Japan's summers tend to be hot and humid (similar to the East Coast of the United States). So if you're visiting, be prepared to combat frizzy hair, clingy clothing, and clammy skin. However, there are many tourist activities in this country that allow you to beat the heat. Try climbing Mount Fuji for some high-altitude reprieve or hit the beach for a swim in the saltwater. An evening fireworks show or music festival can also offer a break from daytime humidity levels if you time it right. And sleeping in a tent under the stars (there is even a Star Festival) will put you in touch with nature.
Did you know that fireworks originated in Asia? Called hanabi in Japan, fireworks are a country-wide summer tradition. Seize the opportunity to view one (or two) of the many fireworks celebrations during your summer vacation to Japan, as they're not reserved for just one summer holiday. If you're visiting Hokkaido, check out nightly fireworks on the shore of Lake Toya. Or, catch a front-row seat at the Omagari Fireworks, Japan's own pyrotechnic contest. It's a great way to pass the hot summer nights.
If you're the outdoorsy type, take in the sights of Mount Fuji, Japan's highest mountain peak standing at 12,389 feet. Mount Fuji is one of three sacred mountain sites in Japan, as well as an active volcano. (But don't worry. It last erupted on December 16, 1707). Located on the island of Honshu, Mount Fuji's climbing season takes place from July 1 to mid-September when there is very little snow and the temperatures are mild. Take the Yoshida Trail to the top and either camp or reserve one of the mountain huts along the route.
A trip to a Japanese waterpark provides a refreshing reprieve for both tourists and locals. And while you may beat the heat, you might have to deal with some crowds at places like Tokyo Summerland, Water Amusement Island, or Tobu Super Pool. Traveling in June or September will allow you to avoid the Japanese school vacation in July and August.
Note: Many Japanese water parks have a strict "no tattoos" policy. If you're spotted with one, you will be removed from the park without a refund.
It's no wonder that Japan—being a nation of islands—has fabulous sandy beaches. And if you're a surfer, even better, as many world-class surf spots pepper this country's coast. Emerald Beach on Okinawa boasts bright blue waters and a tropical feel. Shirahama Ohama Beach on Shizuoka is a great beach for swimming. Isonoura Beach of Wakayama prefecture attracts surfers from all over. It's also a great beach from which to watch the sunset on a steamy summer night.
Camping is a popular leisure activity among the Japanese, but it's also a great (and inexpensive) way to visit the country. Fee campgrounds exist throughout Japan and most offer hot showers, bathrooms, and some even have hot springs. You can usually rent tents and camping gear, as well. Try urban camping (in Hikarigaoka Park) if you are in or around Tokyo. In other city parks, be discreet and pitch your tent in the back corner. While it's not illegal, urban camping can be frowned upon if you overstay your welcome. You can also camp for free by hitting the high country and camping in the wilderness. Head to Kamikochi in the Japanese Alps to get up high and beat the heat.
Japan offers your pick of summer music events and many music festivals feature artists from around the world. Head to Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata, Japan to escape the heat and enjoy the Fuji Rock Festival. Punk and hip-hop lovers can jam out to Summer Sonic (outside Tokyo) which has featured acts like Avril Lavigne, the Beastie Boys, and Lee "Scratch" Perry. And if late August finds you in Japan, check out Sukiyaki Meets the World in Nanto, Toyama. This venue boasts music from all continents and cultures and features Japan's own Sukiyaki Steel Orchestra.
Obon is a cultural Japanese event that celebrates the deceased ancestors of the locals. Depending on the region, this event often takes place in July or August and kicks off with a festival of paper lanterns (chochin lanterns). During this time, celebrations consist of dance performances and paper lantern floats where lanterns are placed in a river that leads out to the sea. Symbolically, this represents sending the ancestors’ spirits into the sky. The Daimonji Festival in Kyoto is the most popular Obon festival, but many cities and towns will also have their own celebrations. Hit up Kyoto Gozan Okuribi (Fire Festival) in August to see fires blazing on the mountainside or the Bon Odori Festival at Tsukiji Hongwanji Temple to see dancers in traditional costumes.
Like watermelon and ice cream to Americans, nothing says "summer" in Japan better than a bowl of somen noodles. These thin, wheat-based noodles (like spaghetti) are offered up cold, usually alongside a traditional fermented dipping sauce called tsuyu. Of course, you can also enjoy this noodle dish as a salad served with lettuce, ham, scrambled eggs, and topped with sesame seeds. Depending on the restaurant, somen dishes can be piled high with fresh toppings like seasonal produce for the perfect summer snack.
Crank your rental car's air conditioning and head to Utsukushigahara where the Venus Line winds up and down the mountainside. Along the route, you'll see mountain peaks, wetlands, ponds, rivers, and majestic waterfalls. Stop at any point for a hike or take a picturesque selfie. Utsukushigahara Highland boasts several hiking trails for adventure travelers. At the Yashimagahara Wetlands, you'll see an abundant amount of summer wildflowers in early July. And at the Kuyumayama-Kogen Highlands Ski Area, a panoramic view of the valley and Lake Shirakaba awaits.
Onsens (Japanese hot springs) are littered all over Oita, which is appropriately named the "Onsen Prefecture." And while it might seem counterintuitive to take a dip in hot water during the summer, a nighttime soak is actually quite pleasant and refreshing. Take your pick from the not-so-hot springs of Kan no Jigoku Onsen in Yufin, coming in at 55 degrees Fahrenheit, to Beppu's boiling hot springs, which they mix with cold water to make them suitable for bathing.
A sumo tournament (or Japanese wrestling match) can be the highlight of your trip. And this exhilarating cultural event—where scantily clad large men compete inside a circle in a dance-like fashion—is somewhat humorous to non-natives. Make sure to book a box seat on the floor—where you take off your shoes and sit on cushions—for the most traditional experience. Bashos, or tournaments, take place six times a year with a summer event kicking off in July in Nagoya.
Go Whitewater Rafting
Nagano's mountainous terrain marks the headwaters of raging rivers like the Himegawa River or the Tenryu River. And, in true Nagano fashion, many ski instructors hang up their skis in the winter to guide guests on an adventurous float in the summer. Thrill-seekers flock to the Tenryu, nicknamed "the violent" dragon" to enjoy day-long trips that include a wild ride, a lunch reprieve, and a gentle afternoon float. If rapids aren't your thing, opt for a trip down the Azumino, instead, offering a gentler, relaxing float.
Lounge in the shade of wisteria vines at the Kawachi Wisteria Garden in Kitakyushu. And while the peak season ends around May, a trip in early June should still display the blooms from the garden's two 100-meter-long tunnels. Even if you miss the prime-time foliage, the hillside garden offers a magnificent view of the surrounding valley. It's an off-the-beaten-path adventure that can be accessed by shuttle (during peak season only), by bus (for those who don't mind a 45-minute walk to the gardens from the bus station), or by car.
Firefly squid (watasenia scintillans) are only 3 inches long, yet the show they put on from March through June in Toyama Bay is one not to be missed. This nighttime festivity truly sparkles when the squid, pushed to the surface from underwater currents, light up the end of their tentacles casting a blue glow on the water. Sightseeing tours depart from the Namerikawa fishing port around 3 a.m. And if you aren't too weary after your early-morning outing, hit the Hotaruika Museum—dedicated to this spectacular sea creature.
Similar to Obon (and held around the same time period), the Hiroshima Lantern Ceremony commemorates those who lost their lives in the Hiroshima bombing. Each year on August 6, colorful paper lanterns holding personal messages are cast into the Motoyasu River to float until they smolder. Thousands of people descend on the event, making this nighttime summer outing quite the spectacle. You can even take part in the tradition yourself, by adding a message to a lantern and lining up to set it afloat—all for a small fee.
In 2016, Ishigaki Island in the Okinawa prefecture greeted a whopping 8.77 million tourists to its shores. And for good reason. The white sandy beaches and mangrove forests make this subtropical island a vacationer's paradise. The food that graces this island, including fresh produce, abundant seafood, and peculiar island specialties (like pigs feet) make this a foodie's paradise. Ishigaki, the transportation hub of the Yaeyama Islands, is easy to get to with a major airport located just 10 miles from the city's center.
If your city holiday has you feeling a little, well, trapped in a city, head indoors to get some exercise at the numerous climbing gyms in Tokyo. In fact, as the host of the 2020 Summer Olympics (featuring rock climbing for the first time), Tokyo has more climbing gyms then some countries. Check out B-Pump in Akihabara for beginner and intermediate bouldering. Miyashita Park offers great views of the city and has an outdoor top rope area. For a more technical indoor gym, try Base Camp in Itabashi City.
One of the best ways to cool off in the summer in Japan is by indulging in a traditional frozen delicacy. Mochi consists of a glutinous rice dough formed into a ball, filled with Japanese ice cream, and then frozen. This amounts to a delicious gooey outer with a refreshing surprise inside. You'll find frozen mochi served in most sweet shops throughout Japan. Tokyo even has some famous mochi purveyors like Ginza Akebono or the high-end wagashi store, Toraya.