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When’s the best time to visit Japan?
Every month, our Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist Amy Tadehara brings us insider knowledge on how to access semi-impenetrable experiences, avoid crowds, and find hidden delights well away from those tourist-worn pathways.
Amy’s extensive experience of Japan includes four years teaching English in Sendai, where she had the chance to truly become immersed in the country. This month, she’s letting us in on the secret of which is the perfect time of year to visit Japan.
See off the winter with a trip to view the plum blossoms
Japan’s cherry blossoms are famed throughout the world, but I’d recommend a worthy alternative in the lesser-known plum blossoms, which bloom in February and early March, and typically mark the end of winter in Japan. I really prefer the plum blossoms for their colors, which are typically more vibrant; while cherry blossoms are a dainty white-pink, plum blossoms are a darker, richer shade.
Plum blossoms emerge towards the end of winter, and though the weather will be pretty mild by then, the time of year will mean that there should be far fewer crowds. Given the fact that the plum blossoms aren’t particularly famous outside of Japan, unlike the cherry blossoms, you’re in for a unique Japanese experience, well off the radar of most tourists.
You can see plum blossoms in Tokyo, Kyoto, as well as the often-overlooked garden Kairaku-en in Mito. Getting there takes roughly two hours from Tokyo and Nikko or train. And therefore you could easily do this as a day trip while based in Tokyo – perhaps even as one of our self-driven tours.
Bonus: Also while in Mito, you may want to check out nearby Kasama for its local pottery!
For alternative cherry blossoms viewing, leave Kyoto behind and venture north
Cherry blossom season in northern Japan arrives later than in Kyoto, typically from late April to early May. The cherry blossoms in towns throughout Tohoku are every bit as beautiful as those in Kyoto (a pretty tree is a pretty tree no matter where it grows, right?), only without the busloads of tourists and the steep prices.
You can also check out cherry blossoms in the northern cities of Sendai, Aomari or Akita. Particularly elegant views can be found at Kakunodate, an old samurai town famous for the hundreds of weeping cherry trees lining its streets.
With over 20 different cherry tree varieties, all with different blooming times, cherry blossom season is usually longer in this part of the country. During this period the trees are lit up in the evenings until 10pm, and a cherry blossom festival is held on the fourth Sunday of April.
Bonus: You can experience the cherry blossoms in Sendai on our self-guided adventure, Northern Highlights.
For the best of autumn leaves, head south
To avoid the crowds and experience Japan’s bodacious autumnal colors, head south to Hiroshima and Shikoku in mid-November. There are several pleasant spots to view the changing of the seasons. I recommend checking out Kosanaji Temple in Onomichi; a small, seaside, fishing town that is really good for people watching. The Temple Walk is a nice activity to explore the town. Stay here for a bit, for an off-the-beaten path place to relax, or stop off here before cycling the Shimanami Kaido to Shikoku. Our Secrets of Shikoku itinerary can be adapted to incorporate this experience!!
Head to Japan in late November for Winter Illuminations
Spectacular light festivals take place across Japan between November and December. While there are many such events around, I’d suggest checking out the ‘Midosuji Illumination’ in Osaka. For those looking to go a little further afield, I’d also recommend the Ashikaga Flower Fantasy in Tochigi, which offers an experience that sits happily between ‘dazzling’ and ‘kitsch’, with over four million LED lights covering almost every corner of the park.
Some of the more eye-catching attractions include several large, continually-changing LED screens which cycle though creative imagery; music-synchronized light shows; light tunnels and LED chains hung from the same lattices the flowers hang from in the spring. The Ashikaga Flower Fantasy runs longer than most similar events, from late October to early February, and is around two and a half hours by train from Tokyo, making it a great and quirky day trip.
Bonus: Like what you’re reading? Release your inner moth and head towards the light by adding a day trip to the Ashikaga Flower Fantasy on one of our self-guided adventures.
Enjoyed Amy’s travel tips? Request our latest brochure now!
Like Amy, each of our dedicated experts at InsideJapan Tours has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for years. We are continuously revisiting and testing in order to offer you intimate knowledge and expert care that other tour operators simply cannot offer. Our exclusive, fully tailored itineraries feature personal, behind-the-scenes, one-of-a-kind opportunities, and moments that will leave you awestruck. With a regional ops center in Nagoya and a field office in Tokyo, we can offer clients assistance in real-time. Leave it with us; we’ll pull off the seemingly impossible and spare you the logistics.
Feel like checking out some of these experiences in more detail? Take a look at our Winter Highlights tour!