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Japan’s summers are hot and humid, whereas winters are bitterly cold and snowy. Therefore, the best times to visit Japan are spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November), when temperatures are mild.
However, spring and autumn are also the most popular times to visit, when tourists flock to Japan’s picturesque castles, gardens and parks to see the spaces adorned in cherry blossom pinks or the warm tones of falling leaves.
The southern islands of Okinawa are the first to pop pink with sakura (cherry blossoms), with the trend moving north throughout March and early April, finally reaching the northern island of Hokkaido in early May.
After a couple of weeks, the petals start to fall from the trees, creating a snow-like flutter of blossoms, which make you feel like you’ve stepped into a piece of Japanese art.
Japan also places a special cultural importance on the changing of the seasons, with traditions such as spring-time’s hanami. The Japanese gather under cherry blossom trees for picnics to celebrate the temporal beauty of nature.
Temperatures soar up to 30 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit), topped up with a heavy humidity which can make sightseeing quite uncomfortable.
Summer is also the best time to see many of the country’s traditional festivals (matsuri) and to take part in a mountain hike.
Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri runs throughout July, with a big parade on the 17th. Tenjin Matsuri takes place on 24th and 25th July, which is one of Japan’s biggest festivals and includes a parade of shrines, boats and a firework display.
The changing leaves start in the north in September, moving southwards throughout the country, turning green to reds, yellows and oranges.
The fall foliage (kouyou) is best seen in national parks such as Hakone, as well as the ancient former capitals Kyoto and Nara, where the leaves complement the historical architecture.
Winter may be the coldest season, but it’s also the quietest – ideal for those who prefer to sightsee without the crowds. You may have some spots all to yourself, even more beautiful for being dusted with a layer of snow.
If you’re beginning to feel the chill, simply take a dip in the steaming volcanic waters of a natural hot spring bath or cuddle up with a warm sake and watch the snowflakes cascade down.
Furthermore, Japan is a great destination for snow sports. The mountain landscapes, aided by icy winds blowing over from Siberia, create an epic and reliable location for luxury skiing resorts.
Temperatures stick around a chilly 5 degrees Celsius (41 Fahrenheit), with plenty of snowfall.
Many restaurants and shops close for the New Year until 3rd (or in many cases, until 6th). Transport and accommodation are available, but more expensive.
Seijin-no-hi (Coming-of-Age Day) takes places on the second Monday in January. Anyone who has turned 20 in the past year is celebrated and young women wearing gorgeous kimonos can be seen at Shinto shrines.
During Sapporo’s Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival), the city’s Odori Park becomes home to incredible snow and ice sculptures, and you can ride down an epic snow slide! Be sure to book accommodation early.
February, the coldest month, is also peak ski season, while 3rd February marks a shift to spring in the traditional lunar calendar. The superstitious head to Buddhist temples to toss roasted beans and ward off bad fortune.
Keep an eye open for plum blossoms, which are the first sign that winter is coming to an end.
March still requires a coat and scarf, though temperatures start to climb towards a more bearable 10 degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit). Some light spring showers come with that temperature rise too.
Cherry blossom (sakura) season begins and with it come the traditional customs of “flower viewing” and hanami picnics.
3rd March is Girls’ Day, so you may see o-hina-sama (princess) dolls in public spaces and homes. Meanwhile, the world’s largest anime fair kicks off in Tokyo.
April is mild, if a little rainy, with temperatures averaging 14 degrees Celsius (57 Farenheit).
Cherry blossom (sakura) season is in full swing, so be sure to enjoy the falling blossoms and take part in picnic for hanami.
14th and 15th April is Takayama Spring Festival (the autumn version is in October), featuring parades of floats, lanterns and lion dancing. Book accommodation well in advance.
The end of April and start of May marks the busy period of “golden week,” where several public holidays coincide and locals tend to take their holidays. Travel around Japan is best avoided during this time or you should book well in advance.
The average temperature in May is 18 degrees Celsius (64 Farenheit), though you may experience a little more rainfall.
Cherry blossom (sakura) season comes to a close, though some blossoms can still be viewed in the north of the country.
The start of May also includes the busy period of “golden week,” where several public holidays coincide and locals tend to take their holidays. Travel around Japan is best avoided during this time or you should book well in advance.
For culture boffins, the Roppongi Art Night sees installations and performances take over Tokyo all weekend (literally, as they run through the night too).
The festival of Kanda Matsuri takes place in May, in Tokyo, in odd-numbered years. This festival is in honour of the Kanda Myojin Shrine and includes processions of floats and shrines, as well as other events.
Sanja Matsuri is the biggest Tokyo festival, with a three-day event held over the third weekend in May. Crowds flock to Asakusa to see the parade of mikoshi (portable shrines).
Warmer temperatures melt the remaining mountain snow and hiking season starts in the Japanese Alps. However, tsuyu (rainy season) sets in by the end of the month.
The mercury hits an average of 21 degrees Celsius (70 degrees Farenheit) but bring your umbrella as June is one of the wettest months of the year, with an average of 181mm of rain and 20 rainy days in the month.
Temperatures soar to 25 degrees Celsius (77 Fahrenheit), the heavens open for daily downpours and you’ll certainly feel the humidity.
As of 1st July, Mount Fuji is open for climbing! July and August are the best months for attempting to hike to the peak.
July is also home to two of Japan’s biggest festivals, Gion Matsuri in Kyoto (throughout the month) and Tenjin Festival in Osaka (24th and 25th July).
The former is the festival of Yasaka Shrine, where huge floats (hook) are paraded around town and food stalls can be found along the Kamo River.
The latter honours the deity Sugawara and the Tenmangu Shrine; the festival includes drummers, float processions and a huge firework display.
Finally, the Fuji Rock Festival (Japan’s biggest music festival) takes place in the mountains in late July, with the stages featuring big names as well as smaller, indie bands.
Temperatures hit a peak of 26 degrees Celsius (79 degrees Fahrenheit) on average, with stifling humidity.
The Buddhist festival of Obon (Festival of the Dead) takes place in mid-August and is a time for families to remember their ancestors. You’ll most likely see lanterns, dances and food offerings for the spirits.
Firework festivals are also plentiful, including Sumida-gawa (Tokyo), Lake Biwa (near Kyoto) and Naniwa Yodogawa (Osaka).
On 6th August, a memorial is held for the victims of the World War II bombing of Hiroshima and thousands of paper lanterns float down the river.
Look out for Matsumoto’s “bonbon” dancing festival, which takes place on the first Saturday in August.
September takes temperatures down to a slightly more comfortable 23 degrees Celsius (73 degrees Fahrenheit), though average rainfall is also 181mm. Be mindful that this is also typhoon season.
The third weekend in September is host to Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri in Osaka. Like the “running of the bulls,” but with danjiri festival floats, this wild festival is not for the faint-hearted!
The Japanese also gather together for tsukimi (moon viewings) during the full moons of September and October, eating round rice dumplings shaped like the moon.
October sees temperatures drop to 18 degrees Celsius (64 degrees Fahrenheit) and the rain eases off to 158mm.
Early in October, the Asama Onsen Taimatsu Matsuri (Fire Festival) takes place in Matsumoto, where burning bales of hay are paraded through the streets to a massive bonfire.
On 9th and 10th October, the Takayama Autumn Festival takes place in honour of the Hachiman Shrine (the spring version takes places in April). Floats are paraded through the streets, with some featuring mechanical dolls.
The Kyoto Experiment takes place in October with various performing arts.
Japan has also embraced the American festival of Halloween; Tokyo’s Shibuya district is where costumed party-goers gather, while Osaka’s Amerika-mura turns into an enormous street party.
November marks the start of the dry season once more, as rainfall drops down to only 84mm and 12 rainy days on average. Temperatures also plummet to a chilly 12 degrees Celsius (54 Fahrenheit)
The Shichi-Go-San (7-5-3) Festival is a particularly adorable sight, as parents dress girls aged seven (shichi) and three (san), as well as boys aged five (go) in kimono dress and go to Shinto shrines for blessings.
December features an average chill of 8 degrees Celsius (46 Fahrenheit), though the month is mainly dry with very little rainfall.
Restaurants and shops close on 29th December for the New Year holidays, until 3rd January (though many places remain closed until 6th). Transport and accommodation are available, but more expensive.
Japan takes New Year very seriously, with temple bells ringing 108 times at midnight in a purifying ritual, while families eat long buckwheat noodles for luck and longevity.