The truth is that Japan is a such stunning country that it offers travelers beauty and serenity year-round, with 4 complete seasons to enjoy. Depending on your preference – winter retreats vs summer adventures – you’ll have different experiences each season. That being said, there are a few key events and periods to look out for.
The highlight of Japan is the cherry blossom season, which runs from late February to early May, depending on the region. If you want to experience this stunning event, then you’ll want to start prepping in January for a trip in March and April. Keep an eye on the Cherry Blossom Forecast Map to get the latest updates on when and where to experience peak blooming.
For Nara, definitely explore the iconic temple of Todai-ji, home to a giant Buddha statue, and explore the Nara Park, where you can meet friendly deer.
Nagoya, in turn, is home to the illustrious Nagoya Castle, a traditional Japanese castle that cannot be missed on a trip here.
If you’re looking to visit Kyoto, which also offers great cherry blossom viewing spots, then you should pop in around May 15th, when the stunning Aoi Matsuri Festival takes place.
During this event you can see traditional Japanese clothing as participants lead richly adorned ox-drawn carts through the streets. Shrines will come to life with important ceremonies and rituals. This historical and cultural event is not to be passed up.
An important period to avoid is May 3-6, otherwise known as Golden Week. This is the longest vacation period for Japanese workers and a major holiday for students, meaning domestic travelers are also going to be out and about.
Prices for accommodation will rise and you’ll be hard pressed (quite literary) to fit on the packed trains. Better to skip the whole affair and book your trip before or after it.
Dress lightly, as Japan’s summer is notably humid, making the cities like Tokyo and Osaka rather unbearable. Instead, head to the countryside, where you can explore a variety of hiking trails to explore.
Resting on the shores of Lake Ashi, one of the 5 Fuji Lakes, Hakone is a great place to visit Mt Fuji from. A classical village full of traditional Ryokans, you can easily immerse yourself in Japanese culture here. Some Ryokan offer 24 hour guides to the village, combining the funicular, cable car, and a pirate cruise (yes, a pirate cruise).
Located in the north, Hokkaido offers cooler temperatures than the rest of the country, making for more comfortable summer escapades. Sapporo, the capital, is a delightful city any time of the year, but if you’re going to explore the countryside you have to travel to Furano, home to extensive lavender fields that are truly picturesque in the summer light.
Kyoto, as always, is lovely to visit anytime of the year, but you definitely need to visit on July 1 for the Gion Matsuri. One of Japan’s most popular festivals, this event runs for roughly a week, but July 17th is highlighted for the lovely parade through the Gion District in Kyoto.
If you’re traveling in August, you’ll also want to enjoy the Obon Festival, a period based around honoring ones ancestors, characterized most notably by the end of the festival, when you place a lantern in a river to symbolize the passing of the soul to the beyond.
So I’ve mentioned Kyoto as a wonderful destination year round, but Autumn is by far the best time to explore this great city. As the weather cools down throughout the country, Kyoto blossoms with autumn leaves.
Take a hike up to Fushimi Inari-taisha for great views of the city. It’s a wonderful experience on its own exploring this popular shrine, but during Autumn the fall colors will truly shrine during the panoramic views.
Or, head to the west of the city for the Arashiyama area. Not only can you enjoy delicious food stalls and traditional restaurants, but also river side hikes underneath orange and red treescapes. Hop in a paddle boat with a friend for a relaxing experience as well.
If you’re here in the first two weeks of October you can also see the Zuika Matsura Harvest Festival to see performances parade through the streets in traditional outfits.
Another great city to explore is Nikko, hoem to Japan’s most splendid shrine, the Toshogu Shrine. As an added bonus, Nikko is also one of the best areas to enjoy the autumn leaves.
Last but not least we have Winter in Japan, which is largely dominated by the northern city of Sapporo.
Home to the world renowned Snow Festival, a grand festival for one week in February that features towering and intricate ice and snow sculptures. Discover castles, dragons, and even carved out ice caves to explore, all brightly lit up in the evening.
If you want to stick to the main island of Kyushu, then you’ll definitely want to experience the Japanese Alps, bordered by Takayama, Gifu, and Nagano Prefectures. Stay at a traditional resort (hopefully one that has a hot springs) and rent a snowboard to hit the slopes.
And wherever you go in winter, make sure to taste fresh caught seafood.