When you account for changing school schedules and the seasonal nature of many favorite family travel spots, it can be hard to make your vacation wish list line up with your available windows of time. Luckily, there’s a foolproof option at the ready: It’s never a bad time to visit Japan! No matter when you go, you’ll find ample activities for young and old alike. From spring break and summer vacation to a fall escape or the winter holidays, here’s how to make the most of the season at hand.
Spring break is a great time to visit Japan. Not only will you most likely have wonderful weather, but you’ll also have the opportunity to view the spectacular cherry blossoms in all of their glory. (Everyone wants to see these, so crowds will be at peak levels.) Make the most of this natural phenomenon by planning a trip that incorporates both Tokyo and Kyoto — you’ll be amazed by the stark difference in modern and traditional architecture contrasted with the flowers.
Stop over in Nara on your way to Kyoto. The kids will get a kick out of saying hello to the friendly deer that will bow to you and will marvel at the Otaimatsu festival at Nigatsu-do Hall. Here, giant torches are lit on the balcony, and the sight of sparks raining down (thought to ensure a safe year for those on whom they land) rivals any fireworks show. Spring also brings the Grand Sumo Tournament in March; catch a match in Osaka.
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Summer is a special season to visit, as it is filled with many celebratory festivals that will leave a lasting memory of your time in Japan. My favorite is the annual Sumidagawa Fireworks festival in Tokyo, followed closely by Gion Festival in Kyoto, which showcases large antique wooden floats. (Both take place in July.) There is energy everywhere you travel, and when you need a break from the heat and humidity, you can cool off in a cat café or play Mario Kart at an arcade in Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics district.
Combine a summer visit to Tokyo with a memorial visit to Hiroshima. If you time it right, you will be able to witness the Hiroshima Lantern Ceremony honoring those lost in the WWII bombing of the area. After paying your respects, you can spend time at Miyajima Island, known for its floating Torii gate and wonderful hiking.
If you’ve dreamed of hiking Mt. Fuji, summer is the only time you can do it — inclement weather makes it impossible after September. The hike is best done with older kids. It is a tough climb with all the volcanic ash, but the sunrise views are worth it!
Spring may be the most popular time to visit Japan, but autumn has scenery that is equally beautiful with lower crowds. Take the kids to Ueno Zoo in Tokyo, the oldest zoo in Japan, and picnic in Yoyogi Park to enjoy the autumn colors. Cozy up in the cooler weather with the Tokyo Ramen Show or at a traditional tea ceremony. And the Grand Sumo Tournament is held in Tokyo in the fall, so you don’t have to travel far to see this legendary event.
Fall is also a great time to visit Hakone. Take a tour on Lake Ashi with a view of Mt. Fuji; try the natural hot springs of the area; and visit Fuji’s safari park, where you can feed lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) from a specially outfitted vehicle as you drive through the habitats. This is also an ideal season to sample Japan’s outdoor activities, thanks to the mild weather. You may not be able to hike Fuji, but you can enjoy less labor-intensive paths in Hakone.
Japan boats some of the best skiing in the world, and it’s easy to combine a city trip with a winter wonderland adventure. You can choose to ski in Nagano (Hakuba was the location of the 1998 winter games), which is about 3 to 4 hours by train or car from Tokyo; or in Hokkaido, which requires a quick flight. Hokkaido will thrill kids and adults alike with the ice sculpture festival that starts at the end of January and makes a perfect break from ski days. Or take an excursion to watch Nagano’s famous snow monkeys enjoying the natural hot springs.
Back in the big city, you can enjoy a multitude of winter illuminations. One of the best is at Lake Sagami — filled with more than 6 million lights, it has a full amusement park as well. If you don’t want to travel too far from Tokyo, walk along the streets of the Ginza district to take in the beautiful lights and charming shops, or ice skate at the bottom of the Tokyo SkyTree before admiring the view from the top.
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