Seasonal Things to Do in Japan

Seasonal Things to Do in Japan

Japan is a country that is proud of having its four seasons. It is also a country where temporary is a way of living. So, in order to enjoy fully each season without missing anything, let's see what are the seasonal things one can do or experience in Japan.

Spring

1. Cherry Blossom and Picnics

Well, there is no simple way to describe the importance of cherry blossom for the Japanese. Its meaning is deep in the culture, traditions, mind and soul of the people here, and it can't be missed. In occasion of the event, which is very short-lived, people organize picnics at parks and any other places (here cemeteries offer good spots for viewing the flowers) in order to take all the magic of the cherry blossoms in. Even at night, cherry trees at popular spots in the city and gardens are lit up.

Picnic in a park

2. Lunar New Year

An inheritance from the Chinese calendar, the Japanese celebrate the lunar new year as well. Not in full, like the Chinese, but they somewhat observe the events, as the celebrations mark the beginning of spring. In the Chinatowns of Japan, though, celebrations are in order so a visit to those neighborhoods will pay off.

Lunar new year lantern decorations in Yokohama Chinatown

3. Tateyama Alpine Route

Photo by Dai Fujihara on Flickr.

Although this may seem a winter-related activity, it is not. In Toyama prefecture, there is a plain that sits 2,500m above sea level. It gets some of the biggest snow fall in the world every year, with the result that roads are all covered under meters of snow. When spring comes, alpine roads can be fully opened again by excavating through the snow, creating high walls (about 20 meters high) on both sides of the road. This route is also known as Yuki no otani, literally meaning snow wall, and will hold ore or less until June.

4. Spring Festivals

Every season in Japan comes with its bag of festivals. There are plenty to chose all over the country. Around Tokyo, the most famous ones are the Sanja Festival in May and the Kanda Festival, where teams of different neighborhoods compete in carrying heavy shrines along the streets, and the Kanamara Festival, held in Kawasaki to celebrate fertility and definitely a must see for its peculiarity.

Men carrying a float during a parade

5. Hiking

Although I prefer mountain walks in autumn, the awakening of nature makes hiking very enjoyable. Everything starts turning green and lush, days get longer and warmer, and more sunlight means more overall wellness. Activities in the open are definitely worth a try.

Lush green forest in spring

6. Flowers and More Flowers

It is true that the cherry blossom is the symbol of spring. But cherry trees are just among the first ones to bloom (right after the plum trees). During the entire spring and well into the summer season, other blossom festivals are held around the country. Among the most famous flowers are the wonderful wisterias of Ashikaga Flower Park in Tochigi prefecture. Azaleas (tsutsuji) are also blooming around late March and early April, and dedicated parks and gardens explode with colors during that period. Another famous event is the Shibazakura Festival, around middle to late May, in the Fuji five lakes area. Hydrangeas close the season, arriving together with the monsoon.

Azaleas in Nezu, Tokyo

Summer

1. Fireworks Displays

Instead of using fireworks to celebrate for some special events, accomplishments or recurrences, the Japanese like to enjoy their fireworks in summer, for basically no reason other than because it gives a great evening show. Starting in July, as soon as the rainy season wears off, the whole country gets in an explosive frenzy and crowd all open spaces around the firework shooting sites. The truth is that all firework makers compete to create the most amazing firework show, and people are never disappointed. In the end, it all turns into a festival, with people wearing the traditional summer kimono, and food stalls popping up everywhere. Very famous ones in Tokyo are near the Sumida River, Tokyo Bay, and the Yokohama Bay fireworks.

Final round of fireworks

2. Summer Festivals

New season, new festivals. In addition to the fireworks, several others are held across the country: Gion matsuri in Kyoto, with parades and events for an entire month, Awa Odori in Tokushima, the most loved dance with dozens of groups competing for a title, and the Tanabata Festival (the most famous one being in Sendai), that celebrates love through a tale about a couple (two stars) separate by a river (the milky way) and able to reunite only once a year.

Tanabata festival lanterns

3. Outdoor Dining and Beer Gardens

With the rainy season at the beginning and the typhoon season at the end of summer, there isn't much time left to enjoy some good terrace dining. But, considering how hot it can be in the city during summertime, it is good to see that more and more restaurants and bars try to get those tables out to please customers with a meal on a terrace or rooftop. The Japanese love beer and create plenty of occasions to make sure they can drink more of it. Since it is very hot and humid during summer, a cold beer can help to survive. Beer gardens are set up everywhere, with an added German theme that continues on until October with several Octoberfests.

People enjoying drinks outside

4. Riverside BBQ

Depending on the city's regulations, cooking food on a charcoal grill may or may not be allowed. In the case of Tokyo, for example, BBQs are allowed along the Tama River that separates Tokyo and Kanagawa prefectures. But BBQ is allowed only on the Kanagawa side of the river, and summertime sees hordes of people setting up tents and grill equipment and turn the riverbank into an open air BBQ family picnic.

5. The Beach

The Japanese are in general not fond of suntanning, as they prefer to be pale. The more south one goes, though, and the more towards the coast, things change. In season, which is only July and August, all beach houses and facilities are open and beaches are kept clean. Still, the seaside is not as exploited as what we would imagine, and there are a lot of restrictions and limitations. That said, a dip in the ocean helps to cool down nonetheless.

A beach in Shimoda

6. Celebration of Ancestors

Typically the second week of August, the souls of the ancestors are remembered with dances, known as bon odori, and with lanterns let floating on rivers or sea. This week is commonly known as O-bon week, and people take this chance to return to their home towns to pay homage to their dear ones that have passed away.

Lanterns floating on Sumida river

7. Climb Mt. Fuji

This is possible only for the months of July and August, when the weather is more or less stable and the climb is not that hazardous. Each season, many are the people who want to conquer the tallest mountain in Japan, and bring home images of the sunrise from the crater.

Fall

1. Hiking

Autumn is, in my opinion, the best season for hiking. Japan being a country of volcanic origin, there are several mountain ranges for all levels of hikers. Hiking routes with views of Mt. Fuji are the most popular, as this volcano is the most iconic symbol of Japan, but there are also several other routes with as beautiful views as this. Usually, a mere one hour ride from the main cities is enough to find oneself in the mountains, like Chiba area or even the west part of Tokyo. Gorges are often the destination of hiking trips, like the Shosenkyo, Takachiko, Kurobe gorges for example. In short, exploring nature is the most enjoyable activity, especially this time of the year.

Shosenkyo gorge hike

2. Red Leaves

Known as Koyo in Japanese, it is another phenomenon the Japanese look forward to, and another reason why hiking is even more inspiring during this season. The mix of colors, all varying from green to red, can be seen everywhere, but it is in the wild nature where one can experience it in full shades. A stroll by a park in November, where one can find a good mix of evergreens, maple (turns red), and gingko (turns yellow) together with cherry trees will also suffice. Nikko, the Fuji lakes area, Miyajima island and Rikugien garden are some of the most famous spots for watching the foliage.

Foliage in a park

3. Harvest Moon Festival

The custom of celebrating the full moon in September was inherited from China. The ritual is meant to pray for a good harvest, with offerings of potatoes, sake and rice cakes, on top of celebrating the beauty of the full moon. People gather outside just to admire the brightness of the moon, which is said to be the brightest of the whole year. There are various festivals all over Japan, some of which include floating lantern displays.

4. Observe Traditional Archery Performances

In occasion of two holidays in Japan, it is possible to admire some traditional sports at some major temples all over Japan. In occasion of sports day, in October, it is possible to witness the Kyudo archery, which consists in archers in traditional wear, both male and female, holding very long bows and aiming at targets at a fixed distance. On Culture Day, in November, it is usual to see Yabusame or horseback archery performances. Archers wear traditional wears as well and while riding on horseback they compete in hitting a series of targets on several rounds.

Archery at Yasukuni temple in Tokyo

5. Autumn Festivals

Of, course, there are festivals for this season as well. To celebrate the birthday of the Meiji era emperor, a three-day festival is held early November in Tokyo's Meiji shrine. Another famous fall festival is the Takayama one, actually held twice a year in spring and in fall, featuring impressive floats carried around the streets and night lanterns. The Jidai festival in Kyoto is also one of its kind, with a parade of characters that reenact the imperial court members of the Heian period, when fashion was at its most daring and luxurious (from that period came even a 12 layered kimono model).

6. Halloween Parades

The not at all Japanese tradition of celebrating Halloween picked up in Japan so well that now costume parades are held everywhere in Japan. Tokyo's notorious Shibuya crossing can't get more infamous than at Halloween, when streets are literally packed with people in all sorts of costumes and walking is impossible.

One of the costumes of the Kawasaki Halloween parade

Winter

1. Ski and Snowboard

I would say that the top thing to do in this season is skiing. Bullet train stations are found at the main mountain hubs just a few hours away from Tokyo, allowing day trips. Snow lovers will definitely enjoy the Japanese alps and their top class snow. Even more, the mountains of Hokkaido, or north-west Japanese prefectures of Yamagata and Aomori will offer chances of skiing even late into spring, offering the best powder, on and off piste (around the designated back country skiing areas!!).

Skiing in Hakuba

2. Snow Festival in Hokkaido

Every February, the city of Sapporo is literally invaded by thousands of visitors for the yearly snow festival. Snow and ice sculptures are created and displayed along the main city boulevard, and are illuminated at night. This is definitely a great appointment not to be missed. The nearby city of Asahikawa offers a similar, but quieter, festival.

3. City Illumination

Starting end of November, pretty much all cities in Japan put up Christmas lights. Big cities also have designated sites for such displays, which can either follow a different theme each year or can propose again the same old theme. Most of the illumination set up though, is over right after Christmas Day, but in some cases they last way longer. For example, the Kobe Luminarie even is held around early December to remember the tragic earthquake that hit the city in the 90's. Tokyo Midtown complex and Shiodome are the two main sites for illumination in the big metropolis, although a night stroll along any main neighborhood street will suffice. The Sagami Lake Illumination is also a sight to behold.

Christmas illumination in Omotesando, Tokyo

4. Watch the Coming of Age Ceremony

In January, all young men and women of age 20 all dress up in their best kimono (or formal suit for men) and visit a temple to receive a blessing for the beginning of adulthood. They also visit their ward offices, as the matter is made official with some seals and paperworks. On that day, the second Monday in January, take a walk around the major city temples and shrines and your hunger of Japanese traditions will be satisfied.

Young women at a temple

5. New Year Traditions

If anyone is interested in doing very much Japanese traditional stuff, then the new year is a great time for that. People use to go to a temple to wait for the midnight bell sound (108 times in total), and then to pray. Another common thing to do is to stay up (or wake up in time) to watch the first sunrise of the year.

6. Fire Festivals

These festivals have roots in religious traditions, although I guess they are held also in order to warm up during the cold months. Famous ones are the Nara fire festival, or the Dosojin festival in Nozawaonsen which are held in January. Fukuoka also has its own fire festival, Oniyo, also held in January.

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