Temples framed by cherry blossom and Mount Fuji rising from a carpet of pink – with images like these, no wonder most people think that Japan is at its best in spring. Yet when I first saw the country ablaze with autumnal colours, I realised that it not only gives New England a run for its money in leaf-peeping season but that it’s so much more than a country for a single season. Here are my top picks for what to see when.
Japan For All Seasons
There’s a lot more to Japan than cherry blossoms and ancient temples juxtaposed with Tokyo’s ultra-modern skyscrapers and technological modernity, says Jane Knight, former travel editor of The Times
When it’s sizzling in the cities, it’s time to hit the hills for some cooler air. From the Japanese Alps to the slopes of Mount Fuji (yes, you can climb it) there’s plenty of higher ground to choose from.
We set our sights on the isolated Iya Valley on Shikoku island, where traditional vine-rope bridges are slung across deep rocky gorges. Although we only drove three hours from the ferry port, spiralling up a road flanked with vertiginous pine-covered slopes, it felt like we’d travelled to a Japan that time forgot.
From our kominka (converted farmhouse) we gazed out as mist licked the mountain tops, swirling into the valley below. Made from wood with sliding doors and futons to place on tatami mats at night, our hillside eyrie also had modern comforts – the same high-tech loos as luxury hotels, underfloor heating or air conditioning and a local lady who appeared once evening fell to conjure up a delicious meal. All we had to do was admire the view.
For a different kind of relaxation, we hit the archipelago of Okinawa, full of white-sand beaches lapped by seas alive with fish and manta rays. There’s snorkelling and diving a-plenty here but don’t forget the interiors of the different islands. Hike to waterfalls and canoe through mangroves on Irimote or hitch a ride on a water buffalo cart on idyllic Taketomijima.
The more Americanised main island’s a must-see for karate fans – Okinawa is the birthplace of karate, where we particularly enjoyed testing the speed of our punches in the superb interactive museum. It’s also one of the world’s blue zones, whose people are renowned for their longevity. Among the healthy foods they eat here are tasty purple sweet potatoes; on a hot day they make a particularly delicious ice-cream flavour.
Or try: Head north to the island of Hokkaido for hiking in remote national parks and to see the stunning flower fields of Furano laid out in strips of different colours.
Here on the hillstops of Hakone is a statue by Joan Miró. Over there is one by Henry Moore. And there’s a whole pavilion dedicated to Picasso. This outdoor sculpture park has art you can crawl down or climb up, with a riot of autumnal colours as the backdrop. We admired the view as we bathed our feet in a hot foot bath, with water that bubbled up from below the ground.
The Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park in the mountains is renowned for both its hot springs and its natural beauty. It’s also easily accessible from Tokyo – a quick buzz on the bullet train followed by a more sedate zigzag on the mountain train connecting local villages and sights.
Among these is Owakudani, a collapsed mountain crater reached by cable car that on a clear day has great views of Mount Fuji. Some call it Hell Valley and you can see why when you smell the sulphurous air puffing up from steaming vents. The bubbling hot springs are used to cook black eggs (said to add seven years to your life) as well as to supply nearby onsen.
A soak in one of these hot baths is a must-do, ideally during a stay at a traditional ryokan (inn). Here, after a relaxing soak in the separate male and female areas, my son and I donned kimono robes for a traditional meal before sleeping on futons.
A totally different experience awaited the next day – the spa theme park at Yunessun, with separate pools for bathing in water mixed with sake, green tea, coffee or wine.
These are not the place for a quiet soak. At the coffee pool (“good for fatigue, relaxation and beautiful skin”) we watched, bemused, as people screamed to have buckets of coffee thrown over them. Yet by the time we reached the wine pool, we were joining in, shouting to have a giant bottle of wine sprayed at us.
Or try: Go hiking or cycling in the Japanese Alps, where you can also enjoy autumnal colours.
They swoop and dance across the snow. Intricate mating dances look like a choreographed ballet with wings as the red-crowned cranes pirouette and preen amid the landscape of white. You don’t need to be a twitcher to appreciate the show put on by these Japanese icons in the marshes of eastern Hokkaido.
Easy to reach by bullet train from the capital, this northerly island may have temperatures that plummet to the minus 20s, but it takes on a beautiful Narnia-esque air in winter, its hills dusted with snow. It has plenty of attractions up its icy sleeves too. This is where wallowing in a hot onsen really comes into its own, as well as warm sake. In addition to wildlife, there’s superb skiing in Niseko in the shadow of Mount Yotei, a doppelganger for Mount Fuji.
And if you time your visit for the first week of February, you can visit the famous Sapporo Snow Festival. More than two million visitors flock here to see the sculptures carved from snow – in previous years, dragons and orangutans, tuk-tuks and bridges and the world’s most iconic buildings have all featured. There are giant snow slides and an ice-skating rink too. For some older culture, visit the Hokkaido Museum and chart the history of the island’s indigenous people, the Ainu.
The food is good here too – the crab capital of Japan, Sapporo has some fantastic seafood, which you can follow with one of the city’s famous cream puffs, washed down with Sapporo beer.
Or try: While you can see Japan’s ice monkeys bathing in the hot springs of Hakodate in Hokkaido, a more authentic experience can be had in the Jigokudani National Park, four hours north of Tokyo.
Still want to see Japan in spring time? There’s one golden rule – avoid Golden Week, from the end of April into the first week in May, when the whole nation is on holiday and seems to be on the move. You’re most likely to see the sea of pink in Japan from the end of March through to mid-April, but it can be difficult to pinpoint its exact timing. Key viewing spots include the Imperial Palace gardens in Tokyo, and the Golden and Silver Pavilions in Kyoto, the former capital. Here, be sure to walk along the two-kilometre long Philosopher’s Path, which follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees.
If you prefer to go somewhere a little quieter, take a look at the mountain town of Takayama, with cherry-tree lined lanes, or go outside the main season: the flowers bloom as early as late January in Okinawa in the south and explode into pink in May in Hokkaido in the north.
Or try: Forget flowers and go a couple of hours east of Kyoto to Komaki. A fertility festival is held here on 15 March every year, during which a giant wooden phallus weighing almost 400kg is paraded through the streets.