest megalopolis. Likewise, the Tokyo National Museum is also a great visit. Historic attractions aren’t you’re shtick? Worry not; Japan has plenty of game centers, shopping, and other indoor options too. Alternatively, those keen on something traditional can even catch a sumo tournament as well if the timing works out.

Tsuyu is also a good time to start shopping for a yukata if you want to purchase an authentic souvenir to bring back home with you. Many shops start selling yukata in June in preparation for the upcoming summer festivals. If you want to get your hands on a unique cool design, now’s the best time to snag one before the locals start to scoop them up. As they say, the early bird catches the worm and this holds true for some of the better yukata designs! Expect the freshly released selection to be plentiful.

Though there are few festivals during tsuyu, the tail end of the rainy season lays claim to one of Japan’s biggest, the Kyoto Gion Festival. During this time, the city becomes extremely crowded with both foreign guests and locals alike struggling to secure vacant accommodations. If you already have something booked in the Kyoto or Osaka area, and aren’t adverse to large crowds, it would behoove you to check this one out. Otherwise, just steer clear of the nation’s old capital.

In addition to the Gion Festival, the Tanabata Festival also falls around this time. The most distinctive aspect of this celebration is the bamboo trees which have small papers tied to them. Tradition holds that one should write his or her wish on one of these papers and tie it to the bamboo tree. While the official date of Tanabata is July 7, the bamboo displays usually start appearing a few weeks prior to that date. Some locales will even have paper and pencils available and waiting for you, making participation a cinch!

An Asian woman in Japan examines the hydrangeas during the rainy season

Lastly, tsuyu is also a great time for nature lovers to visit Japan. Though the cherry blossoms are long gone by this time, the landscape becomes richly dyed with entirely different hues. You see, Japan’s hydrangeas bloom annually during the rainy season and their petals are even more common when they are sodden with raindrops. Expect to find vibrant shades of blues, purples, and pinks. If you’re in the Tokyo area, definitely considering visiting nearby Kamakura as there are many temples like Kamakura’s Hase-dera which are famous for their hydrangeas. You might even consider tacking on a side trip to scenic Enoshima (though the island is rather exposed to the elements should it rain).

In addition to the hydrangeas, a wide variety of plums are also in season during the rainy season. In fact, the word tsuyu itself literally translates to “plum rain.” This of course means that it’s the perfect time to sample some umeshu or plum wine. As if this weren’t enough, peaches also are in peak season from late June to early July. Much like many Japanese fruits, biting into one is an otherworldly gourmet experience. Though the price may seem expensive, the peaches are considered a local delicacy well worth tasting.