An around-the-year guide to the Land of the Rising Sun
Japan is topping more must-visit lists than ever before, pulling in over 28 million people in 2017. And with a beguiling mix of futuristic cities and frozen-in-time landscapes, it’s no wonder. From natural spectaculars and captivating festivals to the best hotels, Japan allures year round. So if you’re having trouble pinning down a date, here are our top two experiences for each season.
Cherry blossom (sakura)
Spring sweeps across the Japanese map in a brush stroke of pink blossoms, starting from southerly Okinawa in January and reaching northerly Hokkaido in early May. The blossoms in historic Kyoto draw some of the biggest crowds. For a little more peace as you appreciate the show, head to the Izu peninsula for the Kawazu Cherry Blossom Festival.
Pacific island hopping
Spring is the perfect time to explore Japan’s sub-tropical, south western islands before the weather gets too humid (or stormy). Pick up an Inter-Island flight pass to hop from the white sands of Okinawa to coral-fringed Miyakojima. Grown-up Studio Ghibli fans could bypass the crowded Ghibli Museum and visit Yakushima instead. This tiny island’s mountains and ancient, mossy cedar forests inspired the setting for Princess Mononoke.
Where to stay
Experience the Kawazu Cherry Blossom Festival from the stylish Abba Resorts Izu. Soak up the sea views from The Terrace Club at Busena in Okinawa – and the mountain horizons from Sankara Hotel & Spa Yakushima.
Escaping the city
Humid summers can make staying in cities such as Tokyo hard work. Head for the cooler climes of Hokkaido, which transforms from winter sports wonderland to summer adventure playground. Base yourself in Niseko to go rafting and hiking in the surrounding mountains.
August is a holiday month across Japan, with people taking part in countless festivals. Obon is one of the most colourful – from crowds wearing traditional yukata summer kimonos to dancers performing Bon Odori in honour of their ancestors. One event which may tempt you back to Tokyo is the Sumida-gawa Fireworks Festival – the biggest of its kind in the country.
Where to stay
Kasara Niseko Village Townhouse has just eight rooms, and puts a contemporary spin on traditional Japanese design. If you’re in Tokyo for the firework festival, Hotel Gajoen has expansive gardens ideal for relaxing in the summer heat.
Autumn ties with spring for the most comfortable time, weather-wise, to explore Japan’s cities. But, with no cherry blossom, it should be less crowded. Get to know Tokyo’s distinct neighbourhoods, from stately Chiyoda-ku (home to the Imperial Palace) and arty Meguro to tech-Mecca Akihabara Electric Town. Or take your camera to Kyoto to capture red-painted Buddhist temples, green bamboo groves and views of Mount Fuji.
Autumn colours (koyo)
If you haven’t already filled up your memory card, you certainly will if you’re still in Kyoto in November. This is when the leaves start to turn, and the temple gardens are spotted with fiery reds and deep yellows. At Jingoji Temple just north of the city, illuminations mean the show goes on until after dark.
Where to stay
A stay at the red-brick, pre-war Tokyo Station Hotel makes a fascinating contrast to the surrounding skyscrapers. For day trips into Kyoto and hillsides drenched in autumn colours, it has to be L’Hotel du Lac – not too far from Japan’s ancient capital, on the shores of Lake Biwa.
Japan may not rival Austria or France when it comes to extensive ski areas – but you’re guaranteed to have more space to yourself. Popular resorts include Niseko on Hokkaido and Karuizawa, which is easily reached from Tokyo. After a day on the slopes, warm up with seasonal favourites such as warmed sake and sizzling nabe hot pots.
Hot spring bathing
Brave the chill winter air and take part in a quintessentially Japanese experience: bathing in a hot spring (or onsen). They’re dotted all around the country’s islands, with many luxury hotels counting them among their charms. One of the most unusual is Hirauchi Kaichu on Yakushima – a rocky pool right on the beach that’s only visible at low tide. Most onsen are separated by gender, and make sure to follow local etiquette and wash before you get in.
Where to stay
Karuizawa Prince Hotel East puts the Karuizawa ski resort on your doorstep. It also has a stylish spa that includes open air onsen.