Although Tokyo's busiest foreign-tourist season is summer, the city lends itself to visiting year-round. In fact, when the rest of Japan is besieged with vacationing Japanese during Golden Week (Apr 29-May 5) and summer vacation (mid-July through Aug), Tokyo can be blissfully empty, as Tokyoites pour out of the city to the countryside. Keep in mind, however, that in mid-February, hotel rooms may be in short supply as high-school students from around the nation converge on Tokyo to compete in entrance exams for the city's prestigious universities. In addition, popular tourist destinations outside Tokyo, such as Nikko, Kamakura, and Hakone, will be jam-packed on major holidays. And from December 31 through the first 2 to 4 days of January, it seems as though the entire nation shuts down, including most restaurants and museums.
The Japanese are very proud of the fact that Japan has four distinct seasons; they place much more emphasis on the seasons than people do in the West. Kimono, dishes and bowls used for kaiseki (elaborate feasts utilizing seasonal food), and Noh plays all change with the seasons, and most festivals are tied to seasonal rites. Even Tokyoites note the seasons: Almost as though on cue, businesspeople will change virtually overnight from their winter to summer business attire. And when the cherry blossoms burst forth, it seems like the entire metropolis comes out to greet them.
Summer, which begins in June, is heralded by the rainy season, which lasts from about mid-June to mid-July in Tokyo. July, on the average, has 10 to 12 rainy days, but even though it doesn't rain every day, umbrellas are imperative. When the rain stops, it gets unbearably hot and humid through August -- you might want to head for Hakone for a bit of fresh air. Otherwise, you'll be most comfortable in light cottons, and you'd be wise to pack sunscreen and a hat (Japanese women are also fond of sun parasols), but be sure to pack a lightweight jacket for unexpected cool evenings and overly air-conditioned rooms. The period from the end of August through September is typhoon season, though most storms stay out at sea and vent their fury on land as thunderstorms.
Autumn, which lasts September through November, is one of the best times to visit Tokyo. The days are pleasant and slightly cool, the skies are a brilliant blue, and the maple trees turn scarlet. Bring a warm jacket.
Winter lasts from about December to March in Tokyo, with days that are generally clear and cold with extremely low humidity. Tokyo doesn't get much snow, but it can, so be prepared. I remember one winter when snow fell in a slushy mush through March and into the cherry-blossom season. In any case, the temperature is usually above freezing.
Spring is ushered in by a magnificent fanfare of plum and cherry blossoms in March and April, an exquisite time of year when all of Japan is set ablaze in whites and pinks. The blossoms last only a few days, symbolizing to the Japanese the fragile nature of beauty and of life itself. Tokyo may still have cool, rainy weather until May, so be sure to bring a light raincoat or jacket.
National holidays are January 1 (New Year's Day), second Monday in January (Coming-of-Age Day), February 11 (National Foundation Day), March 20 (Vernal Equinox Day), April 29 (Showa Day, after the late Emperor Showa), May 3 (Constitution Memorial Day), May 4 (Greenery Day), May 5 (Children's Day), third Monday in July (Maritime Day), third Monday in September (Respect-for-the-Aged Day), September 23 (Autumn Equinox Day), second Monday in October (Health Sports Day), November 3 (Culture Day), November 23 (Labor Thanksgiving Day), and December 23 (Emperor's Birthday).
When a national holiday falls on a Sunday, the next day, Monday, becomes a holiday. The most important holidays for the Japanese are New Year's, Golden Week (Apr 29-May 5), and the O-Bon Festival (about a week in mid-Aug). Avoid traveling on these dates at all costs, since long-distance trains and most accommodations are booked solid (and are often more expensive). The weekends before and after these holidays are also likely to be very crowded. Luckily, Tokyo is an exception -- since the major exodus is back to hometowns or the countryside, holidays such as Golden Week can be almost blissful in the metropolis. Another busy travel time is during summer-school holidays, around July 19 through August, when the Japanese take vacations en masse.
Although government offices and many businesses are closed on public holidays, restaurants and most stores remain open. The exception is during the New Year's celebration, the end of December through January 3 or 4, when almost all restaurants, public and private offices, and stores close up shop; during that time, you'll have to dine in hotels.
All museums close for New Year's for 1 to 4 days, but most major museums remain open for the other holidays. If a public holiday falls on a Monday (when most museums are closed), many museums will remain open but will close instead the following day, on Tuesday. Note that privately owned museums, however, such as art museums or special-interest museums, generally close on public holidays. To avoid disappointment, be sure to phone ahead if you plan to visit a museum on or the day following a holiday.