Travelling to Japan during the Rainy Season


So you’re going to Japan during rainy season. What a bummer is most likely your first thought, spring or autumn would’ve been so much prettier! If it were summer you could go to the beach, see one of the many summer festivals, hear cicadas singing in the trees... If it were winter you might see snow, the onsen would feel great, New Year in another country.
But what does the rainy season have going for it?
Rainy season in Japan is roughly from mid-June to mid-July (in Okinawa it starts and ends a month earlier) and is referred to as tsuyu, which means “plum rain” because it coincides with the season of plums ripening. But if you booked your tickets during those dates without knowing about the weather or that’s simply the only time you can travel: not all hope is lost. Tsuyu comes with many great things too!
Rainy day in Tokyo, photo from the Himiko Boat

NATURE

Spring isn't the only season with flowers, in June and July there are also many to look out for! Hydrangeas are the most common, seen at many different temples and gardens. Like most flowers, they usually start earlier in the south and then start moving north. In Tokyo they will still look good the first few days of July, but in Hiroshima they'd be mostly wilted by then. Irises and lotus can also be found in many places. Sunflowers start to appear in early July further south but are usually peak in August from Tokyo northwards.
Lotus in Korakuen Garden
Garden at Shorinzan Daruma-ji

Apart from flowers, the mountains, grass, gardens and parks are all very green and lively.
This is also a great time to visit a smaller town or take a train ride through some rural areas, as it's the rice planting season. While most rice planting happens earlier in June (I've yet to catch farmers in action), it's still very easy to see the fields full of water and the rice starting to grow. In August the rice is already very tall and it can be hard to see the water in the fields, needless to say that during other months they are simply dry, but in June and July you can see the reflection of the sky and trees and houses on the water. So beautiful!
Rice fields in June

SMALLER CROWDS

Since June isn’t high season and doesn’t really coincide with any big Japanese holidays, you’re most likely to find accommodations easier, sometimes even cheaper, than other times of the year. I make reservations about a month in advance and have never had any problems. Compared to sakura season, when reserving a month in advance may prove quite difficult since many places will be full, especially in Kyoto, it's good to not have to worry about not finding a place to sleep. Sometimes I've even contacted a hostel that same day asking if they had any empty beds and easily found a place to sleep.
Hostel dorm room all to myself again!

When it rains tourists usually prefer indoors’ activities, so often you get to see all the lovely shrines and temples outside with few other visitors or even have the place to yourself.
Asakusa doesn't really look so empty during the day, but there are no crowds early morning!

FESTIVALS AND CELEBRATIONS

Unfortunately this isn't a time to see festivals. It's the last month of school before the summer holidays and people are working hard the last few weeks they have. There are still a few things going on though, one of which I really try hard to find.
I'm talking about the summer purification! At the start of summer, around the very last days of June or the very first of July, some shinto shrines set up a small ceremony to wash away any bad luck accumulated during the year. It includes passing through a chinowa ring in a series of loops and sometimes also cleaning yourself with a small white paper doll. The opening ceremony is pretty formal, people will show up in suits and serious faces, so I'm always slightly intimidated to participate with my tourist looks, however the ring is left at the shrine for a week or two and you can do your own cleansing whenever you wish. There's usually a sign with pictures telling you what to do.
Chinowa at a Gokoku Shrine, plus some Tanabata decorations there in the back

Tanabata is another thing going on, it's also one of my favourite festivals. Unlike most matsuri, Tanabata doesn't happen all in one day. Another good thing is that it happens all over the country, rather than in just one place. The towns will make the decorations themselves and they'll start to appear around the shopping streets days before the celebration itself. Little bamboo trees everywhere with wishes hanging from the thin branches, many times you'll be able to write and hang your own wishes, it's nice to see each different place getting prepared for the festival. I've been through countless towns with Tanabata decorations and I never get tired of seeing the colourful banners!
Tanabata is sometimes celebrated on July 7th, other times on August 7th, depending on where you go. Usually places in the Tohoku Region do it in August to go together with Sendai's Tanabata Matsuri, the biggest tanabata festival in Japan, however Tokyo and Osaka and places in Chugoku do it in July.
It may be a bit hard to find information about where each city's celebration happens, it's seems more like the locals' secret, but in Tokyo they have a big parade in Asakusa's Kappabashi Street (in the morning, I think it was around 10am or so), though banners can be seen in many backstreets, and in Osaka they prefer to do things in the evening of the 7th. At Shitennoji Temple they have a little fair and you can eat some interesting festival food and see people wearing yukatas, the bigger parade is down next to Okawa River (in front of Tenjin-bashi-suji Bridge) where they throw many blue glowing balls into the water as far as the eye can see and it looks like the milky way. Both things happen at the same time (7-9pm) so you'd have to run a bit if you want to go to both places in Osaka.
Decorations ready a few days before Tanabata...

Kyoto is its own story. The Gion Matsuri lasts all through July, so even the first days of the month will have some things going on!

WEATHER

It's slightly ironic that I mention weather as a positive point. It doesn’t rain all the time though, regardless of the name of the season. When it does rain it can go two ways; it's only a drizzle and will last a while, or it can feel like somebody in the clouds is purposely dumping a bucket of water on you. The second one tends to be over quickly but it will leave you soaked if you don't have an umbrella, or only your shoes if you do have one. After it rains strong one day it will likely be sunny the next day. The drizzles tend to happen on and off all day with grey skies but aren't really annoying, in this case it might get a bit chilly.
The reason I mention weather is because it's the ideal temperature. You won't have to suffer through the summer heat of August nor wear who-knows-how-many layers like in winter. Either shorts or long pants are okay, and I often wear just a shirt (I take a thin jumper for the mornings), so as you can probably guess the luggage will be extra light with only a few clothes to carry.
Night is coming...

The sun rises early and doesn’t set until much later in the day (around 6-7pm), so you get plenty of daylight hours too. If you really want to skip the rain you could make an itinerary based on the dates. Same as like flowers, the rainy season starts in the south and starts climbing, so in Kyushu it will start earlier in June but in Tohoku most rain comes in July. In Hokkaido they don't have much rain either way.

Tips for travelling during the rainy season

Here are some things that might make the rainy season a bit easier to deal with:
- Since it’s pretty humid in Japan, anything that gets wet will be hard to dry on its own. You may want to use a dryer or, if you’re going for the cheaper option, don’t leave the washing until the last day so it has plenty of time to dry! Shoe racks in hostels (sometimes hotels, if you have to take your shoes off too) can get pretty smelly because of this too, sometimes I leave my wet shoes outside the cupboard so they dry quicker.
- Japan is a really safe country and I’m never worried that someone is going to steal from me, but for some reason umbrellas sometimes disappear!
- There are many indoors activities if you really want to avoid the rain. It sometimes pays off to have an alternative itinerary depending on the weather.
- Rainy season is when those horrendously long centipedes like to come out the most (called mukade). Don't touch them, by the way, they're venomous. Bees, wasps, cicadas and a number of other little bugs also start to appear if it's sunny but they won't do anything if you don't annoy them. Dragonflies too, but I really like those. They are so elegant.
Well, those are my experiences and thoughts. I really like travelling during tsuyu because I don't see rain often here in Spain, the mist in the mornings also gives many places a mysterious and interesting feeling. When is your favourite month to travel to Japan?

Sam Lesmana