Find all the tips you need for an unforgettable getaway as we uncover the most unique stays in Asia.
In spring, Japan is blanketed in pretty pink sakura (cherry blossoms) luring travellers from across the globe. With a new season, a new journey begins.
Given their importance on the Japanese calendar, it should come as no surprise that there’s a government agency dedicated to predicting where and when the cherry blossoms will appear. The Japan Meteorological Corporation each year publishes a forecast of when the “sakura” will bloom in various parts of the country. See jnto.go.jp for more.
It happens in a wave that slowly engulfs the country, a movement that rolls from the southern tip of Okinawa to the very north of Hokkaido: cherry blossom season. Every spring, for only a few weeks, these white flowers, a symbol of Japan, a perfect representation of the Japanese appreciation for all things natural, simple and beautiful, open up around the country. This is “Hanami”, the cherry blossom season, and it’s so much more than the simple appearance of a few flowers.
To the Japanese, Hanami is the highlight of spring, if not the climax of the entire year. The blooming of the cherry trees is a sign that winter is over, that the warmer months will soon arrive, and that it’s time to get outside and enjoy the change. Many Japanese families will spend an entire day in their favourite cherry blossom viewing spot, having a picnic on the grass, drinking champagne with strawberries, endlessly photographing the flowers, chatting and relaxing. This is as much a social engagement as anything else, a chance to dress in traditional costume and come out to enjoy the sunshine.
For tourists, the attraction is twofold: looking at the flowers, and looking at those partaking in Hanami. To do both of these things, there are several extremely popular spots around the country: Hirosaki Castle, a beautiful old building in Aomori that’s surrounded each year by white blooms; Maruyama Park, a picturesque spot in Kyoto; and Nara Park, in the city of the same name, which is usually overrun by herds of wild deer.
Even if you miss Hanami, however, there’s plenty to do in Japan during spring, plenty that’s unique to this part of the world. Of course, this being Japan, there are festivals: in Tokyo there’s Sanja Matsuri, where more than 2 million people come to witness the carrying of a shrine around the Asakusa district; in Sapporo there’s Yosakoi Soran, a festival of dance; in Kyoto, meanwhile, there’s Aoi Matsuri, a parade of more than 500 people dressed in imperial court fashions.
Spring is also a great time to visit Fuji Q, a huge theme park set at the base of Mount Fuji, and it’s also the time for sumo. Every May, these huge athletes gather in Tokyo for the “Sumo Summer Basho”, a series of three tournaments. Tourists can easily secure tickets to any of these events through stubhub.com, and will witness a sport that’s as much ceremony and tradition as it is a fierce battle for victory.
Summer in Japan lasts from about June to mid-September, depending on the location. Summers are hot and humid.
Though it wasn’t always the case, credit cards such as American Express are now widely accepted throughout Japan. Most hotels will accept payment with your American Express, as will many tour companies and attractions, plus most restaurants that fit into the higher tier of dining, price-wise, will happily take credit card payments.
As with so much that’s great about Japan – the food, the landscapes, the lifestyle – the attractions for travellers change with the seasons. Summer in Japan is a time of celebration, the perfect opportunity to see the country and its citizens at their most festive and outgoing. It can sometimes feel like the sky is filled with fireworks every night in the warmer months, as if there’s some sort of festival happening daily.
Historic Kyoto is the seat of former emperors and the home of some of Japan’s most beautiful temples . The city comes alive in summer with festivals and other celebrations, and the biggest of these is Gion Matsuri, which runs for the entire month of July. Highlighted by a huge procession of floats on July 17, some of these floats are up to 25 metres tall, and weigh 12 tonnes. Tourists can watch from July 10 to 14 as they’re assembled, without the use of any nails, before they’re paraded through town.
Summer in Kyoto is also the perfect time to experience a stay in a ryokan, a traditional inn that will reveal so much about the city and its history. At Ryokan Hirashin you can live the full Kyoto experience, staying in a tatami mat room with futon beds; spending time in the bathhouse; roaming the halls wearing a traditional yukata robe; and eating multi-course feasts of some of the city’s famous cuisine.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of other celebratory highlights taking place throughout the country in summer. In Yokohama, near Tokyo, don’t miss the International Fireworks festival in mid-July. In Tokyo in mid-August, meanwhile, the skies come alight during the Tokyo Bay Grand Fireworks Festival, while tens of thousands of dancers hit the streets for the Koenji Awaodori Festival nearby. In Osaka in July, it’s impossible to miss Tenjin Matsuri, one of the world’s largest boat festivals.
It isn’t just traditional cultural events that take over in summer, either – Western-style music festivals are also extremely popular. The Fuji Rock Festival is the best known of these, though there are plenty of others, including Sonic Mania in Chiba, Summer Sonic in Osaka, and Join Alive in Hokkaido. Summer is also baseball season in Japan – grab tickets from stubhub.com to catch some of the country’s biggest teams in action.
If that all sounds a little hectic, however, it might be time to schedule in a visit to one of Japan’s most enduringly popular summer destinations: Okinawa. This island, perched in the Pacific Ocean to the far south of mainland Japan, is known for its white-sand beaches and its laidback lifestyle. Perfect for a summer chill-out.
In contrast with cherry blossoms, autumn colours start from the north. They can be seen first at the beginning of September in Daisetsuzan.
Here’s the good news: there’s no such thing as a bad meal in Japan. Pretty much any restaurant you choose at random will do great food. However, if you really have your heart set on that Michelin-starred sushi restaurant (say, Sushi Saito in Tokyo), it’s best to book ahead – some of these eateries only fit 10 customers at a time. To secure a reservation, have your hotel concierge call to book.
Though many would associate Japan with its huge, bustling cities, the concrete jungles of Tokyo, Osaka and Yokohama, the residents of those metropolises retain an intense fascination with the natural world, and that is something that’s on display throughout autumn. From September to November, Japanese nature-lovers take to the countryside in search of the perfect autumn foliage, these vast tracts of forest that will be awash with the reds, oranges and yellows of the season.
There are several well-known spots in Japan to view this phenomenon, many of which are in the Kyoto area. In Kiyomizudera, just outside the ancient capital, witness the spectacular colours of the forest, even at night, when spotlights fill the scene as the city glows in the background. Other sites in the area include the Ooi River, Toufukuji – a temple built in 1236 – the forest of Kyoto Gyeon, and the lakeside Koudaiji. Elsewhere in the country, the onsen town of Nyuto-onsenkyo is extremely popular – particularly with a stay at Kyukamura, as is the Hitachi Seaside Park in Ibaraki prefecture, north of Tokyo. Here there’s a sea of brightly coloured flowers to walk amongst.
Autumn in Japan is traditionally a season for relaxation, for taking in the beauty of nature while recovering from some of the excesses of the summer festival season. It’s also, however, a time to appreciate another of nature’s gifts: food. There are plenty of ingredients that only appear in the autumn months, and which Japanese chefs make the absolute best of.
From September to November, keep an eye out of matsutake mushrooms, traditionally grilled over coals, and chestnuts, roasted fresh by street vendors across the country. There’s seafood, too, that’s particularly seasonal, and cherished by the Japanese: in autumn you’ll find mackerel, often served raw as sashimi; this is also the beginning of oyster season, while salmon is known to be particularly tasty at this time of year. To sample these delicacies, visit Sushi Matsumoto in Kyoto, one of the country’s best.
And finally, in case Japan wasn’t already crazy enough for you, autumn is the time of Halloween in the northern hemisphere, and this is one Western celebration that the Japanese can really get behind. In the big cities, it almost seems like the entire population has hit the streets dressed in ghoulish and sometimes bizarre outfits. The Japanese love to dress up at any time of year – Halloween is the perfect excuse to go nuts.
Thinking of visiting Japan in winter? Well, we can tell you that winter in Japan is like a fairytale with snow-covered slopes.
Before visiting an onsen, or traditional Japanese bathhouse, it’s best to check the local regulations on tattoos. Despite popular belief, some onsens do allow clients who have these markings, particularly in the tourist-friendly ski areas such as Niseko. Some, however, particularly in Tokyo, still associate tattoos with the “yakuza” crime syndicate, and ban anyone with ink.
Admittedly, winter in Japan is centred on sports that involve snow, but the activities and attractions on offer in the colder months don’t begin and end there.
As soon as the snow begins falling, many Japanese turn their attention to onsen (hot springs) culture. Though the hot springs and mineral baths across the country are open year-round, it’s winter when they really come into their own, when you can soak in a steaming pool while snow falls on a natural wonderland around you. Many of the best winter onsen destinations – the “rotenburo”, or open-air baths – are in Japan’s high country: Kita, a historic area just near Tokyo (check out Kita Onsen Ryokan); Dogashima Onsen, in the Shizuoka area, another beautiful spa area; and Jigokudani, which is famous as being not just popular as a spot to soak and stay warm for humans, but also monkeys. The snow monkeys, found at this onsen near Nagano, are some of the country’s most photographed beasts.
But still, that’s not all Japan has to offer in winter. It’s also crab season. Yes, crab has a season, in particular the produce that comes from the cold seas off the island of Hokkaido. In winter the Japanese get into some serious crab consumption, from crab sushi to crab tempura, grilled crab to crab hotpot. Try it in Osaka, at Kani Douraku, which is famous for producing some of the country’s best crab dishes. Winter is also a great time to sample shabu-shabu, the rich, hearty hotpot of beef and vegetables popular throughout the country in the colder months. Shabuzen in Kyoto has some of the best.
There are festivals to enjoy in winter in Japan, of course: the Sapporo Snow Festival, a celebration of the skill of sculptures who work only with snow and ice; New Years festivals across the country; and Yonekawa Mizukaburi – one of the country’s quirkiest festivals – where men in straw costumes and heavily painted faces throw buckets of water on houses in the Miyagi prefecture to protect them from fire.
But of course, we’re missing the main event here. Because if there’s one reason many people journey to Japan in the winter, it’s for the snow. There’s an incredible amount of the soft, powdery stuff that falls on popular ski areas such as Niseko in the north, and Hakuba on the main island. Plenty of lesser-known resorts, however, offer equally good conditions, with powder hounds flocking to the likes of Kamui Ski Links and Sahoro in Hokkaido, and Appi Kogen – Japan’s answer to Aspen – and Geto Kogen on Honshu. Wherever you choose, you’ll be amazed by the affordability, and the sheer amount of snow, that is typical of the Japanese ski scene.
Find all the tips you need for an unforgettable getaway as we uncover the most unique stays in Asia.
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