Kakigori Japanese shaved ice

Photo:yoppy on Flickr

Escaping the Heat – Great Spots to Go to Keep Cool in Japan this Summer

As I write this latest piece, the sun is blazing in the sky. It’s only 10am and it’s already more than 30 degrees outside.

In summer, in central Japan, such temperatures are normal. Perhaps even more stifling than the heat, however, is the humidity. Even a simple walk to the local convenience store can leave you drenched in sweat and gasping for breath. Or, maybe I just need to work out more!

In any case, many of us here in the Kanto region of Japan are seeking cooler climes to enjoy our summer vacation time away from this oppressive heat.

If you too want to beat the heat this summer then here are some places you may want to consider visiting:

1. Hokkaido

Fields of Kamikawa, Hokkaido
Photo by 姐夫 吳 on Flickr

Perhaps the most obvious suggestion on today’s list and thanks to frequent low cost carrier flights from Tokyo and Osaka, one of the easiest places to get to.

As Japan’s northernmost prefecture, Hokkaido is noticeably colder than the likes of Tokyo and Osaka all year round. However, this is especially pronounced in summer. Cool arctic breezes coming in from the nearby Northern Territories considerably reduce the humidity. The forests and woodlands on the north eastern side of the island makes for some excellent opportunities to take in a relaxing hike, or perhaps set up camp without being besieged by mosquitoes and other bugs like those found elsewhere in Japan.

Hokkaido also has plenty of fresh seafood and excellent local beers. Nothing takes the edge off a hot, humid summer day, quite like an ice cold Sapporo beer!

2. Okayama

A canal in Kurashiki, Okayama
Photo by ajari on Flickr

Despite being even further south than the likes of Tokyo or Osaka, Okayama actually enjoys quite mild summer weather, with lower temperatures and less humidity. This is especially apparent in the northern areas of the prefecture, which are more hilly and rural.

A short train ride from Okayama City is Kojima, on the outskirts of Kurashiki City, with lots of pleasant woodland areas for summer barbecues, camping or if you’re feeling adventurous, a bit of hiking.

The cool breeze that comes in off the nearby Seto Inland Sea, separating Japan’s main island of Honshu from the island of Shikoku, gives Kojima a pleasant, temperate climate, even at the height of summer.

If you can make it to Okayama, I especially recommend a trip to Takahashi City, around 90 minutes by train from Okayama City. Here you will find lots of quiet hotels and inns dotted around the forested hills which provide the perfect cool contrast to the inner city heat. Takahashi City provides not only a relief from the heat but also an escape from the stresses and strains of inner-city life.

3. Nagano

Town of Yamanouchi, Nagano, with mountains in background
Photo by bryan... on Flickr

Although it is only an hour or two northwest of Tokyo, Nagano feels almost like a totally different country. The rolling hills are reminiscent of the likes of Switzerland, probably why the mountains in this prefecture are referred to as the “Japanese Alps”. These colossal formations are snow-capped almost all the year round, which can be quite a surreal sight at the height of a hot summer!

However Nagano’s generally higher ground and positioning further north of Tokyo affords it significantly cooler summer temperatures.

Nagano City offers excellent hotel options, and sights to see such as the Zenkoji Temple and Olympic Stadium Park, a remnant of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics.

However, to get the most of the lower temperatures that summer in Nagano offers, you really need to get out of the city. Omachi, about one hour by car from Nagano City, offers great views of the Japan Alps alongside plenty of options for local food and drink, natural hot spring baths, and local historical landmarks. I especially recommend “Oyaki,” a popular local snack. Oyaki is made with local vegetables, herbs and spices packed inside a little pocket of mochi (Japanese dumpling). My personal favourite is the spicy radish (daikon) oyaki, but be careful it's very, very hot and definitely not for the faint-hearted. Omachi also does a fine line in local craft beers, which as I said earlier, is perfect to take the edge off that summer heat.

4. Yamanashi

Mt Fuji seen from Lake Ashi in Hakone
Photo by Quercus acuta via Wikimedia Commons

Sandwiched between three more popular prefectures for tourists (Shizuoka, Tokyo, and Nagano) Yamanashi is an area of Japan all too often overlooked by visitors from overseas. However, for those prepared to go off the beaten path a little, especially in summer time, Yamanashi offers another excellent getaway from the Tokyo heat and humidity.

Firstly, although most travelers tend to approach Mount Fuji from the Shizuoka side, the mountain itself is actually located in Yamanashi. As such, there are a number of great inns, hotels and resorts around the base of the mountain, that offer great views and relaxation opportunities and the higher elevation again means things are a lot cooler than you’ll find in Tokyo.

Large torch and torii gate at night
Yoshida Fire Festival. Photo by Sakaori via Wikimedia Commons

One particular highlight to look forward to in Yamanashi in the summer is the Yoshida Fire Festival. The two day festival takes place on August 26th and 27th each year, to symbolize the end of the climbing season on Mount Fuji nearby. If you’ve conquered the big one this summer, then this festival is the perfect opportunity to kick back and bask in your accomplishment as you get merry with the locals.

5. Niigata

Dolphin jumping at Marinepia Nihonkai aquarium
Photo by まつもと あんぱく via Wikimedia Commons

Last but most definitely not least on today’s list is the coastal region of Niigata. Viewed by many as the place where central Japan ends and northern Japan begins, the calm waters of the Sea of Japan ensure that even summer doesn’t get too hot around here. And when temperatures do get too high, there are plenty of beaches dotted along the coastline to give you the perfect opportunity to cool off in the clear waters of the west Japan coast.

Another way to escape the summer sun is of course to head indoors. A trip to the world famous Niigata aquarium, perhaps rivalled only by Osaka’s Kaiyukan for the crown of best place to see ocean life on the Japanese mainland, is an absolute must see for anyone visiting this place in summertime.

As you can see, Japan has no shortage of options for those of us feeling the heat this summer. Get the sun cream on, pick out your favourite hat, jump on a train and let’s see what’s out there!

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