Japan is a country with four famously distinct seasons, each with its own characteristic sights and experiences. If you ask a local when is the best time to take a trip to Japan, most would say each of the four seasons are distinctly beautiful in their own way and show a unique side of each of Japan's major islands. The most popular times to travel to Japan are undoubtedly spring and autumn, for cherry blossom (sakura) season and fall foliage, respectively, but the seasons less traveled offer unique and enjoyable sightseeing experiences all their own. Here’s a little of what you can expect from each season while on vacation in Japan.
In Japan, the Winter season lasts from December to February, bringing with it colder weather which some travelers choose to avoid. For this reason, traveling in Japan during Winter can be a uniquely pleasurable experience due to the decreased crowds. One of Japan’s most famous and popular winter events is the Sapporo Snow Festival, held in February in the festival’s namesake city: Sapporo, on the island of Hokkaido in the north of Japan. Don't let a little cold weather dissuade you from exploring Japan in this magical time of year!
Springtime is widely considered one the of the best times to tour Japan, made famous for the period of time in which the Japanese cherry tree is in bloom, known locally as ‘Sakura season’. This period shifts from year-to-year based on weather patterns, but usually the blossoms can be enjoyed to their fullest between the end of March through early April. Due to its popularity, this time of year is especially busy and many hotels and tourism sites tend to be more crowded. If you're interested in experiencing Japan's Sakura season we highly reccommend securing your bookings early, and if you're purchasing a trip package with a guided tour operator make sure to use one that has experience operating in Japan in this time of year!
Summer in Japan is a time of festivals, cold treats, and buzzing energy. Like much of the rest of Asia, the weather will indeed be hot and humid from June through August, but it is nonetheless an exciting time to explore Japan and offers many activities and sights unavailable at other times of year, such as the uniquely Japanese summer Matusri festivals. The weather tends to be cooler and less humid in higher latitudes, making Japan's norternhmost island Hokkaido and the north end of Honshu excellent summer trip options for those who wish to avoid the heat. Wherever you choose to explore, you'll be lulled into a dreamy summertime trance by the endless song of Japan's many unique cicada species, whose characteristic cries vary across the different islands.
The heat and humidity of Japanese summer starts to fade beginning in September, and by October the cool weather of fall arrives bringing with it unforgettable fall foliage in a dazzling array of natural hues that continque until November. The beauty of the autumn colors makes it a high demand season, but the crowds are lighter compared to cherry blossom season since the autumn foliage season stretches over a longer period of time. Another consideration for planning trips in autumn: the cool weather that brings with it the changing colors of foliage starts in the north end of the islands and moves south over a period of several weeks. For the ultimate Fall foliage sightseeing Japan tour, begin your exploration in the north and watch the leaves change around you as you travel south!
If you're arriving in Tokyo on your own, the first transportation you will need will be from the airport to Tokyo. Narita Airport is about a 90-minute drive from central Tokyo and the easiest way to get there is by taking the Airport Limousine Bus (when traveling with Super Value Tours you won’t have to make reservations for the Airport Limousine Bus: airport transfers are included in all of our guided tour packages).
Japan's rail and subway systems are globally revered for their efficiency, low cost, and remarkable accessibility. The JR (Japan Railways) passenger train system reaches from coast to coast, visiting every major city and most smaller towns. Depending on time of day and location, trains run anywhere from every 15 minutes to every hour, with average fares anywhere from 150-1000 JPY ($1.50-$10.00 USD). International travlers can purchase weekly unlimited JR train passes before arriving in Japan for between $30-40 USD per week. We highly recommend taking advantage of this convenient system while traveling in Japan. If you're planning a trip to more rural Japanese islands be forewarned: the passenger train system does not offer such ubiquitous accessibility outside of the more populated islands, so be sure to arrange for transport by car where necessary!
Taxis (takushii in Japanese) are a very convenient way to get around in Japan, particularly if you have a lot of luggage which can be cumbersome when traveling on public transit. Unfortunately, Japanese taxis are some of the most expensive in the world. To minimize any risk of miscommunication, it is always a good idea to bring a business card from your hotel with you, to help let the driver know exactly where you’d like to go. If you do plan to take a taxi in Japan, be forewarned: allow the driver to remotely open the taxi’s doors for you when getting into and out of the vehicle, and do not touch the doorhandles. This helps to minimize exposure to germs for both passengers and driver, and failing to follow this custom is an easy faux-pas to make!
Kyoto is a city with deep roots and tradition, known for its hidden beauty and thousands of temples and shrines. From the beginning of the Heian period in 794CE until the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868CE, Kyoto was the capital of Japan and the seat of power for the Imperial government. The city’s rich history can be seen in every alley, on every tree-lined street and at every heritage site- of which there are many (20% of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites are located in Kyoto). As storied as Kyoto’s past may be, it is still very much a modern city; exemplary of Japan’s prospensity for elegantly unifying the past and present. Our Japan tours that feature a visit to Kyoto include: Japan Classics & Japan Kansai.
Tokyo is Japan's modern capital, home to the Imperial Palace, the epicenter of national industry, commerce, and culture-- not to mention Japan’s largest city. Resting in the shadow of Mt. Fuji, the Tokyo Metropolitan Area boasts a population unrivalled anywhere else on earth, and does so with a similarly unrivalled elegance and efficiency. The city is at once sprawling, dense, and easily-traversed, every street filled with excitement and energy. Our Japan tours that feature a visit to Tokyo include: Japan Classics & Japan Kanto
While traveling through the many suburbs and neigborhoods of Tokyo, the easiest way to get around is to take the JR Yamanote line (sometimes called the Tokyo Loop Line, an unbroken green loop on most maps). This line runs around the entirety of Tokyo in exactly one hour, and has local stops at all of the city’s must-see neigborhoods and sites. Tokyo is composed of 23 distinct ‘wards’ connected by the Yamanote Line, each of them a modest city unto itself-- here are 5 of our favorite neighborhoods to explore:
Shibuya is a major center of shopping and youth culture in Toyko. This neighborhood is popular among young people for its myriad department stores, boutiques, and restaurants, as well as its vibrant nightlife. At its center is the heavily-traveled Shibuya Station and adjacent Shibuya Crossing, a famous landmark and an ideal place for a photo-op. Within Shibuya station is another famous landmark: a memorial statue of the unwaveringly loyal Hachiko the dog, who waited for his late owner’s return to the train station for years. Shibuya also holds the proud distinction of being the first municipality in Japan to recognize the legal rights of same-sex couples in 2015.
Accessible by the apty-named Harajuku Station, Harajuku is a great sightseeing destination in Tokyo, known internationally as a major gathering place of Japanese youth culture, especially for new and innovative fashion. Many of Asia's most famous and unique fashion subcultures have their roots in the streets of Harajuku. Adjacent to the train station are the famous Yoyogi Park (home to the Yoyogi Park Rockabilly Dancers), and one of Japan’s most famous shinto shrines: Meiji Jingu. Shopping and dining options in the neighborhood include plenty of independent fashion boutiques and cafes.
One of the more affluent areas of Tokyo, Ginza is home to some of the most valuable real estate in the world as well as the city’s most luxurious shopping areas. A visit to Ginza is included in our Tokyo itineraries, but a return visit can be worthwhile for people who really love to shop for high end brands including Gucci, Chanel, & Burberry Blue Label. For being such valuable land, Ginza has an ironic past: the area now known as Ginza was a swamp until the 16th century CE when it was filled in for development.
Shinjuku, accessible by Shinjuku Station (the busiest train station in the world) is home to the Toyko Metropolitan Government headquarters, the administrative center of Tokyo, and is one of the most famous neighborhoods in Tokyo. A center of commerce and industry in the city, Shinjuku contains the headquarters of many multinational corporations, as well as major universities and museums. The west side of Shinjuku is populated with a dazzling array of iconic skyscrapers, and the east side is devoted to shopping and nightlife.
Akihabara is the destination of choice for all fans of anime, manga, electronics, computers, and video games. This neighborhood is home to countless bookstores, anime merchandise shops, electronics component markets, video arcades, maid cafes, department stores, and more. On Sundays, traffic is closed down on the main street, turning the area into a street fair of sorts with small vendors and street performers.
Mt. Fuji is Japan’s highest peak and is one of the country’s most recognizable and characteristic landmarks, as well as an active volcano which last erupted 300 years ago. On some of our tours of Japan, inlcuding Japan Classics and Japan Kanto, we have the opportunity to see Mt. Fuji in a variety of ways.
The name Fujigoko (Fuji Five Lakes) refers to the five lakes that surround the northern foot of Mt. Fuji. Of the Five Lakes, Saiko has the reputation for being the quietest and most unspoiled by human land development.
Once a small farming village, Iyashi no Sato Healing Village was destroyed by natural disaster in 1966. Reconstructed with techniques to preserve the original atmosphere, the village now stands as a living exhibition of Edo period Japan. Today, more than twenty thatch-roofed houses have been converted into art galleries, mini museums, and handicraft shops and give visitors a chance to have a fun way of experiencing traditional art forms. You can even try on a kimono or samurai armor for a fun and unique photo op!
Enclosed by mountainous terrain on three sides and the crescent-shaped Osaka Bay to its west, the Osaka region is located in the outskirts of Japan’s Midwest. The area was fueled by a network of transportation channels by land and sea and also its close proximity to two ancient capitals, Kyoto and Nara. Consequently, by the 9th century, Osaka had grown into the largest commercial center in Japan and is still well-known for its savvy merchants today. Our Japan tours that feature a visit to Osaka include: Japan Classics & Japan Kansai
Standing 14.98 meters tall, weighing 380 tons, with a face that stretches 5.33 meters and a 2.56 meter long hand, the Nara Daibutsu is the largest bronze Buddha statues in Japan. Rumor has it that you will get astounding results from your fortune telling drawings in the presence of this kind-faced Buddha. Try it and see for yourself!
The park not only showcases many important historical monuments of Nara (such as the Todaiji, the Kofukuji, the Nara Public Museum, and the Kasuga Taisha Shrine), but also keeps a number of spotted deer for the enjoyment of visitors. If you're feeling adventurous, you may purchase some crackers and treat the deer to some snacks!
In our opinion, the best tours to Japan absolutely must include a first-hand experience of Japanese cuisine-- it is truly unmatched in its uniqueness across the entire globe. Traditional Japanese cuisine can be considered at its most fundamental level to be based on three major pillars: soy, rice, and seafood. A staggering majority of traditionally Japanese cooking ingredients are derived from soy and rice alone: edamame, shoyu, tofu, aburage, miso, and natto from soybeans, and sake, shochu, mirin and mochi from rice. Almost all traditional Japanese dishes incorporate a handful of the aforementioned ingredients, with rice serving as a foundation for the meal and a light miso soup as a common accompaniment. Since Japan is an island nation, there is precious little land available for grazing cattle, and as such there has historically been little beef in the Japanese diet. Fish, shellfish, and sea vegetables such as kelp contribute heavily to the overall flavor spectrum of Japanese cuisine, with fish often dried and used as a basis for soup stock, grilled over charcoal and served hot, or in the famously Japanese fashion served raw as in the dish sashimi.
A single Kaiseki Banquet place-setting.
Japanese cuisine isn’t strictly relegated to traditional dishes, however. In the 20th and 21st centuries, Japan has seen an incredible flourishing of culinary development, with cross-pollination from all across the globe. Neighboring cuisines have been adopted and adapted to the Japanese pallete as in the case of ramen, Korean barbecue, and curry, as well as cuisines from places as far flung as Italy, whose seafood pasta dishes have enjoyed a renaissance under the careful and passionate preparation of Japanese chefs. The proud American hamburger has found a place in the Japanese culinary milieu as well, with variations such as ‘hamburg steak’ offering a creative deconstruction, and Matcha Green Tea Milkshakes appearing alongside familiar brands of this American fast-food favorite.
Green tea is eminently popular in Japan, usually referred to simply as ‘tea’ (ocha). Green tea holds a special place in Japanese history and culture, having an elaborate and long-practiced ritual preparation or ‘Tea Ceremony’ as an important pillar of Japanese tradition. The art of the tea ceremony is still practiced today, usually in purpose-built rooms or structures dedicated exclusively to the ritual. The tea ceremony is centered around a uniquely Japanese preparation of green tea called matcha, where in preparation the tea leaves are processed into a bright green uniform powder. In modern Japan, matcha has found its way into every imaginable corner of the culinary landscape across the globe, from the ubiquitous Green Tea Latte to artisinal matcha bars in trendy neighborhoods in the US and abroad.
A serving of prepared green tea next to a bowl of matcha powder and a traditional bamboo matcha 'whisk'.
With rice being the principal staple food of the Japanese diet, one might naturally presume that the traditionally most prevalent form of alcohol would be rice-based. This is sake, a light and aromatic wine made from rice in much the same way that beer is brewed from wheat. Sake is traditionally served either at room temperature, chilled, or warmed, usually in a small earthenware or ceramic vessel accompanied by relatively small matching cups. Shochu is a distilled spirit related to, but not equivalent to, sake. Shochu can be made from rice just as sake is, but can also be make from various other sources of starch such as potatoes and barley, or from plant and fruit sugars.
A Torii gate stands in front of a small Shinto shrine in the forest.
Japan’s constitution protects freedom of religion, and its largest active religious traditions are those of Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto is a religious tradition indigenous to Japan, evolved from various different native spiritual beliefs and mythologies, focused on the practice of rituals at shrines dedicated to local ‘kami’, meaning gods or spirits. Shinto shrines can be found everywhere across Japan, denoted by their characteristic red archways, called torii gates. Buddhist temples, on the other hand, can be identified not only by the lack of a torii gate, but also by the common presence of images of the Buddha, such as the bronze Buddha statues (called Daibutsu) found in places like Nara and Kamakura.
Measuring religious views and practice in Japan is more difficult than elsewhere in the world due partly to the fact that Shintoism, Japan’s home-grown spiritual tradition, does not require or reward adherence to a doctrine, nor does it resemble other ‘religions’ in its organizational structure (or rather, the lack thereof). While over three-fourths of people in Japan identify as nonreligious, a similar fraction also reports regularly engaging actively in Shinto shrine activities and rituals, with the majority of Japanese people identifying their sprititual beliefs as a mixture of Shinto and Buddhist principles. Western religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are present in Japan, but at less than 1% of the population identifying as members of these they are a distinct religious minority in the country.
Japan is somewhat unusual among globalized metropolitan nations for its degree of demographic homogeneity, with over 99% of its resident population being ethnically Japanese, and speaking Japanese as their primary language. Although Japanese is generally the only language spoken in the country there are many regional dialects spoken throughout the country, including the Kanto dialect (so-called ‘Standard Japanese’, the variety spoken in Tokyo and on Japanese television), Kansai dialect (spoken in Osaka, Kyoto, and the rest of the Kansai region), Okinawan, Kyushu dialect, Tohoku dialect, and many more.
English language education has been a standard part of Japanese public schooling curriculum for many years, increasingly so in the last few decades. This means that many Japanese people have some familiarity with the English language (especially younger generations), so it is not impossible to get around the country and communicate to some degree using only English. However, many are reluctant to speak in English, especially to English-native foreigners, for fear of being seen as having poor pronounciation or other such relatable anxieties. Wherever you travel, its always good practice to keep a phrasebook handy and try to pick up the local language as much as possible-- your poor Japanese pronounciation may make your new friends more comfortable trying out their English, too!
Unlike English, Japanese uses three different writing systems called Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana are two different ways to write the same set of characters, and as such have the same number of unique symbols (46). Both are phonetic writing systems, meaning that the characters represent a specfic sound or part of speech. Hiragana is used to write the parts of speech that are native to Japanese, while Katakana is used for non-speech sounds such as ‘doki doki’ (the sound a rapidly beating heart makes) or non-Japanese loan words such as ‘pan’ (Spanish for bread), ‘takushii’ (taxi, English for a kind of old-fashioned Uber), or ‘ramen’ (lamian, the variety of Chinese noodle on which ramen noodles are based). Kanji, on the other hand is a pictoral writing system, meaning the characters do not have a direct relation to the spoken word that they reference. Kanji uses the same character set that is used in Simplified Chinese writing, and often uses the same or similar pronounciation, based on the context in which the characters are used.
Two 'rikishi' (wrestlers) facing off in the ring.
Sumo is a uniqely Japanese sport, having originated from certain Shinto ritual practices, and is Japan’s official national sport. The practice has a long history in Japan but Sumo as a professional spectator sport has existed since at least the 17th century CE, and has continuted to be a valued tradition in the intervening years. Sumo tournaments are held six times a year, each lasting 15 days and can be seen in cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka. To learn more about sumo, and to see when upcoming tournaments are, visit the Japanese Sumo Association website.
Karaoke is unequivocally the Japanese peoples’ favorite pastime, and since its invention has spread far beyond the island nation’s borders. A 1993 study showed that Japanese people spend significantly more time singing karaoke than participating in other Japanese cultural activities such as Ikebana (flower arranging) or tea ceremonies. While in the west karaoke is usually thought of as something done on a stage as a form of ritual public humiliation often involving alcohol consumption, in Japan karaoke is most frequently enjoyed in more intimate settings such as ‘karaoke boxes’; small rooms that accommodate somewhere between 2-8 people in establishments that often serve food and drink as well.
Japan is the birthplace of a variety of martial arts that are still commonly practiced today, often as after-school activities for students. In contemporary Japan, martial arts are not practiced and preserved so much for their utility on the battlefield as for their personal, spiritual, and cultural value. Three of the most common and popular Japanese martial arts practiced today are Karate (literally ‘empty hand’), which is focused on techniques for unarmed punching and kicking, Kendo (meaning ‘way of the sword’), which utilizes bamboo sticks and lightweight wooden armor to practice a variety of swordsmanship techniques, and Judo (literally ‘the way of softness’), focused on grappling techniques.
Japan is well-known around the world for its unabiding enthusiasm for what in the west is usually thought of as ‘America’s Pastime’; baseball. Professional baseball is by far the most popular spectator sport in Japan, so much so that JNTO (the Japan National Tourism Organization) is quoted as saying "Baseball is so popular in Japan that many fans are surprised to hear that Americans also consider it their ‘national sport.’" Baseball was first introduced to Japan in the late 19th century, continued gaining popularity through the 20th century and became a national obsession. Two of the most popular Japanese baseball teams are the Hanshin Tigers and the Yomiuri Giants, based in Osaka and Tokyo, respectively. If you’re interested in seeing a baseball game while touring Japan, you can check the schedule of upcoming games at the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization’s website.
So you’ve decided on a visit to Japan and you’re ready to book your Japan tour-- now how will you get there? Spending two weeks on a boat is so 19th century, right? Let’s focus on air travel in stead. Every year since 2006, we have consistently been the #1 North American tour operator to Japan by total guest volume, and you don’t get to be #1 for over a decade without knowing a thing or two about airfare! Average fares right now are at some of the lowest levels we’ve seen in years simply due to the low market price of fuel, and as such our tour package fares are especially competitive right now, so it’s is a great time to fly with us.
If you need help with flight arrangements for your Japan trip, please let us know and we would be happy to check. With hundreds of different options, finding the right flight for you can be a major headache. With our in-house reservation experts, we take away the nuisance of putting a schedule together yourself-- we’ll work to secure the best balanced choices between route and the lowest fares so you have more time to enjoy your trip.
If you’re leaving the US and heading to Asia, LAX is likely to be your departure point. It’s the largest air transit hub on the west coast and offers unparalleled Asia departure frequency. Many major carriers operate daily direct flights from Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo including All Nippon Airlines, American Airlines, Japan Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and United Airlines. Japan Airlines even operates a direct flight from Los Angeles to Osaka (KIX) for easy access to cities in the Kansai region such as Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara, allowing time-constrained travelers to skip the Shinkansen trip from Tokyo.
As the second-largest hub to Asia, there are many great Japan transit options from SFO as well. The airlines which fly daily from San Francisco (SFO) to Tokyo include All Nippon Airlines, Japan Airlines, and United Airlines. United also operates a direct flight from San Francisco to Osaka (KIX), but this flight is only offered once daily on a seasonal basis.
Never fear! While LAX and SFO are the major gateways to Asia from North America and offer the best flight frequency, many carriers offer convenient nonstop flights from other airports so long as you’re a little more flexible on flight times. As always, we can help arrange a great Japan tour package for you from a variety of departure points including the following:
Don’t worry-- if your local airport doesn’t offer direct Asia flight service, we can still help. Just let us know where you'd like to depart from and we’ll handle the rest.
There are several major Japanese international airports serving flights between North America and Japan including two in Tokyo (Narita [NRT] & Haneda [HND]) and one in Osaka (Kansai International [KIX]). Because the majority of international flights arrive in Narita, we design most of our Japan tour packages to start from Narita airport. However if you plan to arrive in Japan before the tour begins, Haneda airport can be an excellent choice as it is located only about 30 minutes from downtown Tokyo, making your access into the city very convenient as compared to Narita which is about 90 minutes away. If you’re traveling to the Kansai region you’ll want to think about Kansai International in Osaka. Some of our tours will either start or end in Osaka and we will often use this airport as well.
One of the biggest benefits of booking a package Japan tour with included airfare is that we can offer wholesale fares! Wholesale fares can be as much as as 35 - 40% lower compared to a regular retail fare, and we are happy to bundle this competitive airfare price into your tour and pass the savings on to you.
In addition to our wholesale airfare pricing, we can offer a few other airfare booking benefits. If you’d prefer a little more legroom and enhanced service on your long trans-pacific flight, we can upgrade your fare to improved service classes like premium economy or business class. Also, if you’re interested in visiting other destinations while you’re in Asia we can easily bundle a stopover extension into your itinerary. An independent stopover can be a great way to add more enjoyment to your trip experience or just to visit overseas family and friends. The most popular Asia stopover destinations that we regularly book along with our Japan tour packages include Beijing, Hong Kong, Manila, Shanghai, Saigon, Singapore, and Taipei.
If you’re interested to know about stopover pricing or stopping over in other destinations, give us a call and talk to our airfare experts-- we work with all major carriers to Japan from the US and Canada, so we are sure to find the perfect schedule, airline, and price for your trip!
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