You likely will have heard the old adage ‘Japan has four distinct seasons’, a phrase that’s used regularly and earnestly, and one that Japan takes a great deal of pride in. And they are right to. While every season has its own charm, the temperatures, events and scenery of one may be better suited to your interests than another. This change has a rippling effect that seeps into Japan’s daily life, with many traditional Shinto or Buddhist rituals and festivals being tied to the seasons, intertwining culture with nature. Below we make a valiant attempt to summarise the highs, and the perhaps less desirable lows, to help you decide which season may be best for you!
Summer in Japan comes with a busy calendar packed with a variety of events to choose from. The matsuri (祭り/festival) season is in full swing at this time with people enjoying the outdoors in yukata, watching fireworks and soaking in the revelry. We recommend not missing out on the chance to experience major Japanese festivals such as Gion Matsuri in Kyoto or Yosakoi in Kochi. And that’s not forgetting the nationwide seasonal events, such as Bon Odori and fireworks festivals lighting up the sky across the country.
Now, while you may already be packing your bags to join in the celebrations, one thing to prepare for is the impressive subtropical climate - more specifically, the humidity - particularly as you travel around western and southern Japan. But there are ways to keep yourself cool while enjoying the festive mood. Sampling festival foods is a highlight of the Japanese summer, with some iconics foods being specifically designed to help keep you cool. Shaved ice, cold noodles and an amazing variety of soft serve ice cream flavours are a staple. Likewise wrapping up in a breezy cotton yukata and kitting yourself out with the seasonal summer gadgets is part of fun.
With their paved roads, you’ll notice that the cities in particular can be the most humid, but the early mornings and late afternoons are the perfect time to explore shrines and temples while avoiding the sun and the crowds. Traveling outside of the major cities to the Japanese Alps, the mountains of Shikoku, or the rolling plains of Hokkaido, will also reward you with a more temperate climate. As summer is a low-travel season, this is the time to take advantage of favorable prices for hotels and flights, but we do recommend caution for travelling from August into September and early October as the typhoon season can cause disruptions to flight and train schedules.
Autumn is the season of harvest, supplying markets with fresh produce of the highest quality. The temperature lowers and the rice paddies turn a golden yellow before being harvested in late September. The rice harvest is connected to Tsukimi (月見/Moon Festival) where people eat pounded rice cakes while admiring the full moon. Meanwhile meals begin to grow warmer as we move towards winter, with freshly steamed rice accompanying plates of grilled fish and vegetables.
Most temples and shrines have special events and are open until late at night, and you will see many people on the street enjoying the pleasant weather with the smell of baked sweet potatoes filling the air. Much of the country’s cuisine at this time will also make heavy use of the many mountain vegetables and mushrooms that are now in abundance, such as matsutake mushrooms, sanma pike, chestnuts, persimmons and asian pears.
The main event of the season though is the changing of the leaves. This beautiful display of vibrant colors is subject to the changes in temperature, with news outlets vigorously tracking the foliage across the country. Hiking trails in particular are at their most popular at this time, as intrepid travellers make the most of the autumn breeze to walk among the reddening mountain foliage. If you happen to visit Japan during this season, your eyes will forever remember the beautiful scenery.
Winter is the time to huddle around nabe (鍋/hot pot) while looking on as the snow falls outside. By this time, the autumn leaves have fallen and the trees prepare to bear new snowy decorations with cities all across Japan organising romantic illumination events. And for the more adventurous spirits, there are snowshoe hiking trails, winter sports or the chance to tread out on frozen lakes.
As comfortable as it is to stay inside, it is much more fun to go out and see the beautiful sights with their new wintery backdrop. Locations such as Kibune in Kyoto, Shirakawa-go in Gifu and Mount Fuji in Yamanashi are considered at their most beautiful during the winter. This season is also the perfect opportunity to see Japan in full celebration, with decorations and festivities for Christmas in December, leading into New Years events in January.
Winter is the time for togetherness in Japan, be it in front of the aforementioned nabe - a versatile dish with many variations from meat and seafood, to fully vegetarian options in a soymilk base - some grilled beef, or a curry stew, there’s a meal for every palate to warm you up. But then the changing of the years brings with it the country’s biggest celebration, with families reuniting for the first three days of the new year to reminisce and dine together on auspicious meals that have been delicately prepared weeks before the event.
Then, once the Christmas illuminations and new years shrine visits have passed, the plum blossoms begin to bloom, welcoming in the first signs of the spring season, making the winter season in Japan one of change.
Spring is undoubtedly the most popular season for travel in Japan thanks to the world famous flurry of cherry blossoms. These flowers are tricky to predict and their peak blooming moments vary for the different regions of Japan, so local news outlets keep track daily from the first moment a blossoming bud is spotted. Then once they have been declared to be at full bloom, people gather under the trees to celebrate the coming of Spring.
In the weeks leading up to cherry blossom season, companies release edible and inedible goods to match: cosmetics, clothing, accessories, drinks, burger buns, noodles, you name it and it will be pink. It’s also a popular time to indulge in traditional sweets, with hanami dango and sakura mochi treats made of pounded rice and red bean paste becoming widely available everywhere you go.
During spring, the temperatures are perfect for outdoor activities with little chance of rain and a healthy dose of sunshine. As a result, you can expect crowds during this season as everyone flocks to make the most of the weather and the views. There is a brief respite following the cherry blossoms before another busy period, Golden Week, a week-long stretch of national holidays from the end of April into May where in-country travel can get quite congested.
Despite this, the period right after the cherry blossoms and Golden Week is a sweet spot for many travelers looking to make the most of the temperate weather whilst avoiding the crowds. Some mountainous areas will even have a later cherry blossom season happening at this time, as the colder regions make the buds bloom later than in the warmer, more populated cities. Then from mid-May, you’ll see nature come into its own, with luscious landscapes of green grass and flowers in full bloom as we head back into Summer, and Japan’s festival season.
This is just a brief glimpse into each of the country’s distinct seasons that we hope will give you some food for thought when planning your next big Japan adventure. There’s something for everyone throughout the year, but if you’re still unsure then don’t hesitate to get in touch with our team in Kyoto for a deeper insight into our favourite times to be in Japan!