Japan is perhaps best known for its natural beauty, vibrant food scene and loyalty to tradition. Rugged alpine peaks and rows of cherry blossom trees envelop imperial cities and sacred temples, forming a landscape unlike any other. Modern culture clashes with bustling markets and 17th-century shrines, giving visitors a taste of traditional ceremonies and customs in addition to everyday life. While it might not appear on every traveler’s radar, Japan contains a cultural elegance and nationwide accessibility that truly make it a must-see for anyone planning an adventure abroad.
Backroads Pro Tip
Japan has an amazing public transportation system, so if you plan on hopping around a bit or traveling to places you might not be able to reach by bike, it’s worth purchasing a rail pass. The pass is valid on all Japan Rail trains (including many high-speed trains) and covers a lot of ground, reaching both small and large cities. Depending on what type of pass you get, it will cost you around $30 (USD) per day.
Weather in Japan
(All temperatures quoted are in Fahrenheit.)
The most popular time to visit Japan, spring is not only ideal for its mild temperatures but for the blooming sakura (cherry blossoms). Since the country is spread out over thousands of miles and has a number of islands, the weather varies greatly from region to region. Expect 60–70 degrees in the south, though, and 40–50 degrees farther north.
Though the summer heat can sometimes be quite hot, this is a good time of year to head up north to the mountains. June also marks rainy season throughout most of the country, with the exception of some northern cities, such as Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido.
Though somewhat unpredictable, fall weather is generally mild, making autumn a good time to visit Japan. September is sometimes subject to typhoons, but luckily they travel fairly slowly and are easy to monitor, so it’s possible to adjust travel plans accordingly. With low humidity levels and the leaves beginning to change colors, October is also a great time to visit. Just pack layers if you plan on visiting multiple regions.
A less popular time of year to visit, winter is great for both ski bums and those looking to avoid crowds. Temperatures are definitely on the chilly side—they average about 40 degrees in the south and 20 degrees up north—but they’re bearable if you come prepared. Some food festivals and other special events also take place throughout the winter.
Japan’s “cherry blossom viewing” is an annual celebration that extends from early March to late May. Many locals often have picnics and outdoor parties under the trees during sakura season. Since it’s generally warmer in the south, cherry blossoms often bloom there first. Sometimes this happens as early as January. Shinjuku Gyoen in Tokyo, the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto and the Fuji Five Lakes region are all prime viewing locations during the heart of sakura season.
Just off the coast (south of Tokyo), a handful of islands are famous for their dolphin viewing. Though dolphins can be seen almost year-round, visiting from late spring through fall gives you the best chance of sightings. Note, Japan has received a lot of negative media attention over the years for its dolphin treatment, so if you’re looking to see these beauties, visit them in the wild and not at a show.
Japan’s rich history and culture are exemplified through its traditional celebrations. A number of noteworthy festivals and experiences occur throughout the year:
Also known as Japanese New Year, Shogatsu takes place every January 1, with celebrations starting the night before. In honor of arguably the country’s most important holiday, most businesses shut down from January 1–3. Homes are generally decorated with ornaments, soba noodles (symbolizing longevity) are served, and locals pay visits to shrines and temples.
Yuki Matsuri, or Sapporo Snow Festival (February)
Held over the first week of February, the Sapporo Snow Festival takes place in Hokkaido and is spread out over three main sites: Odori Park, Susukino and Tsudome. Extravagant ice sculptures take over most of Odori Park, many reaching as high as 15 meters (almost 50 feet). The Tsudome is the most family-friendly location, offering slides, rafting, food stands and a variety of entertainment.
Marking the day before the first of spring, Setsubun is associated with the lunar calendar and is celebrated through traditional festivals. (It’s not, however, considered an official national holiday.) Setsubun is sometimes referred to as the “Japanese bean-throwing festival” due to the ritualistic tossing of dried soybeans, or fuku mame (fortune beans).
Hina Matsuri (March)
This quirky, unconventional holiday celebrates the lives of young girls across Japan through ornamental doll displays. While Hina Matsuri started more than a thousand years ago, Japanese parents continue it today to pray for happiness and health of their daughters. The dolls are not only associated with the holiday but are a great example of traditional Japanese craftwork.
Golden Week (April–May)
To the Japanese, Golden Week is more than a set of holidays; it’s a vacation. Showa Day, Constitution Day, Green Day and Children’s Day are all celebrated in a single week from the end of April through the beginning of May. Outdoor festivals, blooming flower gardens and a number of big-city events are a few of the main attractions. Unless plans are made way in advance, it’s best to avoid many of Japan’s popular cities and sights during Golden Week.
Gion Matsuri (July)
The Gion Festival takes place in Kyoto and spans the entire month of July. Also known as the “Festival of the Yasaka Shrine,” it’s considered one of the most famous events in Japan. The celebration is characterized by its procession floats, which reach as high as 50 feet and weigh up to 12 tons. The evenings are the most exciting, though. They’re marked by bustling streets full of food stands and other festival vendors.
Cherry blossom season and Golden Week are both peak travel times in Japan, meaning larger crowds and a sharp rise in prices throughout the country. Mid-August and the end of September (also known as “Silver Week”) can also be somewhat busy but are much more relaxed. Certain towns and regions, such as Hokkaido and Okinawa, are relatively quiet year-round.
Home to Mount Fuji and the Japanese Alps, this Asian country fully embraces hiking as a popular pastime. Scenic treks are often the only way to reach the sacred shrines and quaint villages that are characteristic of rural Japan. The Kansai region is a great area to view changing leaves in the fall, while Kamikochi National Park is an ideal destination for adventurers as well.
Containing a number of high-quality ski resorts and mountainside towns, Japan is a severely underrated destination for winter sports. Niseko, Happo One and Sapporo Teine are just a few popular ski and snowboard areas. Powder seekers should consider visiting in January, while spring skiing in March and April is great for avoiding crowds.
One of the better-kept travel secrets, Japan’s diverse marine life, sandy beaches and extensive coastline make for a diving destination that rivals countries like Thailand and the Maldives. The Okinawa Prefecture in the country’s southern region is a good place to start, boasting warmer water than the north and more than 150 islands open to explore. Shipwrecks, coral reefs, sea turtles, dolphins and manta rays are just a few common sights.
Travel to Japan with Backroads
Backroads offers numerous ways to experience the very best of Japan on our award-winning active travel adventures. Explore this country in the best and most genuine way possible—away from the crowds, buses and tourist hot spots. We hope you'll join us! Check out our full list of Japan adventures here.
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