The Beauty of Japan’s Stormy Season
By Samuel White on 19 Jun 2017
When you're visiting Japan pay close attention to the weather, as conditions vary extremely from season to season. You'll often hear it said that spring and autumn are ideal, with mild, dry conditions, and the chance to experience the famous cherry blossom celebrations if you visit around the end of April. Summer is stiflingly hot, and the intensity of the heat and humidity can be draining if you're doing a lot of walking. Winter is crisp and cold, with clear blue skies and deep powder snow in the northern regions. What you might hear less about is the rainy season, beyond a general warning not to visit at that time because it's very, well... rainy. However, although it's certainly not for everyone, I've always thought that the rainy season has an atmosphere all of its own, and transforms the Japanese scenery in sometimes profoundly attractive ways.
The rainy season, called tsuyu in Japanese, moves gradually north across the Japanese archipelago. It starts at the beginning of May in Okinawa, hits Tokyo around the beginning of June, and will run through to the end of July at the northernmost parts of Honshu, Japan's biggest land mass. Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's four main islands, remains largely unaffected.
In a typical rainy season, the temperature drops a little, but remains warm, and the humidity rises. Expect overcast skies, and occasional thundery rumbling. While it doesn't rain all the time, there's a constant chance of a downpour, or at least a fine drizzle hanging in the air.
For some, this doesn't appeal at all, but certain spots are brought to life by the slate grey skies, constant threat of storms, beautifully soft light, and eerie mists.
Woodland appears deep and lush; on temple grounds, dark green moss contrasts with wet grey stone; and if you read up on Japanese folklore before you arrive, you might find yourself spooked by imaginings of ghostly apparitions.
Here are three places which are particularly worth visiting during the rainy season, at which time they can become uniquely evocative.
This is a spiritual retreat not too far from Osaka, but you certainly don't have to be a true believer to make the journey. Set on top of a mountain in Wakayama prefecture is a network of about 120 temples making up a small village. It's the ancient headquarters of a sect of Buddhism called Shingon.
You can stay overnight in a temple, and eat shojin ryori—the traditional vegetarian food of the monks. Wandering around the town is a serene experience, and the best part of the area is Okunoin Cemetery. From the edge of town, the ancient cemetery sprawls out mysteriously into the surrounding woodland. As you progress into its depths, hidden gravestones appear at the edges of your vision, overgrown with bracken, and trees encroach the path, scattering light through their overhanging branches. Tombs are weatherbeaten and worn, and vary considerably in size and design. Meandering through here in the rainy season, the elements and surroundings can conspire to create an environment that will by turns have you puzzling over Buddhist traditions, in awe at the beauty, and completely spooked out.
To reach Koya-san from Osaka, take the Nankai express from Namba Station to Gokurakubashi, the final stop of a journey that takes about two hours. From there you can take the cable car up the mountain, and then a bus into the town.
This area is a popular getaway for Tokyo residents, and can make for an ideal overnight excursion from the capital. It's a volcanic highlands region of great natural beauty where you can take in stunning views of Mt Fuji, and hike through dense woodland. It needn't be an intense trekking experience though, as there are plenty of easy trails, or you can eschew the walking altogether and spend your time bathing in some of Japan's best known natural hot springs, known as onsen in Japanese.
Soaking in an outdoor spring in the rainy season, intoxicated by the steam, the sound of the falling rain, and—if you pick the right spot—the verdant, mist-draped natural surroundings, is an experience you'll never forget, and will make you feel very far from home.
Ashinoko (Lake Ashi), is a tranquil area, largely unspoiled but well used to catering for tourists, and with a number of good onsen to choose from. Hakone-Yumoto, which stands at the entrance to the Hakone area, is a long established onsen town which can be very easily accessed from Tokyo.
You can go directly from Tokyo's Shinjuku Station to Hakone-Yumoto, using the Odakyu Line's Romance Car. It takes less than one and a half hours. If you take a regular express train on the same line, you'll have to change at Odawara Station, and it will take two hours, but you'll save about 900 yen.
If botanical attractions are something that interests you, then a further positive side of visiting Japan in the rain is that June is hydrangea season. The Japanese for hydrangea is ajisai, and you might hear that word being mentioned a lot if you take a visit to Hakusan Shrine. This is in the Bunkyo-ku area, right in the centre of Tokyo, and is primarily known for its ajisai matsuri, meaning, very straightforwardly, hydrangea festival.
The area, despite Tokyo's constant redevelopment, still has parts which reflects a more old-fashioned version of the metropolis. The shrine itself is small, but has over 3000 hydrangea plants, and becomes relatively busy during the festival. It's low key and quaint, the roads around the shrine become lined with smoky food stalls, and the crowds are in no great hurry as they meander along, cooing knowledgeably at the flowers.
You don't need a whole day here, but it makes an interesting diversion from the non-stop urban bustle of central Tokyo.
The festival is held mid-June, and to get to the shrine you can take the Toei Mita Line to Hakusan Station, or the Tokyo Metro Namboku Line to Hon-komagome Station.
Sam is a writer and photographer from the UK who has lived in Tokyo for several years. He covers a wide range of topics, including politics, current affairs, music, and travel. He loves taking photographs around the incredibly diverse streets and districts of Tokyo, in which all kinds of fascinating people and places can be encountered.