Tokyo Travel Guide Part 1: So, when is the best time to visit?

Plan for snowfall when travelling in Tokyo during winter. – Pictures by CK Lim
Plan for snowfall when travelling in Tokyo during winter. – Pictures by CK Lim

TOKYO, Dec 18 – “What is the best time to travel to Tokyo?”

More than any other question, my friends never fail to ask me this when planning to visit the Land of the Rising Sun. And if it’s their first time to Japan, Tokyo is inevitably their first destination.

My first piece of advice, before even considering the month or the season, is simply to suggest sticking to the capital for their maiden trip, rather than attempt a five-city tour in the same number of days (more common an impulse than you’d think!).

Winter illumination lights up the upmarket Roppongi neighbourhood at night
Winter illumination lights up the upmarket Roppongi neighbourhood at night

And one doesn’t necessarily need to plan too far in advance (though this could be helpful for certain busy periods).

Last-minute travel to Tokyo doesn’t have to prove a challenge, especially since Malaysians who have biometric passports with embedded microchips no longer require short-term visas to Japan. No more frantic runs to the Japanese Embassy.

Truth be told, Tokyo has something for the eager traveller every month of the year. All four seasons have their own unique offerings.

One good approach is to go when it’s convenient for you to do so and double down on the specific attractions of the time you visit.

While snowfall in Tokyo isn’t as severe (unlike further north in Hokkaido), you should still plan accordingly for travel disruptions during winter. Tree branches are bare but the barren landscape has its own particular beauty. There are fewer crowds, except during the New Year holidays between December 29 and January 4.

Springtime means sakura or cherry blossoms
Springtime means sakura or cherry blossoms
Getting ready for hanami (cherry blossom viewing) picnics at Ueno Park
Getting ready for hanami (cherry blossom viewing) picnics at Ueno Park

For shopaholics, there are the Christmas and year-end sales. The annual winter illumination lighting up various parts of the city such as Roppongi and Ginza is a sight to behold.

Traditional Japanese festivals (matsuri) abound, including Setsubun when Tokyoites throw soybeans out the door to drive evil spirits from their homes. It’s a lovely bit of local colour.

The days begin to get longer when spring arrives in March. You’ll slowly need fewer layers as the weather gets milder.

Time for some outdoor sports.
Time for some outdoor sports.

Typically the cherry blossom season, running from the end of March to early April in Tokyo, is the highlight of this period where hanami (“flower viewing”) picnics can be observed beneath sakura trees in full bloom. You can purchase your own bento lunch box and join in the fun.

Do watch out for the Golden Week, which runs from the end of April till beginning of May. Basically a collection of four national holidays within seven days, the Golden Week is one of Japan’s busiest holiday seasons with plenty of domestic travellers.

Past this, however, things slow down again for the rest of spring. Coupled with with pleasant temperatures, the remainder of May is another good time to escape the tourist hordes.

Sunbathers enjoying the summer heat
Sunbathers enjoying the summer heat

Come June, and it’s the start of summer with August as the hottest month. It’s hot and humid, and the rainy season (tsuyu) lasts for the first half of summer.

One good day trip away from the heat of the city would be nearby Hakone, famous for its hot springs and cooler weather thanks to its higher altitude.

Time for some outdoor sports and activities: a game of football in the park; hiking in Mount Fuji not far away; or simply a spot of sunbathing.

Tokyo’s famous Ginkgo Avenue turns a stunning canary yellow during autumn
Tokyo’s famous Ginkgo Avenue turns a stunning canary yellow during autumn

Summer is also a time to observe a multitude of matsuri such as the Shitamachi Tanabata Festival in July, celebrating the legend of two star-crossed lovers who only get to meet once a year in the Milky Way, and the Fukagawa Hachiman Festival in August where visitors are poured with purifying water (which, as a bonus, helps them to cool off in the summer heat).

I’m not supposed to have a favourite but I have to confess that autumn is my favourite season to visit Tokyo.

By September, most of the humidity and heat of summer is now gone. The weather is comfortably mild again. (If it gets too chilly, there are hundreds of vending machines around the city offering not only cold drinks but hot beverages to warm you up.)

Don’t forget your umbrella so you may enjoy momigari (“red leaf hunting”) even when it rains!
Don’t forget your umbrella so you may enjoy momigari (“red leaf hunting”) even when it rains!

The trees burst into colour come mid-November. Fall foliage viewing or momigari (literally “red leaf hunting”) is a more forgiving activity than the all too brief sakura season back six months earlier; autumn colours can last up to three weeks in certain spots.

It’s not all reds though; Tokyo’s famous Ginkgo Avenue turns a stunning canary yellow. Don’t forget your umbrella as it may well rain!

Whichever time of year you visit Tokyo, though, there’ll be something new for you to experience. It’s always a good time if you go with fresh eyes, an open mind and a heart eager to embrace a beautiful culture awaiting you.

* This is the first part in a five-part series about travelling to Tokyo. Stay tuned for more...

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