Oh, summer in Japan! That time of year when you hear the tune of cicadas any time you set foot outside your door, and when eating multiple ice cream cones a day is perfectly acceptable. Japan in summer is when locals began to don mega-visors, UV umbrellas, arm protector sleeves and hand towels because it’s so hot and humid that you literally need to wipe the sweat off your brow. In short, summer in Japan is serious business!
As you probably already know, Sam and I love finding a good airline deal, so when we found cheap flights to Japan over the summer months, we booked it! I mean, we had already spent time backpacking in Southeast Asia – surely we could handle the heat, right?
Well, boy, oh boy, was summer in Japan a lot hotter than we were expecting!
We were there from May to July, and while things started out easy enough, sweltering temperatures soon followed.
May was springlike; we enjoyed warm days with a light breeze, perfect for long days of strolling. June marked the start of the rainy season with the arrival of ‘tsuyu’, also known as the plum rain. At this point, the non-rainy days were starting to get hot and muggy, but the temperatures would pale in comparison to what we would experience in July.
July brought heat and humidity like I hope to never experience again. There’s a day etched in my memory when the ‘feels like’ temperature was 48°C! I could not believe the temperatures I was reading on my phone and needless to say I could not function.
How to survive summer in Japan
I’m not going to tell you summer travel in Japan is easy, but there are ways to make it a bit more bearable. Though I’d recommend visiting Japan in the shoulder season, I realize that for some people, summer might be the only time of year they have to travel to Japan. We can’t always be choosy with the time of year we have to travel, so if you’re going to visit Japan in summer, here are my tips!
1) Plan to visit cooler destinations
I would advise against lingering in the big cities over the summer months. It’s not just the high temperatures and humidity, but the fact that cities trap and retain heat and it becomes a sweltering concrete jungle with nowhere to escape (okay, maybe a local park).
Our strategy for summer travel in Japan was to include some cooler destinations. We still wanted to see the big cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, but we also included mountain escapes (we day tripped to Mount Takao and visited Nikko) and we spent time in the Japanese Alps (specifically Takayama and Shirakawa-go).
If you’re really serious about finding some cooler temperatures, you can travel further north to Hokkaido, Japan’s second-largest island and northernmost prefecture. Summer temperatures there average about 20°C!
2) Go sightseeing in the early morning / late afternoon
If you want to avoid the hottest times of day, you’re going to have to adjust your sightseeing schedule. We started doing our sightseeing in the early hours of the morning and the late hours of the afternoon in order to avoid the heat (a strategy that we adopted during our very first backpacking trip in Southeast Asia).
This worked well with free attractions like hikes to scenic viewpoints, visits to local shrines, and some neighbourhood exploration.
This is obviously not something that can be done if you’re wanting to visit a particular temple, palace, or attraction that has set hours of operation, but we planned accordingly.
Visiting some attractions at sunrise also had the added benefit that we had these places almost all to ourselves. It was nice getting to experiences places like Fushimi Inari Taisha and Arashiyama Bamboo Forest with hardly anyone else there.
3) Include some indoor activities in your schedule
If you’re visiting Japan in summer, there will be some days when it’s unbearably hot and humid and other days when you experience torrential downpours. On days like these, it’s good to have some indoor activities where you can stay cool and dry.
We opted for indoor activities like cat cafes, retro arcades, and shopping centres – any place that had AC!
4) Eat summer dishes to stay cool
One thing we noticed in Japan is that the cuisine is very seasonal and that there are certain summer dishes to help you cool down.
These include things like cold ramen noodles with fresh vegetables, shaved ice, mochi stuffed with fresh fruit, and eel which is said to help you recover from summer heat fatigue.
Another unique summer food experience in Japan is ‘nagashi somen. This is a thin white noodle that is placed on a bamboo slide with water. As these noodles come by, you have to catch them with chopsticks and dip them in a sauce.
And we can’t forget soft-serve ice cream and all the unusual flavours available in Japan.
5) Carry a UV umbrella or parasol
Prior to visiting Japan in summer, I had no idea that UV umbrellas were a thing, but then I started noticing that all the umbrellas people were carrying had a silver UV blocker (looks like this).
I used my rain umbrella to shield myself from the sun, but it doesn’t quite have the same effect since regular umbrellas actually trap the heat!
If you burn easily, do as the locals do and grab a UV umbrella to sightsee during the hottest times of day.
6) Pack a light summer wardrobe
When packing, think light and breezy, with the chance of rain. That means breathable materials like linen and light cotton for everyday wear, fast-drying athletic shirts for active days, and things like a rain jacket and umbrella for the heavy rains.
You’ll also want to pack a sunhat, sunglasses and sunscreen.
7) Bring comfortable shoes
I don’t know about you guys, but my feet swell in the heat and humidity! For summer sightseeing in Japan, I’d recommend packing comfortable walking sandals. I packed a few different shoes but ended up mostly wearing my Tevas.
8) Carry a fan
We saw lots of locals using mini battery-powered handheld fans (like these), but a simple paper fan will do. If you’re looking for a free fan to do the trick, they usually hand them out at beauty and skin-care stores as part of their marketing.
9) Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
We always made sure to bring lots of water with us, and we also found ourselves stopping at convenience stores and vending machines to grab sports drinks.
The nice thing about travel in Japan is that you’re never too far from a 7Eleven, Family Mart or Lawsons where you can buy a drink and get a break from the heat in an air-conditioned space.
Pros of visiting Japan in summer
This blog post is starting to read like a huge warning against visiting Japan in summer, so let’s take a step back and talk about some of the pros:
- Lower rates for accommodations. Most people flock to Japan in spring for cherry blossom season and fall for autumn foliage. However, since there are fewer tourists during the summer months, you can find better deals on accommodations.
- There are lots of summer festivals. Numerous ‘matsuri’ take place in Japan during the summer months, the biggest of which are accompanied by floats, parades, music, food and general festivities.
- You can see lots of fireworks. The Sumida River Fireworks Festival which is held in Tokyo each July is the oldest recorded fireworks festival in the country, dating back to 1733, and a great reason to visit Japan in summer.
- It’s music festival season. There are lots of summer music festivals to attend, two of the biggest being Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic.
- Climbing season on Mount Fuji. The official climbing season is between early July to mid-September when the trails and mountain facilities are open. During this brief window, the mountain is typically snow-free and the weather is milder. The perfect time to tick hiking Mount Fuji off your bucket list!
- You can cool down in beer gardens. That’s right – outdoor patio season is in full swing.
- Enjoy beach time. If you relish the heat, you may want to head down to Okinawa for surf and beach time.
- It’s cooler in the north. This is a great excuse to visit Northern Japan – in Hokkaido the summer average is around 20°C.
When is the best time to travel in Japan?
Each season comes with its own pros and cons. You can get a better idea of temperatures across Japan by month here.
Spring: Springtime in Japan brings milder temperatures and cherry-blossom season, but there’s also a higher number of visitors. Golden Week, a span of 4 national holidays over the course of 7 days, also happens in the springtime, making it one of the busiest times of year to travel in Japan.
Summer: As you already know from reading this article, summertime in Japan brings an oppressive heat and humidity with strong rains and typhoons, but you can escape to cooler destinations in the north of the country. One of the advantages of summer in Japan is that there are many music festivals, cultural festivals and fireworks festivals. Summer brings a busy calendar with lots of events to choose from.
Autumn: Autumn in Japan means the temperatures begin to cool down, though it’s still warm with a risk of typhoons earlier in the season. Then there’s the autumn foliage, with the colours arriving in the northern part of the country first and slowly spreading south. The foliage viewing opportunities attract both national and international visitors.
Winter: Then there’s winter in Japan. The best places to experience snow are in Hokkaido to the north, the Japanese Alps, and the coast facing the Sea of Japan. Winter brings fewer tourists, but if you’re okay bundling up, you can enjoy crisp winter days.
Have you visited Japan in summer?
What would you say is the best season to travel to Japan?