21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa
The Japanese are infatuated about the weather and the seasons. Even today, it is customary to begin letters and emails with a rhetorical statement about climatic changes. So profound is this obsession that Japanese people often believe having four seasons is something unique to their country. Nevertheless, as a long and narrow archipelago, Japan does indeed offer interesting changes between seasons, with a variety of climates and offerings throughout the year.
Nothing says Japan like the image of a cherry blossom in bloom. The delicate pink flowers have become an internationally recognized symbol of the Japanese aesthetic and of the country's affinity for admiring nature. As the winter chill makes way for a cleansing breeze, the anticipation of warmer weather begins with predictions of when the sakura are to bloom. Known as the sakura zen sen, or the sakura blossom front, the coming of the cherry blossoms begins in the southern Kyushu islands in February and runs north through Aomori and Hokkaido into as late as May. The fresh air and eagerness to get outside make spring and the Japanese ritual of flower watching, referred to as hanami, the perfect excuse to gather under the cherry blossoms and admire their beauty. A tradition dating as far back as the Heian period (794 – 1185), hanami today sees thousands of locals and visitors gather in parks, gardens and even cemeteries across the country to share food and drink and feel a bit closer to nature. A wonderful and uniquely Japanese experience that should not be missed.
The high humidity in summer is often a good excuse to head for the coolness of the many mountains throughout Japan. More than a respite from the summer heat, most cities at higher elevations offer rustic accommodations and a variety of local attractions to complement the surrounding nature. Beaches, lakes and rivers are other popular destinations during the summer months, with activities ranging from river rafting and surfing, to sunbathing and barbeques.
But even with the heat and humidity, summer in Japan can be a very cool time. Two not-to-miss summer experiences are a Japanese matsuri, or festival, and a hanabi taikai, fireworks display. With many cities offering their own matsuri, there is always a chance to see and take part in something completely different. Music, dancing, games and rows of stands selling a wide variety of seasonal fare, a summer matsuri is a great time to enjoy a living Japanese tradition. Likewise, fireworks displays are another Japanese tradition dating back over hundreds of years. One of the most famous originated as a competition between rival fireworks makers, these events attract thousands of people to watch the summer skies light up accompanied by oohs and awes.
In Japan, fall is considered by many to be the most comfortable season. While cities are alive with shopping, cafes, open-air restaurants and nightlife is in full swing, the cooler weather also encourages excursions to temples or ryo-kans (traditional inns), which are numerous throughout the countryside. Whether a short train ride from the city or an overnight stopover, the range of colors in the fall foliage is a memorable experience. Typified by the rich hues of the Japanese maple, known as momiji and which translate literally as red leaves, the fall vistas in Japan are not to be missed.
Another reason for the popularity of fall is the food. While fresh ingredients are the staple of Japanese cuisine, fall is arguably the time of year that features the best ingredients. From seafood to produce, fall offers a wide variety of in-season options that make their way to the table in restaurants and izakayas across the country. Even if only for the food, fall in Japan will bring you back for seconds.
Winter in Japan can range from the sublime beauty of a snow covered mountain side to an intimate setting around a hot pot of Japanese stew known as nabe, literally meaning simply pot but offering a taste of Japanese hospitality few other dishes can rival. Whatever your pleasure, each offers some of the best experiences available in Japan at any time of year.
Ever since the immensely successful Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998, Japan has become a leading destination for winter sports. Whether an expert snowboarder ready to take on the fresh powder of Hokkaido or a recreational skier looking for a relaxing adventure at one of Japan' s hundreds of ski resorts, winter in Japan has something to offer at every level. Even if you have never tried winter sports, rentals and lessons are always available, or for even more excitement, try your hand at snowmobiling on a specially laid out course.
For visitors seeking the ultimate Japanese experience, sitting in an outdoor hot spring called a rotenburo with the snow gently falling around you has to be one of the most memorable moments of any trip to Japan.