Japan

A Glance at the Tokyo Calendar

Whether it’s enjoying a picnic under the cherry blossom leaves or feeling the silence before the clash of two sumo wrestlers, Tokyo’s rich history, the country’s four seasons, and 38 million people all living next to each other in the greater Tokyo area means that no matter when you decide to visit the capital, you will never be short of things to do.

Below is a brief run-down of the Japanese calendar to give you an idea of what you can expect to see and experience when you visit. A more detailed events calendar for Tokyo can be found here.

January

New Year is the biggest seasonal holiday on the Japanese calendar, and many Japanese travel back to their hometowns to spend time with family. With about 70% of its population born outside, this exodus impacts the capital city the most and its streets are relatively quiet over New Year. For the Shinto shrines, however, it is the busiest time of the year as people flock to their gates for hatsumode (the first prayers of the year). From midnight, major Shinto shrines like Meiji shrine see tens of thousands of visitors line up in the cold for hours to pray for a prosperous year. While this can be a memorable experience for foreign visitors, the city generally remains quiet until the 4-5 January when office workers return to the realities of life.

Hatsumode at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. People queue in the early hours of the morning to make their first prayer of the year

Other notable events in January include Coming of Age Day (seijun no hi) on the second Monday of January, when young people who turned 20-years-old the previous year head to the city halls to celebrate their leap to adulthood—and the trains and streets suddenly fill with girls in their kimono. The first of the three sumo honbansho tournaments is also held over a two-week period in the middle of the month

February

February is typically the coldest month of the year, but also one of the driest. If you don’t mind the cold, then it’s a good time to visit the city. Not only are the skies a beautiful azure blue, but February is well and truly off-peak season and so you might be able to get a good deal on flight and hotels.

March

The cherry blossoms at Nakameguro

The temperature starts to rise and winter ends with the blossoming of, first, the plum trees, and then the cherry blossoms—the biggest seasonal event on the calendar. The pageantry of the delicate pink blossoms starts in the south and gradually makes it way up to the northern island of Hokkaido over the course of a month from mid-March. The flowers bloom in Tokyo towards the end of March and last for 2-3 weeks, although they are in full bloom for only half of that. The Japanese certainly know how to make the most of their fleeting visit: sake-dowsed picnics in the park, night illuminations at the parks and rivers—not to mention the daily media updates that let the populace know of the percentage of the bloom and the bests places to see them. While seeing the cherry blossoms is an unforgettable experience, the end of the March and beginning of April is one of the most expensive times to visit the country, but if you’re willing to pay the premium you’ll need to remember to book ahead well in advance (especially in the old capital of Kyoto, hotel rooms are like gold dust).

April

The fervour that temporarily hit the nation slowly subsides with the falling of the cherry blossom petals at the beginning of April. The baseball season kicks off with teams playing each other 5-6 times per week until October, and with the sport followed by over 20 million people up and down the country the atmosphere at venues like Tokyo Dome makes for a great experience.

May

A string of public holidays at the end of March and beginning of April give rise to “Golden Week”. Many Japanese fill in gaps between weekends with their own company holiday (10 days paid leave is still standard among many companies here so workers need to choose their days wisely) to make for a week-long vacation. Many use this much-cherished break away from the office to go on holiday with families within Japan and abroad, and so hotels and flight price peak during this period. May also has two of Tokyo’s three major festivals—Kanda Matsuri and Sanja Matsuri.

June

June sees Tokyo’s third major festival—Sanno Matsuri—take place over an 11-day period during the middle of the month, before the rainy season (tsuyu) brings its gloomy skies. The rainy season typically begins in the first half of June and can last until the second half of July. Despite its name, it is better characterised by its grey skies and lack of sunshine (indeed, despite the much shorter days during winter, June and July are still the months that see the least amount of sun). Trudging around the capital in a raincoat because of the constant threat of drizzle is not the way any wants to spend their vacation, and for this reason it may be a period to avoid.

July

July begins in much the same vein as June ended—at least in terms of the weather. The temperature does pick-up throughout the moth (as does the humidity) as Japan gears up for summer. Once the skies clear after the rainy season, the summer is heralded in with the start of the firework season—and, let me tell you, Japan knows how to do fireworks. Called hanabi (“fire flowers”), over 20 events are held in and around the capital from the end of July until the end of August and no country puts on such a magnificent display. The events are free but the crowds are endless—and the more wizened Tokyoites book restaurants or rooftops events well in advance to get the best views and avoid the streets below. Others arrive hours in advance to find a spot where the main display isn’t blocked by apartments or office buildings.

The summer sales also kick off if you’re fancy doing some shopping during your stay.

August

The bulk of the firework event are held during August—the hottest month of the year, and many head to the beaches in Chiba or near Kamakura at the weekend to cool down and enjoy the sun.

O-bon, one of the most important events on the Buddhist calendar, is on the 15th of the month. It honours the spirit of one’s ancestors who are said to come back to visit the houses of relatives. Although not officially a public holiday, many companies close their doors and people travel back to their hometowns to pay their respects and visit family.

The famous Asakusa Samba Carnival and the Azabu-Juban Noryo Matsuri are also held on a weekend in late August.

September

In September, the weather cools and the rain comes. Officially the wettest month of the year it is also the peak season for typhoons, and news channels constantly update the nation’s citizens on the course of the next major storm. Only about three hit the capital on a typical year (it is often the south of Japan that suffers the most), but when they do come they bring with them torrential downpours and strong winds which can disrupt transport and bring the city to a standstill. In their wake, however, they leave blue skies and a clean fresh air. Because of this September is a risky month to travel to Japan. Unlike the drizzle and grey skies of the rainy season, typhoons and the general downpours of September are not something which you can shrug off nonchalantly and head-out armed with an umbrella.

October

October is the second wettest month of the year after September. Chrysanthemum exhibition are held throughout Japan, with some of the landscaped gardens and shrines in the capital attracting large crowds.

November

The stone bridge across the pond at the annual autumn Light-up at Rikugien

The rain suddenly holds up in November, making it one of the driest months. The temperature drops as winter approaches, but nothing a good jumper can’t handle. Towards the end of the month the Japanese once again come out in their numbers to witness the second biggest natural phenomenon of the year after the cherry blossoms: the autumn colours. Gardens like Rikugien once again get out the illuminations to show off the colours in all their glory. If you don’t mind the colder temperatures, November is a superb time to visit Tokyo and Japan.

December

One of the driest months of the year—but also with the shortest days. Sunset is around 4:30pm so you’ll have to make the most of the daylight hours, but you’ll also be able to sightsee in the beautiful azure blue skies of the Japanese winter.

With only about 1% of the population adhering to Christianity, Christmas isn’t not a major event on the calendar (indeed, it is an ordinary working day); although that doesn’t stop the commercial districts getting in on the act. Christmas illuminations (done in a meticulous Japanese way) can be found in several areas throughout the city, and Christmas markets set up in the parks and plazas.

After Christmas, the biggest event of the year—New Year—is but a few days away, and many use up their personal holidays to extend the public vacation and get some well-deserved rest before the next year brings it all round again.