It’s early this year. Two days earlier than last year and 11 days earlier than the average year, the rainy season, known as “tsuyu (梅雨)”, has spread its cloak of high humidity and unpredictable downpours over Okinawa. It won’t be long until it hits the main islands (Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku), likely ahead of schedule (it usually begins in those parts of Japan around early June).
Tsuyu is not the most comfortable of seasons in Japan, but it can be an excellent time to explore the country, as most people don’t travel in Japan during this time. And despite the fact it’s called the “rainy season,” it doesn’t actually rain constantly, but heavy downpours can occur without any prior notice. If you do travel in Japan during this time, always carry an umbrella or rain gear with you. I’m originally from Seattle, Washington, USA, which is known for its gray, wet skies throughout the year, but only tourists carry an umbrella there. During my second day in Japan, after I was caught in a sudden shower that appeared on an otherwise sunny day, I bought an umbrella. Of course, the clouds disappeared when I walked out of the store, my hair and clothes dripping, umbrella in hand.
I’ve traveled during the rainy season several times, and I can attest that Japan has some lovely landscapes that are particularly striking in the rain. Hills lined with green tea bushes steam when the rain comes down, shrouding the horizon in an eerie mist. Bamboo forests, gardens and rugged cliffs with jungle-like vegetation make you feel as if you’re walking through some kind of movie set.
Regardless, whether you plan to experience Japan’s great outdoors or prefer to stay indoors where it’s dry, here are a few rainy season activities you might like to try.
Go outside. What? Outside, in the rain? As I mentioned above, it doesn’t necessarily rain all the time. Even when it does rain, don’t let it stop you from enjoying the beauty Japan has to offer. In particular, if you’re into flora, you might want to check out the hydrangeas (アジサイ, ajisai) that bloom all over Japan, typically from early to late June or mid-July. Meigetsuin in Kamakura, Kanagawa prefecture, or Mimuroto-ji’s Ajisai Garden are two options. You might prefer to stay dry by riding the Hakone Tozan Train, nicknamed the “hydrangea” train, from Odawara Station to Gora Station, where hydrangeas line the journey up the mountain (though depending on the elevation, bloom at different times). The flowers are also lit up at night.
Soak in a hot springs, or as it’s called in Japanese, onsen (温泉). This is something you can do no matter what the weather is like, all over Japan, indoors or outdoors, and it’s oh-so-relaxing.
If you have kids, or consider yourself one, check out a water amusement park. These places usually have a “body zone”, in which you wear a bathing suit, and some of them offer regular gender-separated baths as well (no bathing suits allowed). There are often different types of baths and pools and sometimes waterslides. Some offer indoor and outdoor facilities, while others are mostly or all indoor. Some options to try: Hakone Kowakien Yunessan in Hakone, Spa World in Osaka, and Nagashima Spa Land in Kuwana, Mie (near Nagoya).
Visiting a museum (博物館, hakubutsukan) is another way to pass the time during a downpour. Japan has many kinds of museums across the country, depending on your interests. Tea? Check. Science? Lots of them. Music? Yes. Dinosaur bones? Check. Ramen? Of course. Don’t forget the Kyoto International Manga Museum (if you’re walking between the Imperial palace and Kyoto station and see a bunch of people sitting outside of a building reading manga (Japanese comic books), that’s the place); the Iga-Ryu Ninja Museum in Mie prefecture; and the Ghibli Museum, from Studio Ghibli (the creators of My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, among others) near Tokyo. A few more ideas can be found here.
Shopping. A great way to spend a rainy day and see what everyday life in Japan is like. Most large train stations have underground shopping complexes (even some that seemingly go on forever). Otherwise there are usually department stores either in the same building as the train station or next to it. Major cities have endless shopping options.
Indoor entertainment such as video arcade centers (ゲームセンター), aquariums (水族館, suizokukan) bowling (ボウリング), billiards (ビリヤード) and going to the movies (映画, eiga) are a good way to pass the time when it rains. Video arcades can often be found in or near shopping centers. If you’re not sure how to find an English-speaking film or even how to look in general, you can find all you need to know about it here.
Speaking of entertainment, internet cafes (インターネットカフェ) are another way to stay dry for a few hours. Watch TV, surf the net, or do some reading. Most only cost several hundred yen for a few hours, although some may require you to sign up for a membership card before using their services. Most serve beverages, often for free, and food. Though there are many, some countrywide chains include: Aprecio, Media Cafe Popeye, and Space Create. Keep in mind that regional chains might be easier to find, as they have more stores in specific areas.
Some reader suggestions include sitting in a zen temple while watching the rain fall (if that isn’t relaxing, I’m not sure what is), going to art exhibits, and the overwhelming majority agree that exploring Japan outside in the rain is worth it, no matter how dreary it might sound. The temperature is warm, so don’t mind the rain — don some waterproof shoes, open your umbrella and take it all in.
Or you could just visit Hokkaido — they skip the rainy season altogether.
If you have a travel tip or question you’d like to see addressed in this column, drop me a line at email@example.com