Why there’s no real off-season to travel to Japan

Many destinations only attract seasonal travellers. But Japan offers an array of adventures across the country at any time of the year.

Ditch the skis for summer hiking in Hokkaido. Swap the cherry blossom crowds for coastal getaways. Go onsen hopping during autumn. These are just some of the inspiring alternatives to Japan’s popular ‘peak’ season experiences.

In fact, Japan’s commonly perceived ‘off-season’ will depend on which part of the country you’re travelling to (and what for). This gives you the chance to uncover an entirely different side to its many riched and varied regions.

What’s more, travelling when hotels and tours are generally quieter in certain regions could also help you enjoy a more budget-friendly getaway. Here’s our alternative guide to experiencing the lesser-known treasures of Japan’s most popular destinations while avoiding their busiest, peak periods.

Kansai in Winter

Swap the crowds of sakura season in Japan and see the wintry side to this region that incorporates Kyoto, Nara, Osaka and Wakayama prefectures.

Winter is perhaps one of the best times to visit Kansai to admire its beautiful sites dusted with a light layer of snow. You might even choose to take part in one of the many festivals that celebrate winter. And if you can’t afford to miss your Japanese flower fix, you can see the flowering of the ume (Japanese plum trees) as early as February in Kansai. Their intense pink flowers appear in parks and temples all over the region.

Why not try: Yunohana-Onsen is a quiet onsen (hot spring) retreat with easy access from Kyoto in the city of Kameoka. The village is surrounded by sightseeing spots including more than a dozen temples and shrines: Myoshoji-Temple, Mt Asahi, Jinzoji-Temple, Anaoji-Temple and Hiedanojinja-Shrine. The most popular photographs of Kyoto’s Daigoji Temple are taken during autumn when the site turns into a kaleidoscopic of orange and crimson. But it’s during the winter, after the colour fades from the surrounding trees, that the bright red temple really shines.

Ishigaki Island, Okinawa, Japan.
Ishigaki Island, Okinawa. Photo by Vladimir Haltakov on Unsplash

Okinawa in Spring

Being 400 miles south of mainland Japan puts Okinawa roughly on the same equatorial plane as Hawaii. And the similarities don’t end there. Making for a perfect springtime escape.

With picturesque white-sand beaches, subtropical Okinawa is a group of more than 160 islands ringed by sapphire waters and lush landscapes. Getting there is an easy hop from Tokyo or Osaka, which is why the remote retreat is a favourite among locals to escape the bustle of everyday city life.

Many of Okinawa’s most popular resort beaches are open for swimming from March. Making it a perfect springtime destination before the summer crowds arrive. With seasonal events, from energetic hari boat races to lilies in bloom on Ie Island and fireflies on Kume Island. The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, one of the world’s largest, is a popular day trip and has a unique whale shark breeding program.

Why not try: Futamigaura Beach on Izena Island is a 55-minute ferry from Okinawa Island and features blue seascapes and panoramic vistas of Gusuku Mountain’s towering rock formations and Yanaha Island. On Irabu Island Iraph Sui, a Luxury Collection Hotel, is on the oceanfront just southwest of the mainland. Opened in 2018, the lavish beach retreat has suites with sea views, fine dining, and a full-service spa.

Flower fields of Hokkaido, Japan. Photo by Yuri Shirota on Unsplash
Flower fields of Hokkaido. Photo by Yuri Shirota on Unsplash

Hokkaido in Summer

There is no shortage of snow in Hokkaido in the winter. That’s perfect for its world-class ski slopes. But if you prefer warmer climes, Hokkaido is truly blissful in summer.

Hokkaido’s location as Japan’s northernmost island works in its favour as it doesn’t become as hot or humid as other areas of the country. Hokkaido has six national parks to explore, all boasting breathtaking natural scenery. Making it a perfect fit for adventurers looking to hike or cycle, or spot some of the country’s wildlife.

Why not try: The Shiretoko Peninsula on the island’s east, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005. It’s famed for its flora and fauna, and whale-watching is also popular. The nearby Daisetsuzan National Park is also a paradise for hikers. Lavender fields at Farm Tomita in Furano are bursting with the purple plant as well as a number of colourful flowers. For the best experience, visit in July when they’re at their very peak and don’t forget to try the lavender flavoured ice creams before you leave.

Matsumoto Tenshukaku Castle, Nagano, Japan.
Matsumoto Tenshukaku Castle, Nagano. Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash

Nagano in Autumn

Before the snow arrives in early winter, Nagano is one of the best spots to visit during autumn in Japan.

Nagano’s highlands and mountains, filled with forests, are ripe for momiji-gari (autumn leaf viewing). The many ropeways designed for winter sports make it easy to see golden alpine scenery. With plenty of hiking around the Japanese Alps.

And who could forget the bounty of autumn harvest? Fresh apples and grapes are ready for the picking in idyllic orchards. Fields of mature buckwheat become delicious, aromatic soba noodles. And chestnuts are baked into tasty Japanese desserts.

Why not try: Hakuba Mountain Harbor sits high in Hakuba Valley. At their peak, around mid to late October, you can see Hakuba’s famous three-tiered autumn scenery. Think white snow, red leaves, and green forest. Ancient trails and towns remain nestled in Nagano’s mountains, wholly untouched by the passage of time. The Nakasendo Trail connects Tokyo and Kyoto and has been walked by travellers and merchants since the Edo period. Today it is still shrouded in forest. From October to November, colourful decorations, such as freshly harvested persimmon trees, are hung outside local inns and shops.

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