So you've decided you want to come visit Japan. Great! Now all you have to do is figure out when...
Japanese locals are famous for their insistence that the changing of the four seasons is one of the things that makes Japan special. (They're always shocked to hear that yes, the leaves change color in North America and Europe as well) They're not wrong, as the yearly cycle in Japan is quite stunning and dramatic.
So when's the best time to come to Kyoto? I'll tell you the answer up front: any time of year is great here. However, picking the right time to visit can mean a big difference between comfortable or difficult weather and the ability to attend special events in Kyoto's cultural calendar, and it also affects things like seasonal food and sightseeing scheduling. Here's a breakdown of each season, with some pros and cons for each time of year.
This is the Japan that most visitors want to see: cherry blossoms, comfortable temperatures, colorful kimonos, and lots of sweet treats. The cherry blossoms usually peak in Kyoto in the first half of April, and enjoying the flowers in the park with a bottle of sake and multicolored dango rice dumplings is one of the most sought after activities at this time of year.
Be warned that the blossoms draw massive crowds of both foreign and domestic tourists, so hotel prices go way up and rooms sell out fast. Trains and sightseeing locations can be crowded as well during peak times. Many other flowers start blooming in May, and by the middle of the month the countryside is green and lush. It's a wonderful time to visit Japan if you don't mind the crowds.
The temperature in spring can still fluctuate day to day and the evenings can get chilly, so it's a good idea to pack a medium weight jacket just in case. Overall, it remains pleasant, with May being one of the most comfortable months of the year. However, spring can be harsh on people who suffer from seasonal allergies. The cedar trees here produce massive amounts of pollen that cause all sorts of problems for people, and it peaks just as the cherry blossoms are opening. Be careful what allergy medicine you bring from home, as a number of common western allergy relief medicines are actually illegal here. Check out the medicine section of our article about what to bring to Japan for more info.
In mid May, the Aoi Festival takes places with a procession between the Imperial Palace and several shrines in the northern part of the city. This colorful event showcases a number of traditional costumes from the Heian Era, dating back to the early days of Kyoto's founding as a city.
Despite their constant complaints of how hot is it, I think that Japanese people love summer the most out of all the seasons. It's the time of year when you're allowed to be a little more relaxed and take things slow, when every single conversation begins with a remark about the hot weather. Don't assume this is over-exaggeration. Kyoto gets blisteringly hot in July and August, and the humidity rises well above 80% most days. When scheduling your sightseeing in summer, avoid all day walkathon tours and try to make time for indoor activities during the hottest hours in the early afternoon.
Be aware that June is the rainy season here. There are plenty of things to do on rainy days in Kyoto, but it can put a damper on some people's vacation if the whole trip is overcast and wet. Typhoons also start arriving in July and continue until September, so have a backup plan if you need to amuse yourself for a day or two while waiting out a storm indoors.
However, Japan has perfected the art of cooling down. Shaved ice and ice cream treats are plentiful, fans are carried by everyone, and small bells are hung in doorways whose light tinkling sound is said to cool you down (not sure how effective this last one is). Seasonal favorites are somen noodles chilled and served on top of ice, and zaru soba, buckwheat noodles served cold and dipped into soy sauce. Many restaurants along the Kamogawa River in east Kyoto and in the mountians to the north of the city set up wooden platforms overlooking the river that offer a cool breeze as you enjoy local dishes.
Summer is full of festivals and fireworks displays in the nearby countryside, but Kyoto hosts its own massive celebration in July with the Gion Festival. This month long event stretches out to include several peak weekends where streets are closed off for parades and night time carnivals. If you're in town for this event, a visit to sample the street food and see the locals dressed in yukata kimonos is a must-do.
This is my personal favorite time of year in Kyoto. Things start to wind down from the festivities of summer, and the temperatures start to drop as well. Late September and October are very comfortable months here, and the daytime temperatures even in November are cool but not yet unpleasant.
From mid November to early December, nature puts on quite a show for us with multicolored fall leaves that cover the hills and gardens of Kyoto. These colors last longer than the short cherry blossoms, so it's a little easier to time to your visit, and the crowds are a little more spaced out over the course of the season.
Autumn brings some of the best fresh foods, and you can enjoy all sorts of fruits and nuts from street vendors and markets. Nashi (Asian pear) are very popular in autumn, as are persimmons and chestnuts. You might even hear the famous call of the roasted sweet potato vendor off in the distance as he drives through the neighborhood offering potatoes roasted over hot coals.
This is probably the best time to get out into the countryside to see nature. Temperatures are comfortable enough for hiking, and the fall foliage is very impressive in the mountains surrounding Kyoto. If you're lucky enough to take a dip in an onsen bath overlooking the fall colors, you're in for a real treat.
It's said that the full moon in September is the best in the whole year, and many temples and gardens will offer moon-viewing events with seasonal food and colorful flower decorations. If you see a lot of rabbit decorations, that's because the Japanese don't see a man in the moon, they see a rabbit making sticky mochi rice cakes! In October, Kyoto puts on the Jidai Festival, a long procession of costumed locals wearing garments from the 8th century all the way up to the 1800s. This is a great event worth arriving early for to get a prime viewing location.
OK, let's just get this out of the way now: Kyoto gets really cold. Not arctic cold, but colder than most visitors expect. You will need a heavy jacket, gloves, scarf, long underwear, etc. It can be unpleasant, but the tradeoff is that you'll see Kyoto with far less crowds than in other seasons. Things get busy around the December holidays and Chinese New Year, but besides that, this is lowest season for tourism in Kyoto. Enjoy it while you can! Be warned that most temples and museums often limit their opening hours during this season because it can get dark early and many temples rely on natural light inside.
Saying warm isn't just about what you wear, but about what you eat and drink. A warm cup of yuzu citrus tea or a steaming bowl of zenzai sweet beans will heat you up in no time. This is also the season for nabe, a dish that most visitors never get a chance to try. This homestyle dish is often cooked by families is a large pot filled with broth, potatoes, cabbage, meat, fish, mushrooms, shrimp, tofu, and just about anything else you want to put in. Since the pot is shared by the whole group, it's not just about the food, but the communal spirit that nabe creates as you share.
If you're lucky, you might catch a bit of snow while you're in Kyoto. Most years only bring a few snowy days, but it's a magical sight that everyone looks forward to. Last year, we were treated to a wonderful scene of geisha walking in the snow and gardens piled high with powder that we shared in a photo blogpost. If you head north to Nagano or Hokkaido, there is plenty of excellent skiing to enjoy that is easily accessible by bullet train.
The big event in winter is the New Year celebration, which is actually one of the most important holidays in Japan. Locals head out to a Buddhist temple at midnight to ring a giant bell to purify their sufferings, and then follow it up with a visit to a Shinto shrine the next day to pray for luck in the coming year. Vastly different than the party atmosphere we are used to in the west, this more quiet form of celebration is still fun and exciting, and the locals are always thrilled to see visitors taking part in their New Year.
So what do YOU think is the best time to visit Japan? Any season is great, but think about crowd levels and temperatures. There's always something amazing to see (and eat, and do, and buy) year-round in Kyoto! For more ideas on how you can enjoy the ancient capital, check out our tour offerings or contact us for more info.