When to Visit Kyoto, Japan: Best & Worst Times in 2021 & 2022

When to visit Kyoto to avoid crowds, experience seasonal beauty, and enjoy the top festivals is important for first-timers to Japan. There will be no single worst or best time in 2021 or 2022 to visit, and when you should travel to Kyoto depends in large part on your priorities. (Updated March 26, 2021.)

For starters, there’s the threshold question: When Will Japan Reopen for Travel in 2021? All of this is pretty much meaningless until then, because if you can’t enter Japan you can’t visit Kyoto, and thus every time is bad…despite it every month being a very good time to visit right now since tourism and crowds are virtually nonexistent.

Once travel restrictions are lifted, we anticipate the trend of low crowds will continue in Kyoto throughout 2021. The Tokyo Summer Olympics, which would have been a boon for Japan’s tourism industry, have been postponed until July 2021 and foreign spectators will not be allowed. It’s going to be a long road to recovery for Japan, but that should make both 2021 (to the extent possible) and 2022 great years to visit once it’s safe to do so and travel normalcy resumes…

In this guide, we’ll narrow down your options to help you assess when is the best time for you to visit Kyoto, Japan in 2021 and 2022. This is a crucial first step, as the version of Kyoto you’ll experience depends very much upon when you go. Kyoto is known as a city of four seasons, with locals embracing the seasonality and creating schedules of events around the seasons.

The starkness of the seasons obviously is driven by weather, which can range from extremely hot and humid in the summer to frigid and snowy in the winter. Crowds, seasonal beauty, and events also come into play. We think that every season in Kyoto is special for its own unique reasons, but for a first-time visit, every time of year is not of equal quality.

To that end, let’s start by taking a month-by-month look at the objective realities of what you’ll encounter in terms of seasonal offerings, crowds, and weather, followed by our subjective commentary about the best and worst times to visit Kyoto…

Monthly Guides to Kyoto

  • January
    • Seasonal Events: Hatsumode
    • Weather: 35-50° F with mostly sunny days and little precipitation.
    • Crowds: Low after New Year’s week.
    • Notes: Snow is possible in Kyoto, and this usually happens a couple of times in the city-center, with accumulation being rare. If you are actively seeking snow, it’s a regular occurrence in Kurama and other mountain areas of Kyoto that are ~60 minutes away by public transit.

  • February
    • Seasonal Events: Setsubun Festivals; Plum blossom season
    • Weather: 35-50° F with mostly sunny days and little precipitation.
    • Crowds: Low.
    • Notes: Snow is also possible in February. The first few months of the year are quietest in terms of crowds, but without snow, the lack of foliage can make things feel dead and dreary.

  • March
    • Seasonal Events: Hanatoro; Plum blossom and early sakura seasons
    • Weather: 40-55° F with mostly sunny days and light precipitation.
    • Crowds: Low crowds early in the month becoming moderate towards the end of the month.
    • Notes: Cherry blossom usually season starts at the end of March, peaking in April. March can be a great time to go for a sneak-peek at this with far lower crowds than in April. However, blossoms are weather-dependent, and you could get burned with a later bloom.

  • April
    • Seasonal Event: Cherry blossom/sakura season
    • Weather: 50-65° F with moderate sunny days and light precipitation
    • Crowds: Peak crowds in early April decreasing as the month goes on, with heavy crowds again around Golden Week.
    • Notes: The first week of April is Japan’s busiest tourist season as that’s viewed as the heart of sakura season in a normal year. If you don’t like crowds, don’t visit the first week of April.

  • May
    • Seasonal Event: Kamogawa Odori
    • Weather: 60-75° F with moderate sunny days and light precipitation.
    • Crowds: Low outside of Golden Week.
    • Notes: Post-sakura season, Kyoto’s trees are vibrant and full of life. Weather is mild and crowds are low.

  • June
    • Special Event: Ajisai Matsuri; Kamo River Yuka Dining
    • Weather: 65-75° F with some sunny days and moderate precipitation.
    • Crowds: Low.
    • Notes: The best summer option both in terms of crowds and weather.

  • July
    • Seasonal Event: Gion Matsuri; Kamo River Yuka Dining
    • Weather: 75-85° F with some sunny days and high humidity. Expect heavy rain as typhoon season begins.
    • Crowds: Moderate most of the month, heavy during Gion Matsuri.
    • Notes: Potentially miserable weather coupled with summer tourist crowds make July a month to avoid unless Gion Matsuri is a bucket list must-do.

  • August
    • Seasonal Event: Fire Festival; Kamo River Yuka Dining
    • Weather: 75-90° F with moderate sunny days and high humidity. Highest levels of rain and peak typhoon season.
    • Crowds: Moderate.
    • Notes: Don’t go in August.

  • September
    • Special Event: Kamo River Yuka Dining
    • Weather: 70-80° F with moderate sunny days and some rain, as typhoon season continues.
    • Crowds: Low/Moderate.
    • Notes: While hot and rainy weather is still possible in September, the month generally marks a transition towards fall, and is much more pleasant than June-August.

  • October
    • Special Event: Kurama Fire Festival; early fall foliage
    • Weather: 60-70° F with moderate sunny days and light precipitation.
    • Crowds: Moderate.
    • Notes: October is a great “compromise” season–moderate crowds, color, and weather.

  • November
    • Special Event: Gion Odari; fall colors
    • Weather: 50-65° F with mostly sunny days and light precipitation.
    • Crowds: Heavy.
    • Notes: Early November is pretty and still moderate crowds as part of Japan’s shoulder season. Crowds intensify mid-month as fall foliage tends to be at its most beautiful.

  • December
    • Special Event: Fall foliage; Hanatoro; Christmas
    • Weather: 40-55° F with mostly sunny days and light precipitation.
    • Crowds: Heavy at the beginning of the month, gradually decreasing to low at the end of the month.
    • Notes: December is a roller coaster of crowds and weather. We think mid to late December is underrated; while it’s colder and can look bleak, Christmas-time in Kyoto is fun and jovial.

Only major special events are listed above, and this is just a small sampling of the seasonal offerings you can experience in Kyoto. There is at least one event worthy of tourist consideration literally every single day of the year in Kyoto, from special temple openings to flea markets to festivals and more.

You’ll see fliers plastered around Kyoto for many of these events, but those will be in Japanese, so they’re not always helpful. If you’re interested in attending special events beyond what we’ve listed, visit one of Kyoto’s Tourist Information Centers upon arrival and inquire about the calendar during your stay.

Now, for some commentary and specific recommendations, with our subjective favorite months and weeks to visit Kyoto, Japan…

Best & Worst Times to Visit Kyoto in 2021 & 2022

The most popular times to visit Kyoto are for cherry blossom season in early April and fall colors season in mid to late November. From a beauty perspective, these are the “best” times of year in Kyoto. It’s world-renowned during both seasons, and these are the peak travel seasons for good reason.

Cherry blossom and fall colors seasons are our favorite times of the year in Kyoto. As experienced visitors, we’re familiar with the ins and outs of navigating transit during peak periods, know where to go to avoid crowds, and are okay with skipping the most iconic (and busiest) temples, as we’ve already visited countless times before.

In normal years, the crowds during these stunning seasons border on unbearable. Parking lots are full of tour buses, train stations are overflowing with people, and the most popular temples become loud and chaotic. Everything we write about tranquility, peacefulness, and contemplativeness is untrue during those times of the year.

Due to this, we are typically hesitant to recommend peak sakura and fall colors seasons to a Japan first-timer. For the past decade as tourism numbers have swelled, it has been difficult to experience the “true” Kyoto; even if the city is at its most resplendent, it may be tough to fall in love with it.

However, as you might’ve sensed by the fact that all of that is past tense, we are strongly recommending peak cherry blossom and fall colors seasons as the best times to visit Kyoto in 2022. (If possible, autumn will be an excellent time to see Kyoto in 2021, as well.) It is going to take at least a year for tourism numbers to rebound, especially international travel. Consequently, the fall colors and sakura crowds in 2022 will be a fraction of what they were previously.

The above month by month crowd trends for Kyoto will hold true in 2022, but relative to other months within the year–not past years. April 2022 and November 2022 will undoubtedly be busier than May 2022 or December 2022, but still not as busy as those same months two years ago–or even May and December two years ago. It’s all relative. 

 

With that said, if you want to err on the side of caution and avoid Kyoto crowds to the greatest extent possible in 2022, aim for a “best of both worlds” experience. For that, we’d recommend visiting just before or after these peaks. In the case of cherry blossom season, we favor going after the blossoms have peaked, following the second week of April. We prefer this over late March (both of which are moderate, crowd-wise) since the weather is nicer and the scenery is a bit more vibrant with the green of spring.

When it comes to fall foliage, it’s better to go early than to go late for the exact same reason. Missing peak fall colors on the front end means a kaleidoscope of greens, yellows, and red foliage. Missing peak on the back end means some reds and some barren trees. The added upside is that you’ll have better weather. The downside is slightly higher crowds in late October and early November as compared to mid-December.

The ‘sweet spot’ for moderate crowds and a decent amount of color is the second week of November. Keep in mind that if you fly too close to the sun, you’re going to get burned–the longer you stick around in mid-November, the more likely you are to experience heavy crowds. If you do opt to wait until after fall foliage season ends in December, you’ll be rewarded with some of the lowest crowds of the year.

Another thing to keep in mind when planning is that the peaks for both sakura and fall colors seasons do not have fixed dates. During an abnormally warm spring, we’ve experienced the actual peak of cherry blossom season in late March when no crowds were around. We’ve also been in mid-November during what should have been the heart of autumn foliage season only to find little change in color.

The point is that the peak of both of these seasons are always uncertain, but one thing that is very much predictable is the crowds. As such, we recommend gambling a bit on the natural component to avoid the ‘sure thing’ of crowds.

In terms of crowds, neither summer nor winter are particularly busy, save for holidays and various festivals (Gion Matsuri, in particular) that draw large numbers of domestic tourists. However, we generally avoid both of these seasons unless you have a specific reason to go during them for one simple reason: weather.

During winter months (December through early March) it can be frigid–cold enough to snow. While a fresh blanket of snow makes for beautiful scenery, you’re more likely to just have freezing weather, and that’s not exactly the most comfortable for touring. By late March, the weather is once again temperate, and it stays pleasant through late May.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s late-June through August, which is just as bad from a weather perspective both in terms of both precipitation and (more importantly) debilitating humidity. Japan’s summers are becoming increasingly intense and miserable, to the point that we now strongly caution against visiting in July or August unless you have literally no other choices.

The upside to summer is the festivals, most notably the aforementioned Gion Matsuri, which occurs throughout the month of July, and is the most famous festival in Japan. This celebration of Yasaka Shrine culminates with a grand procession of floats on July 17, followed by a smaller second parade on July 24.

Fall mirrors spring, with weather becoming increasingly mild until it’s typically downright pleasant at the end of September through mid-November. Obviously, unseasonably warm or cold temperatures are possible within these ranges, but Kyoto weather generally stays pleasant until late November, when it’s more of a wild card. Same with December, when mild weather is still possible–as is snow.

An ancillary consideration when it comes to weather is where you’ll be staying. If you plan on renting an Airbnb or staying in anything other than a hotel, you need to be aware that many homes and flats in Kyoto are older and rather spartan. We’ve stayed at units in Kyoto that did not have adequate heat or air conditioning. During both the heart of summer and winter, this can be miserable.

Ultimately, while we don’t think each times of year are equal for first-timers to Japan, we do think Kyoto has something to offer no matter when you visit. Even prior to reading this you might’ve had your mind made up about one season or another. Hopefully, this guide has steered you away from the worse and towards better times to visit within each season. Once you’ve been during one season, you’ll invariably want to return during another…until you’ve experienced all of Kyoto’s seasonal beauty and offerings.

If you’re planning a trip to Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend that you start by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit! 

Your Thoughts

If you’ve been to Japan, during which seasons? What time of year is your favorite in Kyoto? What would you recommend to a first-timer? If you’ve yet to visit, which seasons or months are most appealing to you? Need further help to narrow down your travel dates? Any other questions? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

1 reply
  1. Betty
    Betty says:

    1st timers, we’re looking at going in December 2021 – January 2022 because we want to take our daughter who’ll be in her senior year of college, and that’s the only break she has that’s not summer. (We can wear our woolies if it’s cold, but refuse to sweat to death.) Hope to add a couple of days at the end in Disney!

    Reply

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