Planning Your Visit to Tokyo by Season

One big factor to consider when planning a trip to Tokyo is the time of year when you’ll be visiting.

It’s not just the weather that changes—there are specific activities and even particular types of food that you can only find in different seasons.

Here is just a very brief overview of Tokyo by season.

Tokyo is at its best in spring (March–May) and autumn (late September–early November).

Summer can be oppressively hot and humid, and winter can be bitterly cold and unpleasant to spend much time outside.

Rainy season (known as tsuyu in Japanese) falls between June and July, and is wet and humid. I would recommend avoiding a visit during this time if you can help it. Why do I say this? Well, there are times where the humidity hangs in the air and you think you can’t bear it anymore, and then, finally, it rains, which is a momentary relief. Unfortunately, it’s a hot rain, which means that it’s very difficult to wear a raincoat without sweating profusely underneath it. And it’s not the hot, tropical rain of a place like Hawaii. This rain leaves everything damp and primed to grow mold—in other words, not too pleasant.

I’m staying true to the Japanese calendar and starting  my little tour with the spring. (Quick cultural note: Even though the Japanese follow the Western calendar and celebrate the New Year on December 31st/January 1st, springtime is often considered the true beginning of the year. The new school year begins in spring and office employees start their new jobs at this time of year as well.) If you’re visiting during the spring (March to April), you’ll definitely want to check out cherry blossoms.

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A few of my favorite cherry blossom spots in Tokyo include:

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  • Shinjuku-gyoen (this is especially good for the double cherry blossoms that bloom a little later)
  • Aoyama-bochi (it feels a little strange to get all tipsy and merry in a graveyard, but because cherry blossoms have such a short lifespan, there’s already something very bittersweet about them anyway)

If your visit is during the summer (July–September), you may be able to catch one of the incredible hanabi taikai (fireworks displays). I have wonderful memories of both the Sumidagawa festival and the Edogawa festival.

Going to see fireworks in Japan is a whole event—women dress up in yukata (light summer kimono), often in vibrant colors and summery patterns. Men often wear hakama, or “man kimono” as I like to call them. There’s a Japanese word, shibui, which can be translated as “sober” or “refined,” and I think this perfectly encapsulates the essence of a man wearing a hakama. 

Vendors set up stalls selling yakitori, corn on the cob, cold beer and chu-hi, and other street fare.

If you’re going to one of the big fireworks displays, prepare to get swept up into a crowd of thousands of people. It can be seriously insane and impossible to find your friends since phone networks are often spotty with so many people concentrated in one area. But it’s all worth it once you find a place to perch and watch the elaborate production.

I’ve never done this, but I remember reading that you could see fireflies in the garden at Chinzanso Hotel.

If you’re visiting Tokyo in the autumn, you may need to head a little out of town in order to enjoy koyo or autumn foliage. You can take a day trip to Kamakura, Hakone, or Nikko to visit the temples and shrines and get a little closer to nature.

Within the city, you can visit Ueno Park, Meiji Jingu and Senso-ji in Asakusa.

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I also love visiting Hamarikyu Detached Gardens in late summer/early autumn when the field of cosmos flowers is in bloom.

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Although I don’t care for the bitter cold of the winter, I LOVE the nighttime “light-ups,” where different parts of town like Omotesando, Roppongi Hills, and Tokyo Midtown are adorned with sparkly lights to help beat the winter blahs. These usually run from November to February-ish.

And there you have it—a quick guide to Tokyo by season. What time of year would you most like to visit?

One of My Favorite Tokyo Neighborhoods: Nakameguro

When you think of Tokyo, it’s easy to imagine the neon lights, the skyscrapers, and the insanely busy intersections of areas like Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Akihabara.

But like any massive metropolis, Tokyo is much more than its busy downtown-like districts. One of my favorite Tokyo neighborhoods is Nakameguro. It’s a hub of hip aesthetics with many architecture and design studios as well as boutiques and cafés that exude an aura of understated chic.

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The lazy stream of the Meguro canal sets the perfect pace for a stroll and provides an excellent landmark since it runs parallel to the main street.

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And you wouldn’t know it unless you timed your visit perfectly to coincide with the two weeks a year when sakura or cherry blossoms are in bloom, but the trees that line both sides of the canal transform the entire neighborhood into a party and bring droves of visitors from all over the city.

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I was lucky to work in this neighborhood for nearly two years, so I had time to observe it quietly, to stroll along the canal and briefly peek into the shops on my lunch break, as well as to visit when the cherry blossoms unfurled and spring fever hit in a big way.

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The streets on both sides of the canal transform into a carnival as businesses set up stalls selling cold beer, hot amazake, delightfully chewy sakura mochi, and other festival favorites. And it’s nearly impossible to walk since the streets and sidewalks are packed with thousands of revelers who have come to eat, drink, and admire the cherry blossoms.

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At nighttime, lanterns and lights illuminate the area, which means the revelry doesn’t have to stop when the sun goes down.

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I love this contrast of regular, everyday life, and the excitement and frenzy that come with the springtime and the cherry blossoms.

Getting to Nakameguro is easy! You can take the Hibiya line on the subway or the Tokyu line from Shibuya. You can also take the JR Yamanote line to Ebisu station and walk to Nakameguro in about 15 minutes.

A few cool places to check out: 

Have any stories you’d like to share or favorite spots in Nakameguro? Feel free to drop me a line in the comments section and let me know!

How Easy Is It to Get Around Tokyo If You Don’t Speak Japanese?

Planning a visit to Tokyo? Lucky you! It’s one of the most exciting, bustling, non-stop cities I’ve had the pleasure of living in. It’s also astounding that for such a large city (about 12 million people in Tokyo proper), it’s so easy to navigate, clean, and super safe.

People often wonder about what it will be like to get around Tokyo if you don’t speak Japanese. In some ways, it can be a challenge. I mean, have you SEEN the Tokyo subway map?

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But seriously, the public transportation system is great (once you get used to it).

I highly recommend using a site like Jorudan to help you plan your routes. There are often multiple ways to get from point A to point B, but not all routes are created equal. Some stations are HUGE and you’d be much better off taking the train another stop or two and transferring at a smaller station instead.

Most stations have signs in English, and many of the major lines also provide verbal and visual announcements in English, too.

The only slight problem you might encounter is that sometimes the station maps are only in Japanese. (Especially at smaller stations on non-major lines.) This can make it a challenge if you don’t know the kanji (Chinese characters) for the station you’re trying to get to. Luckily you can usually find small paper maps that have the station names in English. Once you find one of those, I highly recommend treating it like a prized possession and guarding it with your life!

Another issue that I encountered in my early days in Tokyo was wrapping my head around all the different transportation lines. In addition to the Tokyo Metro (subway) and the JR lines, there are private lines like the Tokyu line, Odakyu line, and the Keio line (to name just a few!).

The good news is that if you’re staying in a central neighborhood and visiting well-known tourist destinations, you probably won’t need to worry about this too much. And if you get a Suica or Pasmo card, you can just load it with money and go between most of the lines without buying a separate ticket.

I’ve talked a lot about transportation so far, but what if you’re walking around and trying to find a particular restaurant, shop, or museum?

In my experience, this is one of the most challenging aspects of finding your way around Tokyo. Written addresses are really not that helpful, mainly because most streets don’t have names and the numbers don’t follow a sequential pattern. So you might see building 2 next to building 101 next to building 58—all on a street with no name!

Why is everything so confusing? My favorite theory is that this is done intentionally.

Japan is a notoriously crowded country, and people’s personal space is constantly invaded on the train, in elevators, and in public. So people find whatever ways they can to create solace and privacy.

This is why, for example, many people conceal whatever book they’re reading with a paper cover, place reflective stickers over their cell phone screens, and use the “otohime” (sound princess) feature in public toilets (I’ll definitely need to come back to that in a future post!).

Basically, the only way you can find a Japanese residence is if someone escorts you there. Many businesses have detailed maps which they’ll send to customers once they make an appointment.

One of my first memories of Tokyo was when I was attempting to find the Cyberdog store in Harajuku (which has since closed). I wandered around those back streets in Harajuku for hours trying to find the store. I had the address, which I’d show to anyone I could find, and none of the other shoppers had any idea where it was. Finally, one of the shop assistants at another store called them for me and was able to point me most of the way there. When I finally found the store, it was SUCH an accomplishment!

I learned that the best way to find things in Tokyo is to just wander around and make spontaneous discoveries (rather than to try to find specific places).

When I left Japan in 2011, Google Maps was not really prevalent (or comprehensive) but in the years since then, it’s become much more common. This means that the days of wandering around forever and relying on detailed maps from your host may be coming to a close.

I hope that you won’t rely exclusively on Google maps, though. Let yourself wander around a bit and get lost. You never know what you’ll discover.

So will you be able to get around Tokyo if you don’t speak Japanese? Yes. And you will most likely find much more than you ever imagined.

Nitobe Memorial Japanese Garden in Vancouver, BC

I LOVE Japanese gardens. Even before the time that I spent living in Kyoto and Tokyo, I admired the beauty and serenity of the Japanese gardens I visited in San Francisco, Portland, and wherever else I happened to find one.

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The last time I visited Nitobe Memorial Garden   in Vancouver was many moons ago, before I had lived in Japan. I remember thinking it was beautiful, but not really knowing much about what made a Japanese garden authentic or significant.

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On this visit, one thing that really stood out to me was that at eye level, everything looked very Japanese. The plants, flowers, and moss all seemed like things I had seen in Japan.

However, if I happened to look up, I realized that I was definitely not in Japan, since the large pine trees that were towering above us were unlike anything I’d seen in Japan. You can get a sense of that in the photo below.IMAG5966

As my friend and I wandered around, we encountered a Canadian woman, who we asked to take a photo of us. She mentioned that she had lived in Kyoto and always visited this garden when she wanted to be transported back.

I told her I completely understood how she felt because I had ALSO lived in Kyoto and ALSO love to visit the Japanese garden in San Francisco whenever I’m feeling homesick for Japan.

There’s a Japanese word, natsukashii, which basically translates to “nostalgia,” but it also evokes this feeling of intense longing, of wanting to revel in the bittersweet memories of the past. Walking around a Japanese garden with an old friend from Japan in Canada definitely made me feel natsukashii.

Next time I visit a Japanese garden, I wonder how many other visitors will be experiencing that longing along with me.