Travelers who want to see Japan's stunning cherry blossoms should visit in spring © ake1150sb / Getty Images
Japan may be small, but with its captivating blend of tradition and modernity, and its bustling cities and stunning countryside, there's something here for every kind of traveler, at any time of year.
In spring, the blossoming of the sakura (cherry trees) creates a beautiful natural display that transforms the country into a vision in pink, luring untold thousands of travelers. Fall ushers in the resplendent koyo (autumn foliage) season, while summer opens the two-month window for summiting Mt Fuji. Winter is a great time for skiers, as Japan’s slopes are dusted with some of the finest powder on the planet.
Whether you’re looking to dive into the crowded streets of downtown Tokyo or find Zen-like peace amongst tree-cloaked mountains, there’s a season that’s right for you. Here’s our guide to choosing the perfect time to visit Japan.
The spring high season (April–May) is the time for cherry blossoms
The cherry-blossom season from April to May is the peak travel period in Japan. Locals and inbound tourists flock to parks, gardens, tree-lined brooks and castle moats to partake in hanami, the annual ritual of observing the spring blossom. Picnicking under a canopy of cherry blossom is a top bucket-list experience, though travelers are advised to weigh up the undeniable beauty against the drawback of the vast crowds.
The cherry blossoms arrive and depart over a two-week period, dictated by weather patterns and local geography, and the exact timing can be hard to predict in advance. Along Japan's so-called “Golden Route” – a popular tourist trail running along the east coast in the center of the country – the flowers typically emerge between late March and early April, so April is a fairly reliable month to book a trip.
As the last petals fall, there is little reprieve for crowd-weary travelers. Golden Week arrives in early May, with warm and sunny weather, with a string of national holidays. Hotel and flight prices soar as the crowds surge into Japan's cities, and public transport, city streets, shrines, temples, museums and other tourist attractions are crammed with sightseers.
Immerse yourself in the best experiences the world has to offer with our email newsletter delivered weekly into your inbox.
Fall brings brilliant colors to Japan's deciduous forests © untouchablephoto / Getty Images
The fall high season (August–November) is the time for uniquely Japanese experiences
Late summer and fall bring another surge in visitor numbers and big crowds of domestic tourists. Mid-August is the start of the busy O-Bon (Festival of the Dead) season – the summer counterpart to Golden Week. National holidays, colorful festivals and blistering temperatures keep sights crowded and accommodation expensive (and often fully booked).
Cooler mountain destinations are also popular in August, and Mt Fuji hosts hundreds of thousands of hikers during the mid-July to mid-September climbing season. Overnight summiters should book mountain lodges well before starting the ascent. As August gives way to September, there's a brief lull before things pick up again during the fall foliage season.
In late September, the colors of autumn start to paint the mountains and the north in vivid tones, and the wave of color moves slowly south across the country. The radiant foliage of deciduous trees, from golden gingkos to vermillion Momiji trees, lures crowds to ancient gardens and well-worn mountain trails.
Late November is the most scenic time for hiking through the forests of Mt Takao and Mt Mitake on the outskirts of Tokyo, though early mornings and weekdays are recommended to avoid the weekend crush.
The shoulder season (June–July) is great for alpine hiking and summer festivals
June and July are the best months for hiking in the Japan Alps, and nature enthusiasts flock to the great outdoors. Mountain escapes are perfect for adventurous travelers looking to escape the cities as the summer heat brews.
Firework festivals are big business in Japan in July, launching tens of thousands of rockets into the night skies over major cities, while Tanabata, the festival of star-crossed lovers, sees locals don traditional kimono and yukata robes and head out in search of romance.
Japan's rainy season typically straddles these two months on Honshu, Japan’s main island, meaning hotel prices will be a little cheaper and outdoor excursions a little less thronged.
The Mt Fuji climbing season starts in July, but the summit looks beautiful from a distance year-round © lkunl / Shutterstock
Low Season (December–March) is the best time for snow and low prices
In winter, sights are uncrowded and accommodation is at its cheapest, except in Japan's ski resorts as the ski season hits its stride. Snow junkies insist that Japan has some of the finest powder on the planet, particularly on the slopes of Hokkaidō in the far north. It’s worth digging deep and accepting the expense if you're a serious skier or boarder.
However, note that many businesses close over the New Year period (end of December to early January), while temples and shrines are thronged by Japanese families. Stick to cities at this time of year – Toyko is normally the best place for big New Year parties.
January ushers in the Japanese ski season
Japan comes to life again in the second week of January, after the lull of the New Year holidays. Snow blankets the mountains of Hokkaidō and the country’s northern reaches, ushering in the ski season. Major resorts such as Hokkaidō’s Niseko and Hakuba in Nagano host Olympic-quality slopes and are well set up for non-Japanese-speaking tourists. Be sure to finish off the day with a rejuvenating dip in one of Japan’s many onsens (hot spring bathhouses).
Key events: Start of the ski season, Shōgatsu (New Year, nationwide), Coming-of-Age Day (nationwide)
February is for winter warmers and snow sculptures
February is the coldest month of the year and this is the time to warm your insides with hot sake and steaming bowls of ramen noodles. It's still high season on the ski slopes, but if you prefer admiring the snow to slaloming down it, head to Hokkaidō for the annual Sapporo Snow Festival (Yuki Matsuri) where enormous, intricately crafted snow and ice sculptures are showcased throughout Sapporo City. In central and southern parts of Japan ume (plum trees) start to blossom. Seek them out in gardens such as legendary Kairaku-en in Mito.
Key events: Setsubun Matsuri (nationwide), Mantōrō (Nara), Sapporo Snow Festival (Sapporo City), plum-blossom viewing season begins
March is the beginning of the spring festival season
Winter stumbles to a close in March. The month usually lives up to the old Japanese saying, sankan-shion – three days cold, four days warm. When the haru-ichiban (first spring wind) arrives, you can sense in the air that better days are just around the corner. Meanwhile, the festival season gets into full swing, from the Omizutori Fire Festival at Nara’s Tōdai-ji temple to the curiously translocated I Love Ireland Festival and St Patrick’s Day parade in Tokyo in mid-March. As April nears, cherry blossoms start to bloom across Honshu.
Key events: Hina Matsuri (nationwide), Anime Japan (Tokyo), I Love Ireland Festival (Tokyo)
Giant statues made from snow and ice fill the city of Sapporo in February © Ekkachai / Shutterstock
April sees cheery blossom in all its blooming glory
Warmer weather and blooming cherry trees make April a fantastic month to be in Japan, though cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto can get very crowded. Hotel prices also go through the roof, especially for rooms overlooking sakura groves in public parks and gardens. Spend your days cracking a few cans amongst the drifting flower petals, or sample a spring menu in a cafe, restaurant or ryokan (traditional inn). Popular seasonal foods range from cherry blossom-flavored desserts and pastries to burger buns and noodles infused with earthy cherry notes.
Key events: Cherry-blossom viewing; Takayama Spring Matsuri (Takayama)
May rewards outdoorsy travelers with abundant activities
Sure, May is busy, but it's one of the best months to visit Japan. The weather is warm and sunny in most places, without the stifling humidity of summer, while fresh greenery erupts across the highlands. In mountainous areas, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, rafting and camping are popular activities, though high-altitude trails may not open till July. In the cities, it’s the season for exploring by bike, parkland strolls and sitting out in rooftop beer gardens – the Omohara Forest on the 6th floor of Omotesando’s Tokyu Plaza mall is a recommended spot for a tipple. Tokyo’s spring sumo tournament also takes place in May.
Key events: Sanja Matsuri (Tokyo), Roppongi Art Night (Tokyo)
June is drizzly but great for budget travelers
Early June is lovely, but by the end of the month, tsuyu (the rainy season) sets in. As the mountain snows melt, this is also the start of the main hiking season in the Japan Alps. Many Japanese will call off a day in the mountains at the slightest threat of rain, meaning hiking trails usually escape the mid-summer crowds. Travelers visiting in June will also benefit from cheaper hotel and flight prices and a few warm and dry days scattered amongst the showers.
Key events: Hyakumangoku Matsuri (Kanazawa)
Sanja Matsuri brings vibrant parades to the Asakusa district of Tokyo in May © Marvin Minder / Shutterstock
July has a party atmosphere as the Mt Fuji trekking season starts
The rainy season passes in July, though the damp weather can linger for the first couple of weeks, bringing gray and gloomy skies. Then suddenly, it’s summer – a season of festivals and hanabi taikai (fireworks shows). Taking a yakatabune (riverboat) tour during the 300-year-old Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival in Tokyo is strongly recommended; it's well worth the high price tag to avoid the gargantuan crowds (which can reach up to one million people). It gets very hot and humid as July draws to a close; savvy travelers head to cooler Hokkaidō or the Japan Alps, or hit the slopes of Mt Fuji, which opens to hikers in the middle of the month.
Key events: Mt Fuji climbing season, Gion Matsuri (Kyoto), Tenjin Matsuri (Osaka), Fuji Rock Festival (Naeba), Peiron Dragon-Boat Races (Nagasaki), Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival (Toyko)
August is sun-baked and jam-packed
August brings hot, humid weather that can head north of 38°C (100°F) and festivals continue apace. During the Japanese school holidays, crowds descend on beaches and flood cooler mountain areas, especially Mt Fuji. Expect peak crowds and prices during O-Bon, the Festival of the Dead. Many Japanese return to their hometowns or go on domestic vacations, so transport is hectic and hotel prices soar. For a slightly calmer experience, head to the Okinawa islands in the far southwest, where it's peak scuba diving season.
Key events: Summer fireworks festivals (nationwide), World Cosplay Summit (Sakae, Nagoya and Aichi), Sendai Tanabata Matsuri (Sendai region), Nebuta Matsuri (Aomori Prefecture), O-Bon (Festival of the Dead), Peace Memorial Ceremony (Hiroshima), Awa-odori Matsuri (Tokushima City), Rōsoku Matsuri (Koyasan), Daimon-ji Gozan Okuribi (Kyoto), Earth Celebration (Sado Island)
September is the ideal beach season
In September, days are still warm, hot even, but less humid. Though the odd typhoon rolls through at this time of year, major cities are well equipped to deal with bad weather and this is generally a great time to travel in Japan. Coastal towns such as Kamakura and Shimoda on the Izu Peninsula provide the perfect combo of sunny afternoons, beachfront Airbnbs and temperate waters, making this a great time to hit the beach.
Key events: Jōzenji Street Jazz Festival (Sendai), Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri (Kishiwada, Osaka), moon-viewing (nationwide)
September is a great month to hit the surf beaches at Kamakura © Taro Hama @ e-kamakura / Getty Images
October sees a welcome dip in temperatures
Pleasantly warm days and cool evenings make October an excellent time to be in Japan. Fall foliage brings a blaze of color to the Japan Alps, providing a stunning backdrop to its myriad mountain trails. Alternatively, stroll idly along Yokohama’s fetching harbor before draining a few steins at the city’s annual Oktoberfest.
Key events: Matsue Suitōro (Matsue), Asama Onsen Taimatsu Matsuri (Asama hot springs area), Oktoberfest (Yokohama), Kurama-no-hi Matsuri (Kurama, Kyoto), performing arts festivals (nationwide), Halloween (major cities)
November brings fall color to the major cities
November is marked by crisp and cool days with snow starting to fall in the mountains. Koyo (autumn foliage) reaches Tokyo and Kyoto, drawing crowds to parks, gardens and surrounding hills. The autumn leaves linger much longer than the cherry blossoms, so there’s less urgency among locals to charge out in great numbers, and it's a quieter experience than the spring melee to view sakura. In old daimyo (feudal lord) gardens such as Rikugi-en in Tokyo and Kenroku-en in Kanazawa, the fiery leaves are illuminated after nightfall.
Key events: Shichi-Go-San (7-5-3 Festival, nationwide)
December is a mishmash of eastern and western celebrations
December brings blue skies and cold temperatures across most of Japan. Bonenkai (year-end parties) fill city bars and restaurants, commercial strips are decorated with seasonal illuminations and small Christmas markets sell mulled wine and festive trinkets. Stick to the cities for New Year – many Japanese businesses shut down from 29 or 30 December to between 3 and 6 January and temples get busy. Local celebrations include Toshikoshi Soba, where locals eat soba noodles to usher in the New Year, and Joya-no-kane, the ringing of New Year bells.
Key events: Bonenkai parties (nationwide), Luminarie (Kobe), Toshikoshi Soba (nationwide), Joya-no-kane (nationwide)