Rain on your Parade? Ways to beat the weather blues in Japan!
Japan has pretty dynamic weather patterns compared to many countries. With the exception of the southernmost island prefecture of Okinawa, there are four true seasons, each with their own unique characteristics and range of weather events that can threaten your travel plans. Take it from a guy who has trudged through the rain without an umbrella more times than he'd like to admit, been caught in an unexpected snow storm while walking to a concert, and has hunkered down for countless typhoons here, Japanese weather can really mess with your travel plans if you're not prepared and don't have some inclement weather options in your hip pocket. So, please allow me to offer a few tips as well as some of the best inclement weather activities Japan has to offer to help you beat the rainy day blues.
Without further ado...
We'll start with the different types of inclement weather you can expect in Japan, beginning with autumn/winter weather events, then spring, then summer.
Snow: The good news is that we are past most of the severe/erratic weather events in Japan for the year. Autumn is Japan's best season with the most stable weather patterns, but as you transition to winter, snow becomes a consideration. Most of Japan sees little snowfall, though other places (like Niigata and Hokkaido), has some of the most snowfall in the entire world. Fortunately, places that are used to that kind of heavy snowfall design their roads and cities to accommodate that white powdery stuff. Things like road sprinklers, massive fleets of snow plows, and underground pedestrian networks all help travelers enjoy the sights without getting bogged down.
That said, popular tourist destinations which aren't used to heavy snowfall (Tokyo, Kyoto, etc.) will effectively shut down in the event of a major snowstorm. Keep in mind that while trains are still relatively reliable, roads will close and flights will be affected. Snow is heaviest in January and February. High Winds: High winds are normally associated with seasonal changes and typhoons, but they can accompany almost any season in Japan. Most of the time, high winds are not something that will affect most of your travel plans, but if you wake up in the morning and see the wind blowing something fierce, you may want to rethink your day's agenda. This is especially true if you are planning to ride on ropeways/gondolas in the mountains or visit an amusement park with fireworks displays, since Japanese companies will shut down those types of operations in the event of high winds. You may want to push those off and try again another less windy day.
Heavy Rain: Japan's rainy season is in the summer time (usually late May to early July), but I've been told on multiple occasions that the two items that almost every Japanese adult will carry are business cards and an umbrella. Heavy rain will obviously affect any outdoor activities you may have planned, but unless there is flooding, you can expect all other businesses to run as normal, no matter how much water may be falling from the sky.
Heat/Humidity: Japanese summers are among the most oppressive in the world, because of the combination of heat and high humidity. In fact, in Tokyo, they will warn residents on emergency broadcast speakers of the potential for high temperatures, since heat-related illness is a common hazard in Japan. As with any other hot place, hydration, regular breaks, and shade/cooling are important.
Typhoons: Typhoons are the most disruptive weather events in Japan. The combination of high winds and heavy rains affect most road and air transport, and a lot of businesses will shut down if the typhoon is bad enough. Fortunately, there are ways to enjoy Japan even if you are facing down a major storm.
Best Things to do to Beat Inclement Weather
Now that you're aware of the different types of inclement weather you're likely to encounter along your journeys in Japan, allow me to offer some of the best inclement weather travel activities that will still allow you to make the most of your vacation.
Obviously, shopping is an all-weather option (provided you're not planning on going to an outdoor market) for enjoying Japan. You can buy those souvenirs you need to get for family and friends, find that cute outfit you've been wanting, or pick up some of those awesome (or wacky) Japanese gadgets that you've read about online. Here are the three best inclement weather shopping options:
Malls: Malls have been popping up all over Japan, largely thanks to big mall companies that see the value of giving shoppers a one-stop option for food, shopping, and entertainment. Japanese malls offer Japan's most popular name-brands (Uniqlo, GU, Beams, Niko and...) as well as a bevy of tasty eating options either in the food court or the restaurant areas. The best mall chains in Japan are Aeon Malls (just search Google for the nearest Aeon).
Arcades: No, I don't mean those places where you go to play videogames, I mean covered shopping streets. Most Japanese cities have at least one covered shopping area offering restaurants, retail stores, karoake, bars, etc. The Japanese words most commonly used to describe covered shopping areas in Japan are shōtengai (商店街) or arcade-gai(アーケード街). They'll usually be featured on most city or town tourist pamphlets/websites, or you can ask your hotel front desk if they can point you in the right direction if you are searching for one.
Underground shopping centers: Some places that have extreme weather (typically cold weather/heavy snow) will have underground shopping centers. Japan's most famous example is in Hokkaido's capital city of Sapporo. These are great places to go to enjoy a good shopping/dining experience regardless of what the weather is doing above ground.
Earlier, I mentioned that arcades in Japan refer to shopping streets. Well, Game Centers refer to what we Americans most commonly call arcades. Although many won't need an excuse to dive into a game center to play the latest and greatest Japanese games, Game Centers make great bad-weather options because of the range of activities they have. You can play traditional-style arcade games, try your hand at some of the betting style games, try to win some stuffed animals or other merchandise from a UFO catcher, or wile away the hours taking loads of cute print club (puri-kura) photos. When I was a kid, there were a lot of smaller mom-and-pop game centers, but now, the easiest ones to find are the bigger places like Club Sega and Taito.
For those of you who are like me and don't mind geeking out, Japan has more museums than you can count. Poor weather simply gives you an additional excuse to take time to visit the many museums Japan has to offer, especially those you might have otherwise overlooked. In fact, one of my most memorable museum-going experiences was when I was in Kanazawa City (Ishikawa prefecture) and ducked into the Suzuki Daisetz Museum to ride out a torrential downpour (again, since I never remember to carry an umbrella). I never would have thought to visit a museum dedicated to a modern-era Japanese philosopher, but it turned out that the architecture of the museum lent itself beautifully to the weather, and the content gave me much to ponder.
Karaoke is one of those things that many travelers will do regardless of weather, but heavy rains, typhoons, or snow may just give you that extra impetus to hunker down in a karaoke box for a few hours with some tunes, food, and drinks. Karaoke has been a mainstay in Japanese popular culture for decades now, so it is a fun and non-weather dependent way to do something quintessentially Japanese!
Many people do not like spending time at the movies while on vacation, since it is something you can do back home, but there are a few reasons to go see movies in Japan. First, the theaters are pristine--clean and comfortable with quality screens and speakers. Second, Japanese moviegoers are extremely courteous. You can hear a pin drop in the theater during most of the viewing. Third, you can see some of those Japanese movies that may or may not make it back to your home country. Keep in mind that most Japanese movie theaters will offer both subtitled and dubbed versions of English-language films, so be sure to pick the jimaku字幕 version!
[As a note, Japan has some great indie movie venues, the best of which in Tokyo are in Shimokitazawa].
Japan is one of the only places in the world I've been that has amusement parks that are entirely indoors. The best (and one of my favorite options) is Joypolis. Since there is a lot less space to house all of the attractions, Joypolis offers a mix of VR, simulators, and story-based attractions for entertainment. It is an entirely unique amusement park experience; one that is worth visiting regardless of weather, but even more so if you encounter a foul weather day.
When the weather is bad, onsen provide a nice respite. In the spring time, you can beat the rain by enjoying a wonderful indoor Japanese tradition. In the heat of the summer, you can wash off the sweat and stickiness from Japanese humidity. In the autumn and winter, you can beat the chill in the hot bath. I'll tell you that there is almost nothing better than sitting in an outdoor hot spring (covered, of course) when there is snow piling up all around you.
Best Places to wait out the weather: Ryokan
The single best way to ride out any severe weather in Japan is a traditional style, all-inclusive ryokan. Most ryokan offer full-board as well as a range of in-house activities including karaoke, ping pong, cafe lounges, and even mini-game centers. Of course, best of all is the relaxation you can do in your room or in private or public onsen in the Ryokan. Throw some delicious kaiseki food and fantastic omotenashi (staff hospitatily) on top of that, and you have it made. After all, if you're going to be stuck indoors thanks to awful weather, why not do it in the most relaxing fashion possible?
Best place in Tokyo for a bad weather day: Odaiba
This is a rather specific recommendation, but since most travelers to Japan will hit Tokyo up at some point, allow me to offer Tokyo's best inclement weather travel destination. Odaiba is located on a man-made island in Tokyo bay, and a favorite destination regardless of the weather (after all, who doesn't want to see that new Giant Gundam statue?). In all seriousness though, Odaiba offers every one of the inclement weather options (yes, even the onsen) in a single area accessible by train, taxi, or bus. Since almost all of the best activities in Odaiba are meant for indoors, I say keep this one in reserve in case you get that unexpected foul weather day.
So there you have it...
...ways to beat the bad weather in Japan. I truly wish you the best of weather when you are journeying in Japan, but in case that doesn't happen, I hope this article helps you maximize your trip regardless of whatever rain, snow, or other extreme weather stands in your way.
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