7 ways to soak in Japan’s rainy season traditions
Constant gray skies and gloomy showers can only mean one thing in the so-called Land of the Rising Sun: The rainy season.
It starts to fall on Okinawa in late May followed by mainland Japan and Kyushu Island in early June. Cold northerly and warm southerly air masses collide to create 45 to 50 days of a continuous dreary weather front of clouds dropping anything from drizzle to torrential downpours.
But there’s no reason to let the bad weather get you down. Look on the bright side.
The rainy season is cheerily referred to as “tsuyu,” or plum rain, in Japan, as it coincides with the seasonal ripening of this luscious fruit. And with southern to central temperatures in the mid to high 70s (the high 60s farther north), Japan offers more seasonal outdoor activities than you can shake an umbrella at.
For starters, it’s one of the best times of the year to visit the northern island of Hokkaido. Chances are you may not even need that umbrella. Since Hokkaido is barely affected by this weather front, many locals travel there during the rainy season to escape the stifling humidity often visited upon the rest of Japan.
If you can’t make it that far north there’s still no need to resort to long weekends indoors with video games or TV. It may be the rainy season but it actually does not rain every day. (For example, the average number of rainy days in June is only 12 on the Kanto Plain, according to Japan Meteorological Agency.)
Even if it does rain, it will add a certain ambiance to your strolls along the streets of old towns and quaint neighborhoods. The rain makes old temples, gardens and traditional houses seem all the more elegant.
While out, look for cute small white ghost-like dolls made from single piece of cloth or tissue hanging from the eaves or on the windows of houses. Often children, and even some adults, make these little “teruteru bozu,” or sunshine monks, to ward off bad weather for the next day when a fieldtrip or other outdoor event is planned.
In fact, why not make your own teruteru bozu?
Also, don’t miss the opportunity to take in the beauty of seasonal foliage.
With plenty of water falling amid the early summer warmth, several pretty flowers are also in bloom this time of year. Both hydrangeas (“ajisai”) and irises (“shobu”) are in full bloom in mainland Japan, while irises and shell ginger (“gettou”) are abloom on Okinawa. Flowering shell ginger heralds the rainy season on the southern islands; hydrangeas embody the season on the mainland.
The hydrangea’s original colors can vary from white, pink, violet and blue, and they gradually shift to different colors. Some change from pink to purple, and others from blue to violet or fade in intensity throughout the course of the 4- to 6-week season.
Peak flower viewing season on Okinawa is mid-May to the end of June, while it runs from mid-June to early July on the mainland.
In Japan’s central regions firefly viewing, or “hotaru gari,” (literally firefly hunting) is another favorite rainy season pastime. Lightning bugs are active at riverside, ponds, bushes or rice fields in the humid evenings, right after it rains on windless nights without moonlight.
Countless slowly moving tiny lights filling the air and drifting from one leaf to another make a spectacular sight. But don’t catch them, as the endangered bug’s life lasts only seven to 10 days. Like fireworks festivals in Japan, “yukata” (summer kimono) and an “uchiwa” (fan) are appropriate attire for this traditional pastime.
On Okinawa, rainy season usually begins just after the Golden Week holidays that take place around late April to the first week of May, and that means dragon boat races galore. While some large cities such as Naha have already held their dragon boat festivals, there are still nine taking place between June 7 and 12 in various locations such as Itoman, Ieshima, Oujima, Irabujima, Yanagunijima and Ishigakijima.
Dragon boat races are held in fishing communities throughout Okinawa. These “hari” are also known as “kaijin-sai” (unjami) or fishermen festivals; they are a way to give thanks to the sea god and pray for safe and prosperous fishing.
Memorial services on Okinawa Memorial Day (June 23) is another important event during the rainy season. Okinawans commemorate the end of the Battle of Okinawa during a big memorial service for the war dead at Itoman Peace Memorial Park every year.
So take up your umbrella and enjoy the rainy season outdoors. By walking in the rain, perhaps while singing, you just might discover attractions that are only available during this time of year.
MITO HYDRANGEA FESTIVAL (Ibaraki prefecture): Through July 3; 60 varieties of hydrangea, 6,000 trees in Mito Howa Garden, along with live performance and open-air tea services and more on weekends; take a bus from JR Mito Station North Exit on Jyoban Line, get off at Suehiro San-chome bus stop; free; 029-232-9189.
TOKYO SUMMERLAND HYDRANGEA GARDEN: Through July 8, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends; in the Hydrangea Garden, Family Park area of Tokyo Summerland, 600 Kamiyotsugi, Akiruno City; 600 yen adults, 300 yen children; 042-558-6511; www.summerland.co.jp/english/index.html.
HYDRANGEA FESTIVAL AT IZU NIJI-NO-SATO (Shizuoka prefecture): Mid-June to early July, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; 3,500 hydrangeas; 15-minute ride from Shuzenji Station, 90-minute ride from Numazu I.C. on Tomei Express; 1,000 yen adults, 500 yen ages 4-12; 0558-72-7111; www.nijinosato.com/index.html.
ONOIKE HYDRANGEA GARDEN (Gunma prefecture): Late June to early July; 20 varieties of hydrangea, illuminated 7-9 p.m. during the festival; 10-minute ride from JR Shibukawa Station on Jyoetsu Line or Shibukawa Ikaho I.C. on Kanetsu Express; free; 0279-22-2111.
ITAKO IRIS FESTIVAL (Ibaraki prefecture): Through June 26, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; one million irises at Maekawa Garden, five-minute walk from Itako Station on JR Kashima-Line or 15-minute ride from Itako I.C. on Higashi Kanto Express; free; 0299-63-1187.
KAKEGAWA KAMO IRIS GARDEN (Shizuoka prefecture): Until June 30, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; 1,500 varieties of iris and one million irises at Kamo Iris Garden, Kakegawa city of Shuzuoka prefecture, known as one of the best iris garden in Japan; 1,500 yen for adults, 1,200 yen for seniors (65 years old and older), 450 yen for children; five-minute ride from Mori Kakegawa I.C. on Shin Tomei Express; 0537-26-1211.
SANKEIEN GARDEN – JAPANESE IRIS EXHIBITION (YOKOHAMA): June 14-19, 9 a.m.-4:45 p.m.; see potted Japanese iris; 10-minute bus ride from JR Negishi Station; 500 yen adults, 300 yen seniors, 200 yen kids; 045-621-0634/5; www.sankeien.or.jp/pdf/guidemap_english.pdf.
IRIS FESTIVAL RUINS OF SANNO CASTLE PARK (Miyagi prefecture): June 17-July 6, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; 300 varieties of iris and 200,000 irises; ruins of Sanno Castle Park, Kurihara city; 20-minute ride from Tsugidate I.C. on Tohoku Express; 510 yen adults, 250 yen children; 0228-52-2111; www.miyagi-kankou.or.jp/tourist_infomation/en/.
IRIS FESTIVAL RUINS OF TAGA CASTLE PARK (Miyagi prefecture): June 18-July 2, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; 500 varieties of iris and 3,000,000 irises, along with live performances, open-air tea services and more on weekends; ruins of Taga Castle Park, Tagajyo city; five-minute walk from ride from Kokufu Tagajyo Station on JR Tohoku Line; free; 022-211-2822; www.miyagi-kankou.or.jp/tourist_infomation/en/.
IRIS FESTIVAL IN TOWADA (Aomori prefecture): June 18-July 24, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; 20,000 irises at Iris Garden of Risoukyo, 15-minute ride from JR Towadashi Station; 550 yen adults, 200 yen children; 0176-27-2516; www.risoukyo.com/event/index.html.
HYDRANGEA & IRIS FESTIVALS
ODAWARA HYDRANGEA & IRIS FESTIVAL (Kanagawa prefecture): Through June 19; hydrangea and iris in bloom at Shobuen Garden of Odawara Castle East Moat, illuminated 7-8 p.m.; free; JR & Odakyu Odawara Stations; 0465-22-5002; www.odawara-kankou.com.
KUKI IRIS AND LAVENDER FESTIVAL (Saitama prefecture): Through June 26, 7, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., daily; 3,500 iris flowers in 50 varieties to bloom, along with lavender to bloom at Shobu Joshi Ayame Garden, Kuki city; eight-minute ride from Shiraoka Shobu I.C. on Ken-o Express or 15-minute ride from Shiraoka Kano I.C. on Ken-o Express; free; 0480-85-0311.
SAWARA IRIS FESTIVAL 2016 (Chiba prefecture): Through June 28, 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; 400 varieties of irises at Suigo Sawara Municipal Aquatic Botanical Garden, 20-minute bus ride from JR Sawara Station to Suisei Shokubutsuen, or bus available from JR Sawara Station; 700 yen adults, 350 yen children; 0478-56-0411.
FUCHU KYODO-NO MORI MUSEUM HYDRANGEA FESTIVAL (Tokyo): Through July 3, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon.; 10,000 hydrangea flowers in 30 varieties to bloom; 1Fuchu Kyodo-no Mori Museum, 0-minute ride from Kunitachi Fuchu I.C. on Chuo-Express or 20-minute walk from Fuchu Honmachi Station on Musashino/Nambu-Lines; 200 yen adults, 100 yen kids; 042-368-7921.
TAKAHATA FUDOSON HYDRANGEA FESTIVAL (Tokyo): Through July 7, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; known as Asia’s most beautiful spot to view 7,800 hydrangeas in 250 varieties; five-minute walk from Takahata Fudoson Station on Keio-Line, 30-minute ride from Shinjuku Station; free; 042-591-0032.
HANANOBE-NO SATO HYDRANGEA FESTIVAL (Chiba prefecture): Through early-July, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; 60,000 hydrangea flowers to bloom at Hananobe-no Sato, the biggest hydrangea garden in Japan; 15-minute ride from Katsura Station on JR Sotobo-Line; 650 yen adults, 450 yen kids; 0470-70-1127.