Japan, much like Canada, is a country with four distinct seasons. The spring and fall are warm and pleasant, the summers are hot and humid, and the winters can range from mild (in comparison to Canadian winters) to outright cold in the northern regions.
Canadians, and I would hazard a guess most of the world, is attracted to travel in Japan during two times of the year: 1) January to February as this is the prime ski season; and 2) mid-March to late April as this is the prime time to see the famous cherry blossoms (this time period when the cherry blossoms are in full boom is called “hanami”).
Spring Cherry Blossoms “Hanami”
During hanami season, temperatures range from high single digits at night to low 20’s during the day, but it is not uncommon for the temperature to reach the mid-20’s. Rain is a possibility, but unlike the rainy season, you may only get the odd day of rain.
The airlines understand this is a very popular time and airfare is usually more expensive. Hotels become scarce, and the pricing increases. With the crackdown on AirBnB recently, already increasing accommodation prices have spiked.
There are many poems, writings, and romanticized notions comparing life and love to the lifespan of the cherry blossom, or sakura. It is always represented as being fleeting, too short, or wistfully missed if one is not careful. This is an accurate representation of this time of year.
One day the trees are blooming and the entire city will be covered in hues of white and pink, splashed upon a canvas of glass, concrete, and steel. On the very next day, the wind might pick up and blow all the sakura off the trees, creating beautiful torrents of flying blossoms leaving the branches bare. Even if that doesn’t occur, a week or so later the sakura will fall off on their own and the picturesque scenes will be over. Viewing parties will pack up, and life will return to normal.
The sakura follow closely the temperature. If it is a warm early spring, you will see the sakura bloom as early as early to mid-March and will be done by the beginning of April on the main island. You can go further south towards Kyushu, or north to Hokkaido as the sakura will bloom earlier and later in the season, respectively.
Canadians will find the weather during this time reasonably warm during the day. Resist the temptation to wear only shorts and a t-shirt, as it can get unreasonably chilly in the evening, especially if the wind picks up and/or if you’re hanging out near the ocean where a sea breeze can blow in. Plan for a wide range of temperatures which can occur in a single day.
Autumn Leaves & Winter Snows
The Japanese autumn, which occurs around late September to early November, is very similar to the spring for temperature and climate. The leaves are beautiful hues of yellows, orange, and red, and the temperatures are comfortable. This also a very comfortable and scenic time to travel around Japan and is somewhat cheaper as well.
The winter months in Japan are comfortable to travel for Canadians. Most of the main island will fluctuate between 0C and 10C, but the humid air may feel more penetrating than a dry -20C cold. Light to moderate waterproof winter gear is a must. The cold is compounded by the fact that most Japanese homes do not have an abundance of insulation or central heating. This is very apparent when one is living in a Japanese house and tries to sit on an ice cold toilet in the middle of the night (which is why heated toilet seats are common).
Skiing during winter in Hokkaido and Nagano would be no different than planning a ski vacation in Whistler or another resort. Although
the temperatures are on the milder side (no -25C skiing), warm winter clothes are recommended. Temperatures around Hokkaido should fluctuate between -10C and 0C during the winter days.
If you’re inclined to spend your time in a more tropical destination, heading to Okinawa is a good option. It’s a few hours flight from the mainland, and you will be greeted by the warm sun and fair weather almost year around. Be aware, Okinawa is not Japan. There is a very different vibe in Okinawa, generally pretty laid back and easy going. Temperatures in Okinawa can range between the mid-teens to high teens during the winter months, and the mid-teens to low 30’s in the summer.
Times to Avoid
I would avoid travelling to Japan during two times of the year: the first week of May, and the height of summer.
Around the first week of May there is a period of successive holidays, collectively dubbed “Golden Week”. Many Japanese take this opportunity to vacation. There is a lot of traffic overseas, to other parts of Japan, and to their homes in the countryside; the country turns into one big queue at the train stations, airports, and roadways. This also makes flying during the days leading up to, and after Golden week very expensive. I’ve seen airfare and hotel prices go up by more than 60% during Golden Week travel periods.
The second period I would not recommend travel, especially for Canadians or others who are used to a temperate or cold climate, is during the summer period: June until the middle of September.
I find the summers in Japan unbearably hot, reaching well into the 30’s with very high humidity. Unless you love this type of weather or are used to this type of wet heat, it can get quite unpleasant, especially if you’re trying to sleep in a house without air conditioning. The bugs during this period aren’t great either as the mosquitoes come after you with a vengeance.
June is also the rainy month, and prime typhoon season is in August and September. While a little rain shouldn’t prevent you from sightseeing and travelling, be aware that you can face a few days hanging around inside, or travel delays if a typhoon hits the island.
Festivals and Events
Another factor to consider is festivals or “matsuri”. Every town and region usually has their own festivals and celebrations. Aligning your trip to experience one of these events can be rewarding. These are mostly cultural and religious festivals, and are often accompanied by booths with games, food stalls, fireworks, parades, and other events.
One of the most famous matsuri is Gion matsuri in Kyoto. Unfortunately, this is held during the sweltering month of July so you’ll have to really want to see this event and brave the summer heat.
You can also catch Gozan Okuribi a month after and after Obon. They use 75 trees to write a character on the side of the mountain and light it on fire. Who doesn’t like lighting really large stuff on fire? Hence it’s very popular.
There are many local matsuri going on at all times of the year, so Google your region during the time you want to be in Japan and you can align your schedule to catch one of these events. Also of note, places like museums, galleries, and other such venues have constantly rotating exhibits and events. For example, one year we happened to be in Kobe for the opening of the travelling Hayao Miyazaki exhibit. Another year there just happened to be an exhibit on the shinsengumi and the bakamatsu, a pivotal point in Japanese history. Some museums are not open year round, for example, the Skyline (yes the famed Skyline GT-R) museum in Okaya closes for the winter. Double check the dates and exhibits if you are planning to go to an exhibit, or just to see if there are some interesting experiences you want to catch while you’re in the country.
There will always be something for you to do at any time of the year. The weather around the country is reasonable and comfortable most of the year, so you can be sure that whatever time you pick will always have events and things to do which will suit your travel style.
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