Summer is almost upon us and we have now entered the rainy season. However, as I’m currently sitting in blazing sunshine and 30 degree Celsius heat (my boss still stubbornly refuses to turn on the air conditioners), one could be forgiven for thinking that summer is already here.
I still have about six weeks or so to wait before I can take some time off at the end of July. With August being the peak season for holiday makers in Japan, if you do want to get out of the city for a few days — you should probably start making those plans now.
One question I’m often asked by friends who are new to Japan is: “Where can I go to get out of the city that won’t break the bank?”
Well, here are five places places to consider visiting to get out of the metropolitan heat and into some of the — both literally and figuratively — cooler spots across Japan this summer.
NB: Prices are based on travel in late-July to mid-August. They are approximate and accurate at the time of writing. Be sure to check airline websites and hotel homepages for the latest deals.
Fukuoka offers an escape from Tokyo, but is still a fairly large city. So, if you’re an urbanite, it won’t be too big a shock to you. Although the temperature is a couple of degrees warmer than Tokyo on average, the lower humidity and smog levels will make it feel a little cooler.
Being located on the southern island of Kyushu, Fukuoka is also an easy day trip to some of Japan’s finest onsen retreats. Kumamoto — approximately 90 minutes by train from Fukuoka — has some excellent ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) offering not only excellent bathing facilities, but also some excellent hiking and historical places to visit.
- Flight time from Tokyo: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
- Price: From ¥20,000, round trip (Peach and Vanilla Air both have prices in that range, depending on the day and how much you book in advance).
With its long-running historical links to the Tokugawas (the de facto rulers of Japan for several centuries), Nikko is home to a number of fascinating historical sites, some of which even have UNESCO World Heritage recognition. Central to these attractions are the mausoleums of both Tokugawa Ieyasu, and his grandson Tokugawa Iemitsu.
If you are particularly troubled by the heat of a Tokyo summer, Nikko offers a perfect counterbalance. At almost 1,300 meters above sea level, Nikko is significantly cooler than most other parts of the Kanto region. However, it also has a lot more rainfall in summer, so prepare accordingly.
The forests and mountains around Nikko also offer great natural beauty, with waterfalls, hiking trails and plenty of wildlife. Just watch out for monkeys!
Many of the hotels and chalets in the mountains also offer a free shuttle bus or pick up service from JR Nikko station. Be sure to ask about this when making a booking.
- Train time from Tokyo: 1 hour, 45 minutes (shinkansen) or 2 hours, 45 minutes (local express train).
- Price: ¥5,180 round trip (¥11,160 if taking shinkansen).
Of all these options, Sapporo undoubtedly offers the best value for money. With flights from as little as ¥16,000 (possibly even less if you fly on certain days and use an LCC), and hotels and accommodations also being a lot cheaper than the Kanto area, Sapporo has plenty to offer. Before I came to Japan, I wouldn’t have considered going there during the summer months, after all, whenever someone mentioned Hokkaido to me, my first thoughts were winter sports and the Snow Festival that takes place in Sapporo every February.
However, after enduring my first stifling hot summer in Tokyo, I came to understand why so many of my Japanese friends loved to head up to Sapporo for a week or two in August. The summer in Hokkaido’s capital city certainly isn’t cold, but it reminds me of the summer in Scotland. Warm, but not hot. Sunny, but I can spend more than 10 minutes outside without taking on the complexion of a boiled lobster!
- Flight time from Tokyo: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
- Price: From ¥16,000, round trip (Peach and Vanilla Air both have prices in that range, depending on the day and how much you book in advance).
With August being the peak season for holiday makers in Japan, if you do want to get out of the city for a few days — you should probably start making those plans now.
I guess I should declare some personal bias here. I did, after all, live in Osaka for more than five years. However, for those coming down from Tokyo, Osaka’s biggest attribute perhaps isn’t Osaka itself, but rather its close proximity to other places for sightseeing.
Osaka has plenty to do, but you can probably cover most of the major attractions in one or two days. However, less than an hour away by local trains, there are four other major tourists destinations just waiting to be seen.
To the north, there is Kyoto, home to a wide selection of cultural and artistic attractions. To the east there is Nara, where history and nature blend together seamlessly. Make sure you bring some food for the deer!
Finally to the southwest, you will find firstly the city of Kobe. This magnificent city has a distinctly European vibe to it, especially when you visit the colonial-style houses and buildings in the Kitano district.
Kobe’s Harborland district is where the real fun is to be had, with fine dining, shops, entertainment and of course the stunning Kobe Port Tower, complete with its own top floor rotating restaurant.
Finally, a little further to the south from Kobe, you will find the historic city of Himeji, complete with its recently renovated castle at the center. No visit to the Kansai region is complete without taking in this masterpiece of Japanese feudal period design.
- Flight time from Tokyo: One hour.
- Price: From ¥10,000, round trip (Peach and Vanilla Air both have prices in that range, depending on the day and how much you book in advance).
Perhaps you are unsure of what exactly you want to get out of your short summer break. Maybe you’re looking for some culture, or to tour some places of historical significance. You may be the outdoorsy type who wants to tackle some mountains or hike through some forests. Then again, perhaps you just want to be pampered with first class service while you slump in a nice relaxing hot spring.
If however, you’re like me and fancy a little bit of all of the above, then Kanazawa may be the place for you.
Across the breadth of Honshu island from Tokyo Bay, some 150 minutes by shinkansen, lies the city of Kanazawa, the main attraction of Ishikawa Prefecture.
With the Minami Alps to the north and a bevy of onsen (Japanese hot springs) resorts to the southeast, Kanazawa caters to both the adventurous and the lazy.
You’ll also find a wealth of outstanding local food and drink options, as well as the stunning landscape views of the Sea of Japan coastline are also close at hand. Cliché though it may sound, Kanazawa really does have a bit of something for everyone.
- Train time from Tokyo: 2 hours, 30 minutes (shinkansen). Price: From ¥28,000 (round trip).
- Bus time from Tokyo: 7 hours, 30 minutes. Price: From ￥11,000 (round trip)
Although I’ve never used their service, I am aware that in recent times many people — including a lot of my friends — have taken advantage of Airbnb when booking accommodations for their trips in and around Japan.
However, as you may have read elsewhere, Japan has tightened its laws on subletting and the Airbnb platform recently.
Although hosts are still allowed to rent for 180 days per year, many listings have been removed from Airbnb Japan in the last couple of weeks — and at the time of this writing had yet to return. Therefore, if you still want to go this route for your accommodations, be sure to double check with your potential host before you finalize your plans — you’ll want to know if they are officially registered with the service. If you have booked an upcoming stay, you should have already received a notice if the reservation has been cancelled but either way — double checking is a good idea!
Hotels fill up fast in July and August, especially in the bigger cities, so if you do need to find an alternative, you’ll need to act fast. Hotels, of course, are more expensive, but they are far less likely to cancel on you unexpectedly.
So, where do you want to visit in Japan this summer? Perhaps you know some hidden gems to share with readers. If so let us know in the comments!