We all know Japanese summers are hot, humid, and leave us drenched in a constant flow of sweat. If heatstroke doesn’t get you, then maybe the mosquitos will!
However, being from Scotland, the only place in the world with a rainy season that runs from January to December, I have learned never to complain about sunny weather. Such climates are, after all, a treasured commodity to Glaswegians like me.
So, if you’re like me, the cool breeze that comes with September may not be universally welcomed. Maybe, you’d like to make that summer sun last just a little bit longer.
Of course, September also brings with it a four-day weekend. This presents a great opportunity to get away and enjoy a last little bit of sunshine and top up your vitamin D reserves before winter sets in.
With that in mind, here are five destinations in Japan where the summer sun lasts well into autumn.
5. Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture
Whilst Matsuyama is perhaps best known for its famous “Dougo Onsen” hot spring resorts, it also has one of the mildest climates in Japan. Located on the southwestern tip of Shikoku, Matsuyama faces out into the warming waters of the Seto Inland Sea, itself an offshoot of the tropical currents of the Pacific Ocean.
The undoubted jewel in Matsuyama’s crown is Matsuyama Castle. Most castles from Japan’s feudal period were built in the center of their respective cities, and Matsuyama Castle is no different in this regard. What sets it aside from most other castles, however, is its elevation above the city. Sitting atop a hill in the city center, Matsuyama Castle offers superb panoramic views, not just of the city but also of the coastline and Seto Inland Sea, including the numerous small islands that are dotted around the area. On a clear day, you can even see right across the water to the main island of Honshu.
The castle itself was originally built in 1628, with the current form of the main keep dating from 1820. It sits atop Mount Katsuyama which can be ascended either with a brisk 15-minute hike uphill or via a ropeway if you’re feeling a bit lazy.
Asides from the castle, Matsuyama also offers relaxing boat cruises from the harbourside around some of the islands that lie between it and the neighboring prefecture of Hiroshima. With a plethora of hotels, ryokans and hot spring venues available, Matsuyama boasts first-class accommodation to suit all budgets.
4. Kurashiki City, Okayama Prefecture
I had the pleasure of living in Kurashiki City for two years early on in my Japan adventure, and while things have certainly changed in the decade since I left, the place has lost none of its charm or beauty.
Undoubtedly one of the most enchanting elements of Kurashiki is the Bikan Chiku. This series of old barns, rice storage silos, and merchants’ residences, dates back to the Edo Period, which ran until the mid-19th Century. The exteriors of the buildings remain pretty much the same now as they were then. However, today many of these old buildings have been repurposed to meet the needs of the city’s burgeoning tourist trade. Where storage barns and rice silos once stood, there are now restaurants, bars and cafes, as well as a host of tourist shops, selling handmade, local souvenirs.
A must-see highlight of any visit to the Bikan Chiku is the Ohara Art Museum. With its Greco-Roman exterior, the Ohara Art Museum looks like something of a building out of place and out of time, but that’s part of its charm. Inside the museum, you can enjoy a range of both Japanese and international contemporary art and frequent exhibitions from local emerging artists.
Many artists in the region flock to the Bikan Chiku when they need inspiration. The mix of the Edo Period structures, the calm, tranquil waters of the canal that runs through the area, and of the unique, almost milky quality of the moonlight as it reflects on the water, gives creative minds plenty of food for thought.
3. Hiroshima, Hiroshima Prefecture
Another personal favorite of mine, and a regular weekend retreat when Kurashiki became just a little too quiet for me. The weather in Hiroshima was also noticeably warmer, even towards the end of the year, despite only being a couple of hours down the road from Okayama.
Hiroshima stands today as a testament to the indomitable spirit of the Japanese people. Whilst the war memorials still remain a big draw for both tourists and locals, the overwhelming feeling one gets when visiting Hiroshima for the first time is a feeling of hope and positivity. The local people have a humility, a warmth and a kindness about them that is endearing even by stereotypical Japanese standards.
One would never know that this place which today inspires such joy was, mere decades ago, the site of human destruction in its worst possible form. Perhaps the most famous place to visit when you come to Hiroshima is Itsukushima Shrine, on the island known as Miyajima. The famous “shrine on the sea” has red torii gates that can only be reached during low tide. At high tide, the whole area comes under a meter or two of water, allowing for some stunning photos.
However, in my humble opinion, the best photo opportunities in Hiroshima do not come from Miyajima. Instead, they can be found in the adjoining city of Hatsukaichi. From atop the hillside which runs up from central Hatsukaichi, you can take in absolutely stunning views of the city of Hiroshima, Miyajima Island and the Seto Inland Sea. This view is especially beautiful at sunrise if you can get there early enough.
2. Yakushima, Kagoshima Prefecture
If you truly want to “get away from it all” for a few days and have a distinctly more natural experience, then Yakushima is the place for you.
Situated around 60 kilometers off the southern tip of Kyushu, the island of Yakushima is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site with a large part of the island’s forest remaining relatively unchanged for thousands of years.
Of course this mystical forest will also be familiar to fans of Studio Ghibli. It was the inspiration for their acclaimed animation “Princess Mononoke”. Indeed, almost as soon as one sets foot on Yakushima, you can sense a change in the atmosphere compared to the Japanese mainland. Despite being settled by humans as early as the Jomon Period, which started around 1000 BCE, the land remains remarkably unspoiled. This is a place where Mother Nature is still very much in charge. The island is also home to the world’s largest nesting areas for the endangered Loggerhead Sea Turtle.
Throughout the island, you will find nature trails, hiking opportunities and some absolutely stunning views of the surrounding sea, especially at sunrise and sunset. Scaling the highest peak of Yakushima, Miyanoura-dake, will bring you to Jomon Sugi, an ancient tree that some experts believe could be as much as 7,000 years old. At 25 meters tall, this ancient tree is a stunning sight to behold.
Of course, Japan being what it is, even in a place as tranquil as Yakushima, you are never too far away from the height of technological evolution. Just a short boat ride away is the island of Tanegashima, where the main launch pad of JAXA, the Japan Space Agency resides.
If you’re fortunate enough to be on Yakushima when a rocket is scheduled to be launched, then you’ll get a great view of proceedings from across the water. Yakushima can be reached with direct flights from Fukuoka or Osaka. However, for atmosphere and comfort, I recommend the Hydrofoil service which runs 7 or 8 times a day, depending on the schedule, from Kagoshima.
1. Yaeyama Islands, Okinawa
Of course, no discussion of places to enjoy sunshine outside of summer in Japan would be complete without a mention for Okinawa. However, I’m sure you, like me, have already read countless articles and blogs extolling the virtues of Naha, and some of Okinawa’s other, popular destinations.
Instead, let’s head a little off the beaten track, to the Yaeyama Islands. As part of what was once the Ryukyu Kingdom (now Okinawa Prefecture), a nation that was, for centuries, independent from the rest of Japan, The Yaeyama Islands actually have their own set of indigenous languages.
Whilst the history of these islands and their linguistic evolution may be fascinating to some. In total, there are 23 Yaeyama Islands, but only 15 of these are actually inhabited. Located in the south of Okinawa Prefecture, The Yaeyama Islands are the most remote location from mainland Japan.
Given its remote location, the area enjoys rich biodiversity with unspoiled beaches. The islands are also something of a tropical paradise, with pineapples being one of their major exports and a key ingredient in some absolutely delicious local recipes and cocktails.
Taketomi Island’s immaculately preserved Ryukyu Village makes for an incredibly relaxing getaway. It gives a fascinating chance to step back in time, whilst the surroundings allow you to connect with a simpler way of living. The expansive coastline of the outlying islands offers further pristine beaches, as well as opportunities for snorkeling, swimming, and even water buffalo rides.
Most visitors to the Yaeyama islands base themselves at Ishigaki, and then “island hop” via the local ferry service, to experience what each of the nearby islands has to offer. The recently upgraded Ishigaki Airport, which opened in 2013 runs frequent flights not only to and from the prefectural capital Naha, but also to a number of cities on the Japanese mainland.
Got some suggestions of your own? Let us know in the comments!