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Japan has something to offer in every season, from cherry blossoms in spring to the most luscious snow in winter. But in the country’s warmer months, say “konichiwa” to balmy conditions that demand attentive wanders through Tokyo streets, Bento boxes in Yoyogi Park and outdoor ferry rides to art island Naoshima. Summer is the perfect time to immerse yourself in outdoor Japanese culture, with conditions that brighten everything this amazing country has to offer. Time to get planning to visit Japan in summer!
Let’s get one thing straight: Japan is no hidden tourist gem. It’s frequented by millions of tourists every year, but the beauty of visiting this island nation is that you can undertake a completely unique trip right alongside masses of other visitors. And there’s no better time than summer to embark on such a trip. Whether you’ve got three days or thirty, you can get a lot done in Japan, with hot days and warm nights the conduit for easy movement.
Toyko in summer
Japan in summer can be hot. In Tokyo, the capital city, it consistently hovers above the 26-degree mark, often edging into the 30s, and it gets humid. But during this balmy season, you can feel the exotic and the familiar combined in a surreal and enticing way.
Tokyo pulsates as it does in any season, abuzz with constant light, sound and activity. But whatever hibernation has happened in winter, it’s over in summer, and places left less frequented by the cooler seasons become lively and occupied again. Yoyogi Koen, or Yoyogi Park, located in Shibuya just near Harajuku station is one such beautiful place, and a must-see space in one of the world’s most populous metropolitan areas.
Thousands of Japanese maples, ginko trees, black pines, dogwood and stone oaks tower over head or sprawl out in front, creating a leafy canopy and quiet from the frenzy of the city. From the inside, Yoyogi Park feels enormous, but amazingly, this is only the fifth-largest park in Tokyo. Grab a bento box, sandwich or some karaage chicken from 7-Eleven (yes, the food there is both cheap and delicious) and really sprawl out on the lawns or the near the lake to make the most of this true Japanese sanctuary.
Having caught respite through the day, balmy nights can be spent wandering around Tokyo and letting restaurants, beer houses, gaming arcades, Purikura photo booths and karaoke bars beckon. There’ll be no shuffling around in heavy jackets and blistering cold. In Japan in summer, a degree of reckless abandon takes hold and umeshu sodas (Japanese plum liqueur topped with soda and ice) flow. There’s a multitude of rooftop bars open in Japan in summer to explore the city from more dramatic heights, too.
When choosing where to eat, it’s hard to put a foot wrong, but you’ll be rewarded for research and adventurousness. The usual suspects like ramen or sushi and sashimi will yield extraordinary results, and there’ll be few moments when you’re not astonished by the depth and quality of food available in Japan. But if there is one recommendation to impart, it is to visit Tonki, the true masters of tonkatsu.
Tonkatsu is a deep-fried breaded pork cutlet, and Tonki, which opened its doors in 1939, is an institution of this seemingly simple dish. To sit in the open plan around the chefs, each tasked with a very specific part of the tonkatsu preparation and service – there’s frying and slicing the cutlet, shaving cabbage, right through to plating with a dollop of mustard and serving with rice and miso soup – is to watch history and culture at work. In summer, the doors will be opened with only traditional Japanese fabric dividers, noren, separating you from the rest of the Tokyo. At Tonki there’s order and elegance, as is embodied by so much of Japan.
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Exploring wider Japan in summer
Beyond the capital city, Japan’s summer, spanning from June to August, provides clement conditions that encourage easy travel between the country’s cities and prefectures. The weather, combined with the Shinkansen bullet train, a source of great national pride, rockets you around the country at 320 kilometres an hour. So, to cover the 450km-odd journey from Tokyo to Kyoto takes only a few hours. On the way, blue skies abound, the vast green of farm land unrolls like carpet, and mountains, including the monstrous Mount Fuji, fill the horizon.
Visiting the ancient capital
In Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital city, the Fushimi Inari Shrine is hard to miss. Here, thousands of vermillion torii gates mark the path up to the Shinto Shrine on the sacred Mount Inari. But with this cultural site, as the saying goes, it’s not the destination but the journey that counts. Like Yoyogi Park’s green canopy, there’s a tunnel effect created by the gates, and you are temporarily transported to a different and very far away place, despite proximity to major cities. Add to this enchanting ascent the likelihood of tropical rain in summer – rain falls on an average of 25 days during summer in Japan – and the Fushimi Inari Shrine takes on a truly mystical quality. Rather than obfuscate travel, rain can be easily combated with a cheap rain jacket, acquired at most convenience stores, which are practically omnipresent in Japan.
Checking out the “art island”
From Kyoto, career south again to visit Naoshima, an island devoted entirely to contemporary art. A ferry is required to access the island, providing a tranquil way to examine the surrounding Seto Inland Sea. On Naoshima, The Benesee Corporation are responsible for the establishment of most galleries, including the Chichu Art Museum, Lee Ufan Museum and unsurprisingly, all the buildings of the Benesse House. These can be accessed by bus, bike or foot, but in choosing the latter two you should know the intensity of hills you’re signing up for. Some are steep indeed, but you’ll be rewarded for your hard work. Seeing the famed Yellow Pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama in the flesh, despite no shortage of Instagram replications, is a delight and demands childlike exploration. There’s something for everyone on Naoshima, and the site definitely succeeds at fusing art and the natural world, inspiring contemplation.
Day trips from Tokyo
Back in Tokyo you can mull over many other day trips; a consideration afforded by almost no other country and thanks in large part to the Shinkansen. Myoko Kogen, for example, revealed what a popular ski town in winter transforms into in summer. It is lush green mountains, waterfalls and naturally-occurring outdoor onsens. It is a sleepy town in summer, devoid of the action of the snow season, but a look at more regional Japan in the brightest and most accommodating season of all. Myoko Kogen provided yet another stark change from the sleeplessness and endurance of Tokyo city, defying belief that you travelled only a few hours to get there.
The season for festivals
But if the parks or tonkatsu or art island didn’t grab you, Japan’s balmy summer is full of cultural festivals and celebrations, many marked with hanabi, or fireworks. Tokyo hosts some of the biggest fireworks displays in Japan in summer, including the Sumida River Fireworks Festival, which celebrates its 285th year in 2018. If that still didn’t pique your interest, then take a look at Fuji Rock Festival, a renowned international music festival running for three days over the last weekend of July. That has good times written all over it.
Japan in summer is a spectacular amalgam of history, colour, flavour and action, underscored by perpetual ease and safety of travel. For those dwelling in Australia’s more southern cities, it also provides some welcome warmth and sunshine during the harsher winter months. You don’t need long to accomplish a great deal in Japan, and make no mistake, summer is the best time to do it. Because for me, Japan is definitely best balmy.