Best time to visit Japan
By Simon Willmore
Japan covers a large range of latitudes for such a thin country: it spans roughly the same distance north to south as the Mediterranean Sea. Combine this with a high geographical variation – more than 70% of Japan is mountainous – and it becomes clear that the country’s climate is difficult to generalise.
The country is split into several climate zones, ranging from cool temperate in the north of the county, which includes Sapporo, to subtropical in the south, such as the Ryukyu Islands. Like the UK, Japan has four seasons. See our recommendations for holidays and honeymoons in Japan.
Between March and May, temperatures are comfortably warm – between 15°C and 23°C. In April, it is peak season for the famous cherry blossom, which makes it the busiest time for tourists, too.
This is not helped by the huge number of locals going on holiday in Golden Week, at the end of April. This period contains many public holidays, so many Japanese companies close down for the whole week. All the accommodation tends to be booked up by locals, despite the higher prices.
“Kyoto, one of the must-go places in Japan, is absolutely heaving at this time of year and accommodation is at a premium,” says James Mundy, PR & Marketing Manager at Inside Japan Tours.
“The new April is May,” he says. “It’s a lot quieter in terms of visitors but the temperature is still comfortable, in the mid-20s.” The blossom is still plentiful, especially in North Japan, so you won’t miss out, and Golden Week will be finished by the second week of May so prices will be lower.
In the summer, the whole country tends to be hot and humid. High temperatures average 29°C and can reach the forties. But the consolation for braving the weather is the chance to witness traditional festivals, such as Tanabata, the Star Festival, in July.
“It would be wise to avoid muggy Tokyo at this time of year,” advises James. “Escape the heat by visiting the Hokkaido region or Mount Fuji, which will be cooler thanks to the altitude”.
Nearly all of Japan experiences the ‘Tsuyu’ rainy season – only the far north stays dry. The rains affect the Okinawa Islands in May and June and then reaches the rest of the archipelago between mid-June and the end of July. Tokyo sees 200mm of rainfall in June alone.
Rain tends to come in sudden torrential downpours that don’t last long – June still has 120 hours of monthly sunshine. But the unpredictable conditions mean that accommodation and tourist spots are cheaper and less busy. In addition, it may be worth seeing some landmarks in the rainy season – Mount Koya is spectacular in foggy weather, for example.
Similar to the cherry blossoms, the autumn leaves in November are a tourist trap in their own right. The temperature is still mild and dry – around 21°C – in October and November and public places are less busy. You’ll have more space to enjoy the explosion of colour in the country’s many temple gardens.
In September, it’s best to avoid the southern Okinawa Islands. The subtropical climate means that weather gets windier and wetter – typhoons are likely and they can even reach the mainland of Japan towards the end of the season.
The official season for climbing Mount Fuji is 1 June to 1 September, when there is less snow on the mountain. Outside of this time, it’s recommended that you alert the authorities if you want to go.
Climbing even during peak season may not be possible for that much longer. There is talk of introducing a fee to discourage people visiting the site because the government wants to have the mountain listed as a World Heritage Site.
“Maybe it is best you go to Japan soon, and take an early-morning hike up Mount Fuji,” recommends James. “What could be better than seeing the sunrise from the Land of the Rising Sun?”
You’ll get some really good deals on accommodation in January because it’s winter – but not like winter in Britain. “It’s cool but not drizzly or overcast,” continues James, “You’ll have bright blue sky and a crisp winter’s day.”
January temperatures dip to an average of 2°C in Tokyo and snow is not uncommon. In order to escape the cold winter days, move to the subtropics in the south, where December and January temperatures will remain at 18-20°C.
“It’ll be warm, but not roasting, and dry,” says James, “particularly in the Okinawa Islands” – which are a 2.5 hour flight south west of Tokyo.
Japan is also popular for skiing in winter – three hours north-west of Kyoto is Nagano, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics.
In the summer, the Buddhist ‘Obon’ custom sees locals return to their family homes. The traditional reason for this is to honour your ancestors, and so the modern-day holiday also includes family reunions and parties. The festival is technically not a public holiday but it is common for locals to take leave from work.
It’s important to know which part of the country you’ll be in and when, because Obon happens at different times in different regions.
In eastern Japan including Tokyo, the festival starts 15 July; in the north including Shikoku, it takes place on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and so varies, and everywhere else it takes place around 15 August.
1 January: New Year’s Day
Second Monday of January: Coming of Age Day
11 February: Foundation Day
Around 20 March: Vernal Equinox
29 April: Shōwa Day
Late April / Early May: Golden Week
Third Monday of July: Marine Day
Third Monday of September: Respect for the Aged Day
Around 23 September: Autumnal Equinox
Second Monday of October: Health and Sports Day
3 November: Culture Day
23 November: Labour Thanksgiving Day
23 December: Emperor’s Birthday