The Japanese archipelago extends a long way from north to south, so its climate ranges from continental to subtropical. In Hokkaido, the winters are long, snowy and very tough; while in Okinawa the temperature rarely drops below 15°C. The most touristy areas on the island of Honshu, such as Tokyo and Kyoto, have relatively mild winters with little snow, and hot, humid summers. The seasons there are very distinctive.
Whatever the season, be sure to check the weather forecast the night before or in the morning before deciding on the day's activities; this will avoid any nasty surprises. Once you are there, even without Internet access or speaking Japanese, the pictures on TV or in the newspapers are quite self-explanatory.
Don’t forget, Kanpai offers weather information for many cities in Japan, with ten-day forecasts.
When to go: the ideal time
It is of course impossible to determine the absolutely ideal season in which to travel, as each time of year has different landscapes and benefits to offer.
To help you make your selection, the following paragraphs will give you some pointers, with specific details about each season in Japan to help you make your choice.
Springtime in Japan is the sakura or cherry blossom season which comes into flower throughout Japan from late March to mid-April. Its sublime colour may vary from white to pink. The Japanese take the cherry blossom seriously and its flowering is a hotly debated topic which is monitored carefully.
People get together in parks, with family and friends, to celebrate Ohanami: the contemplation of cherry blossoms. Be warned: increasingly, the most popular sakura spots tend to be overrun by tourists and this may bother some people.
Watch out: this is also the time of Golden Week in early May, a series of public holidays during which a lot of Japanese people travel around the country. Accommodation and transport is often booked up in advance and prices tend to rise!
In summer, it is very hot and humid. If you don’t like dry heat, avoid travelling in Japan during the summer because high temperatures also come with a high level of humidity. This is also the period of typhoons and early summer, from mid-June for a month, is the rainy season.
Japanese salary-men, or office workers, can wear a lightweight outfit in summer, called the "cool biz": a short-sleeved shirt without jacket or tie. Prepare to feel sweaty and to seek out the shade!
Try to mix outdoor tours with air-conditioned interiors, such as museums, shopping malls or leisure centres. In the evening there are lots of matsuri (festivals) to enjoy and wonderful Japanese fireworks. It is also the only official time for climbing Mount Fuji, although at the top it is still very cold even in summer.
Autumn mirrors the spring in some ways. From mid-November this is the contemplation of the momiji, red maple leaves. The red is usually accompanied by the yellow of the ginkgo - a wonderful combination.
This is a good season to visit the Japanese countryside for some relaxation, especially as temperatures remain very mild until late in the season (late October to early November).
In September, Japan has a second short rainy season and also occasionally typhoons. In addition, as with the cherry tree season, the best spots for the koyo or autumn leaves are often overrun with visitors, especially in Kyoto’s most majestic temples.
Finally winter, which can be quite cold, but is still very bearable. Temperatures are low so bring warm clothes. But it is also the best time to enjoy onsen, the natural hot springs! Do watch out though for the poor insulation of some old Japanese houses, which let in lots of cold air.
You will occasionally see snow in Tokyo and, inevitably, in northern Japan. Also note that Japan has a highly developed ski area with over 500 resorts and modern amenities although they are quite small. They are mainly in Hokkaido and northern Honshu.
Visiting Japan in the winter is also a chance to experience Christmas (for lovers) and New Year (at the Shinto shrine) in a new way. There are lots of Christmas lights, especially in large cities, giving it a romantic, even slightly magical, touch.
But be aware that the New Year period, particularly between December 29 and January 2, is a second, shorter, Golden Week during which many businesses close.
In late winter, the plum trees come into flower with their beautiful colours heralding the next cherry tree season.