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Best time to go to Japan

Best time to go to Japan

We are often asked when the best time to go to Japan is and our view is that this is a personal thing. Unless you want to go skiing or to a specific cultural festival, the best time is when you feel the pull. Because Japan does that to you. Maybe it’s when you’ve read that special Murakami novel. Or it may be when you know that your appetite for Japanese culture has gone way beyond a regular fix of ramen or sushi. If you have a hankering for one of its historic and sacred walking trails, then there are seasonal constraints for some of them. But in general, when you feel that need to go to Japan, you will simply go as soon as you can. 

No matter when you go to Japan, you will always have moments of sheer perfection.

Religious and cultural festivals in Japan

Depending on whether you want to join the festivities or explore Japan when things are a bit more chilled, festival dates are the most important things to take note of, when working out the best time to go to Japan. The main word to look out for here is matsuri, which is Japanese for a festival or holiday, and they do vary per region or island. The main ones are: Golden Week, which marks the beginning of spring between the end of April and the beginning of May; Obon, or O-Bon, which is the annual Buddhist event to pay respect to one’s ancestors, taking place around mid-August; and New Year from the end of December until the beginning of January. 

What happens during Obon?

It’s a bit like All Souls’ Day in some western cultures, although Obon takes place in the height of summer in mid-August. It’s when people remember their loved ones, visit loved ones’ graves, have family gatherings and also attend regional events such as the Bon Odori dance festivals. Another moving aspect of the festival is people gathering to release floating lanterns into the sea, on rivers or lakes, as a way of saying farewell to spirits at the end of Obon. This busy festival coincides with Japanese school summer holidays, which are from around 20 July until the end of August. 

Setting lanterns adrift to release the souls of lost loved ones is part of the Japanese Obon tradition.

What happens during Golden Week? 

There’s a lot of coming and going, that’s what, as this is the week when Japanese people holiday at home, big time. Golden Week is in fact a conglomeration of public holidays which run close to each other, between the end of April and the end of the first week of May. It really starts with Showa Day (29 April), which commemorates the birthday of Emperor Showa (Hirohito), who ruled Japan from 1926 to 1989. It’s seen as a contemplative day rather than a festive one, when people visit shrines or significant sites such as the Musashino Imperial Mausoleum in Tokyo. 

Next up is Constitution Memorial Day (03 May), or Kenpō Kinebi, which is another sombre occasion, marking the anniversary of Japan’s post-war constitution in 1947. Following the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the new constitution focused on people’s human rights and peace. The next morning brings Greenery Day (04 May), or Midori no Hi, which lifts the mood somewhat and celebrates nature, the outdoors and biodiversity. This is a big day for picnics, hikes and visiting Japan’s many parks and gardens. 

Last but not least during Golden Week is Children’s Day (05 May), or Kodomo no Hi, when people celebrate the young people in their lives. Historically known as Boys’ Day, it now crosses the gender divide, thankfully. The common decorations that you see on this day are carp-shaped streamers. The carp is a symbol of strength and perseverance in Japanese culture, and the streamers are hung outside homes to represent the wishes for the healthy growth and success of children. 

Should I go to Japan during the cherry blossom season?

April is the most glorious month to visit Japan, especially when walking along the iconic Nakasendo and Kumano Kodo hiking trails, because this is when their famous cherry trees also come into full bloom. Hanami is the name given to the tradition of appreciating flowers at this time of year, although sakura is the main word for cherry blossoms. Although it doesn’t get quite as busy as during Golden Week, which comes later, because not everywhere has cherry trees anyway, it can get a bit febrile around cherry blossom season too. Dedicated enthusiasts predict and then chase the cherry blossom openings around the country. Depending on whether a place is north or south, inland or coastal, the timings can vary greatly. Not surprisingly, there’s an app and a map for that. 

Koriyama Castle in Nara is one of the sakura‘s most sublime spots.

Best time to do the Shikoku Island 88 Pilgrimage 

Of Japan’s four main islands, Shikoku is the smallest but, for many, the most spiritual, with an ancient 1,000km trail that connects 88 Buddhist temples and shrines. You don’t have to visit them all, and our Shikoku walking holiday takes you to some of its most sacred and sweet spots. This holiday is available between the beginning of May and the end of October, and choosing your time depends on whether you would like to join the other ohenro-san or pilgrims. It’s a moderate to strenuous walk, and so most people aim to walk it in spring or autumn, with summer actually being the quieter period.

In summer, and in fact during all seasons, you will see a lot of people wearing traditional conical hats and white clothing. These are not only traditional pilgrim gear, as they represent purity and innocence, but they also protect from the heat, with temperatures hitting the 30C mark in the height of summer. Temperatures are between 19-23C in spring and don’t drop below 20C in autumn much either. You can get rain here any month of the year, as it is in an Oceanic climate zone. 

Tokushima, the main city on Shikoku, also hosts one of the most famous dance festivals in mid-August, which is part of the Obon season, so it gets pretty busy during that time. 

Best time to walk the Kumano Kudo Trail

One of Japan’s other revered spiritual trails is the Kumano Kodo, which has carried pilgrims for centuries across the peaks and valleys of the Kii Peninsula, to worship at three magnificent Grand Shrines en route: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha and Hayatama Taisha. The Kii Mountains are still considered by many to be sacred landscapes and, being mountains, the heavens can open at any time, especially during humid summer months. However, views of the sacred sites in the mist can be quite stirring. Our Kumano Kodo holiday runs from the end of April until the end of October, although we can organise it during other months if you prefer, upon request only.

There is a short typhoon season in September and October, but they rarely hit land and local people are prepared for such events. March and April tend to be busiest as it is when the cherry blossoms start to come out. Similarly, in autumn, Japanese maples, cedar and cypress trees in the Kii Mountains won’t let you down with their leaf-changing spectacle which is known locally as koyo. In spring and autumn, daytime temperatures range from 10-15C, going up to between 18-24C in summer months, so it’s not too hot, although it does get sticky. All the more reason to enjoy the traditional baths en route. 

The Nachi shrine on the Kumano Kudo Trail in autumn.

Best time to walk the Nakasendo Trail

Traditionally created so that 17th century feudal lords, samurai and traders could transport their missives and minions between Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo), the Nakasendo Trail now has a more peaceful mission. To provide a slow, central mountain route through ancient forests, along ridges and mountain paths with views of the Japanese Alps, all dipping down to a collection of 69 ‘post towns’. Our walking holiday on the Nakasendo Trail runs from the beginning of May until the end of October, as it gets pretty cold here in winter. 

At the beginning of May you can catch the end of the cherry blossom season, if you’re lucky and you may still have snow on the mountains in the distance, making for great photography. In May, average temperatures are 19C but can dip to single figures at night. You’ll stay in double figures in June at night, rising to 25C during the day. Summer brings some seriously hot and humid climes, with temperatures as high as 35-40C in July and August so you really need to start early each day. However, you will find shade along the way as most of the trail is through forest. 

Similar to the Kumano Kodo Trail, there is a short typhoon season in September and October, but more common at sea than on land. During September and October, average daytime temperatures are 25C and 18C respectively and the autumn leaf shows just add to the already spectacular scenery. 

Magome is just one of many preserved towns on the Nakasendo Trail. Whatever time of year you go, try and catch sunrises like this.

But who can say what’s best? That’s why you need to grab whatever chance you have of happiness where you find it, and not worry about other people too much. My experience tells me that we get no more than two or three such chances in a lifetime, and if we let them go, we regret it for the rest of our lives.” ― Haruki Murakami Norwegian Wood