Below is a brief run-down of the calendar to help you plan when to visit Tokyo and to give you an idea of what you can expect to see and experience when you do.
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 the population born outside, this exodus impacts Tokyo the most, and the capital’s streets are relatively quiet over New Year. For the Shinto shrines, however, it is one of the busiest time of the year. When the clocks turn midnight and the new year begins, major shrines like Meiji Shrine see tens of thousands of visitors line up in the cold for hours to perform hatsumode (the first prayer of the year). While this can be a memorable experience for foreign visitors, the city generally remains quiet until the 4-5 January when people return to Tokyo and every day life begins again.
Other notable events in January include Coming of Age Day (seijun no hi) on the second Monday, 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 three sumo honbansho tournaments to be held in Tokyo takes place over a two-week period in the middle of the month.
The plum trees blossom in Tokyo. If you don’t mind the cold, then February is a good time to visit. Not only are the skies a beautiful azure blue, but February is off-peak season and so you might be able to get a good deal on flights and hotels.
The temperature starts to rise and winter ends with the arrival of the cherry blossoms—the biggest seasonal event on the calendar. The pageantry of the delicate pink blossoms starts in Kyushu in mid-March and gradually makes it way up to the northern island of Hokkaido (the southern island of Okinawa is actually the first to see the cherry blossoms in late January).
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 and night illuminations at the parks and rivers. Daily media updates let the populace know the percentage of the bloom and the bests places to see them. Seeing the cherry blossoms is an unforgettable experience, but the end of March and beginning of April is one of the most expensive times to visit the country. If you’re willing to pay the premium you will need to book well in advance (especially in the old capital of Kyoto, hotel rooms are like gold dust).
The fervor that temporarily hit the nation slowly subsides with the falling of the cherry blossoms in mid-April. The weather is pleasant, although some days are still a little chilly.
The baseball season kicks off with teams playing each other 5-6 times per week until October. The sport is followed by over 20 million people up and down the country, and with three baseball teams in and around Tokyo, tickets at venues like Tokyo Dome are relatively easy to get hold of.
A string of public holidays at the end of April and beginning of May give rise to “Golden Week”. Many Japanese fill in gaps between weekends with their own company holiday (10 days paid leave is still standard at many companies in Japan so workers need to choose their days wisely) to make for a week-long vacation. Many use this break away from the office to go on holiday in Japan and abroad, and so hotel and flight prices spike. May also has two of Tokyo’s three major festivals—Kanda Matsuri and Sanja Matsuri.
In June tsuyu (the rainy season) arrives. It typically begins in the first half of June and lasts until the second half of July. Despite its name, it is better characterized by gray skies and lack of sunshine (indeed, despite the much shorter days during winter, June and July are still the months that receive the least amount of sunlight). If you are visiting Japan during this period be sure to bring a thin raincoat and an umbrella.
June also sees Tokyo’s third major festival—Sanno Matsuri—take place over an 11-day period during the middle of the month.
The combination of rising temperatures and a lingering rainy season makes July the most humid month—the sort of humidity which, on bad days, leaves you drenched in sweat and dreaming of cold showers. Many local festivals are held in and around the capital, and one of the most famous firework events—Sumida River Fireworks Festival.
Once the skies clear and the rainy season ends, the summer is heralded in with the start of the firework season—and Japan knows how to do fireworks. Called hanabi (“flower fire”), over 20 events take place in Tokyo during the month. The events are free but the crowds are endless, and the more wizened Tokyo-dwellers book restaurants or rooftops events well in advance to get the best views and avoid the streets below. Others arrive at the firework venues early in the morning to get the best spots.
O-bon, one of the most important events on the Buddhist calendar, is held on the 15th. It honors one’s ancestors whose spirits are said to come back to visit the houses of relatives. Although not officially a public holiday, many companies close their doors and Japanese travel back to their hometowns to pay their respects and visit family. Because of this flight and hotel prices spike.
August is the hottest month of the year and the middle of summer. Many head to the beaches at the weekend. The famous Asakusa Samba Carnival and the Azabu-Juban Noryo Matsuri are also held in late August.
In September, the weather cools and dark clouds bring the rain. Officially the wettest month of the year, it is also the peak season for typhoons, and news channels constantly provide updates 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 they bring with them torrential downpours and strong winds which can disrupt transport and bring the city to a standstill. Unlike the drizzle and gray skies of the rainy season, typhoons and the general downpours of September are not something one can shrug off nonchalantly and head out armed with an umbrella and an anorak. Because of this September is a risky month to travel to Japan.
October is the second wettest month of the year. Summer is over at this point and the temperature drops down to an average of 19°C. Again, October can also be a slightly risky time to travel to visit because of the high rainfall.
The rains suddenly hold 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 Japan witnesses the second biggest natural phenomenon of the year after the cherry blossoms: the autumn colors, and gardens like Rikugien get out the illuminations to show off the colors in all their glory. If you don’t mind colder temperatures, November is a superb time to visit Japan.
One of the driest months, but also with the shortest days—sunset is around 4:30pm so you will have to make the most of the daylight hours. However, you will also be able to sightsee in the beautiful 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). 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 pop 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 rest before the next year brings it all round again.