The Four Seasons of Cycling in Japan

Japan is a truly magical land where the contrast of the four seasons is something the locals live to the fullest.

Being a nation of islands stretching over a large range of latitudes as well as extremely mountainous Japan is home to hundreds of micro-climates from the tropics of Okinawa, to the Snowy mountains of the Alps and Hokkaido and everything in between.

In this article I will focus on the main island of Honshu and present a brief overlook of the seasons as they effect the island generally, and then as they effect each of the areas we lead tours and why we think we have chosen the best areas to cycle in Japan!

The Four Seasons 四季

Like much of the northern hemisphere Japan has four distinct seasons broken into Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter (in Japanese, Haru 春, Natsu 夏, Aki 秋, and Fuyu 冬).

Interestingly, the Japanese believe the year begins with the spring. And with that, all calendar years such as for business or school begin on April 1st. It kinda makes sense right? I mean, spring is when everything begins to grow again. Cool huh?

Though the temperature patterns mimmic much of the northern hemisphere in the west, with the warmest time of year in the summer and the coldest in the winter, the precipitation is almost the opposite.

Where in most of Europe and North America the wettest and cloudiest time of year is the winter, in Japan the wettest cloudiest time of year is actually the peak of summer, in the months of mid June through mid September.

This is not to say there is not snow in Japan in the winter, but more that save for the ski areas, much of Japan has a largely cold, dry, and sunny winter season.

Spring in Japan 春 | Warm Air, Cherry Blossoms, and Flower Parks

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Michelle soaking in the sun at the Senbonzakura (1,000 Cherry Blossom) Park on Mt Akagi.

Mid-March through Mid-June

Spring is a wonderful time in Japan. It is the only season where you can ski an alpine mountain and go for a bike ride in short sleeves in the same day!

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Just 50 kilometers away early April bluebird skies & snow capped slopes!
Cyclingby beautiful wild wisteria on the roads outside Kiryu, Gunma.
Cycling by beautiful wild wisteria on the roads outside Kiryu, Gunma.

It is also when everything begins to bloom, and the whole of the countryside lights up with cherry blossoms, azaleas, wisteria, and a rainbow of wildflowers.

In the Kita-Kanto Region the days can range from cool to hot, and precipitation is usually around 2-3x per week in brief drizzly rain showers. Meanwhile the high mountains to the west can get significantly more clouds and fresh snow to spring rain.

Snow still sits on the mountain peaks, but typically by mid April in Kita-Kanto all of the high roads are accessible and warm enough to ride.

The infamous cherry blossoms of Japan dot the countryside far from the crowds of Tokyo.
The infamous cherry blossoms of Japan dot the countryside far from the crowds of Tokyo.

Summer in Japan 夏 – The “Everything is Green” Season

Michelle spotted a wild Totoro in Tochigi Prefecture!
Michelle spotted a wild Totoro in Tochigi Prefecture!

MID-JUNE THROUGH MID-SEPTEMBER

Summertime in Japan is a rollercoaster. A sandwich of two rainy seasons with a heatwave in-between. Japanese summers can be a tricky beast to navigate, but still contain some amazing riding.

Summer is typically broken into three parts, the “rainy season” Tsuyu 梅雨, August, and Typhoon Season.

They each last around one month. Within just three months span some 70% of the yearly rainfall occurs, making for a wet and wild couple of months.

Average daily highs on the main island of Honshu can easily hit 30-35°C (86-95°F) in July and August and lows around 20-25°C (68-77°F) are the norm. Unless you are at altitude or in Hokkaido, and most of Japan is not, expect the sun to rise early as 4:30am. Couple this with humidity reaching 90-100% regularly and you have what I like to call the “Rainforest Season” of Japan.

EVERYTHING WILL BE GREEN. Or blue, if you are Japanese.

PART 1: TSUYU, OR PLUM RAIN 梅雨

The road much less traveled out in rural Tochigi Prefecture.
The road much less traveled out in rural Tochigi Prefecture.

In Tsuyu (mid-June to mid-July) expect moist dense air and lots of low clouds, mist, andfog with frequent bands of rain washing over the mountains.

Roads less traveled frequently turn green this time of year with mosses, as does just about everything in Japan. There is an average of 17 days of precipitation for most of Japan in this time.

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Moss art 苔 of Mt Akagi along the roadside in Kiryu, Gunma. 苔

Even the days that are not raining don’t expect too much sun. Though not impossible, a big blue sky, or clear visibility this time of year is very very rare.

Also worth note is that this is peak heat + humidity time so hydration and care not to over exert oneself is crucial.

But with all of that this is the only time of year you will see the flooded rice paddies, something that can be downright mesmerizing to ride through.

The reflections in the newly planted rice fields can be mesmerizing as you ride by.
The reflections in the newly planted rice fields can be mesmerizing as you ride by.

Part 2: August, AKA The Heat Wave

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Early mornings will be pretty clear, but the clouds (and rain) is coming!

Once Tsuyu is over the second wave of summer begins, typically around the end of July or beginning of August. I like to call this the “Heatwave” period. This can be as short lived as a week or two, or as much as a month long.

Though rain is no longer wafting through the air on in dense low clouds, instead expect pleasant but hot semi-humid mornings that build to big afternoon showers or thunderstorms most days.

The komorebi 木漏れ日 can be truly magical this time of year.
The komorebi 木漏れ日 can be truly magical this time of year.

This time of year, while still hot and humid, can often be a great time to get out early as the sun rises at around 4am and you can get a great ride in the forest canopied roads before it gets too hot.

If you are in the high mountains, this is a great time for rides as the heat is far less intense up there. Midday rain showers are still present even up high.

We like to head up to the high mountains of Gunma, Tochigi, and Nagano Prefectures at this time of year such as Mount Akagi, Mount Haruna, and Kusatsu Onsen Town.

Part 3: Typhoon Season 台風

The day after a typhoon is often the best of the year!
The day after a typhoon is often the best of the year!

In the Americas they call this Hurricane Season, and that’s exactly what a typhoon is, a tropical storm. Typically beginning mid August and running into mid or late September this season is still decently hot, but less so than August.

Though it may rain some quarter of the days this time of year, the rain falls quickly and swiftly. As the storms move in expect a day of strong wind followed by a day of torrential downpours. But! The day after will often be the best day of the year.

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The day after a typhoon views of the Yatsugatake Volcanic Formation in the background of rice fields beaten down and ready for harvest.

You heard me right, the day after a typhoon is just heaven. The storms come in, suck up all the moisture, dump it, and leaves. And with that you get crystal clear days, low humidity, and beautiful weather.

This is a pretty great time of year to ride as you usually only miss one day out of a week to a storm, and the other days tend to have pleasant to amazing weather.

It can still be hot, but usually it’s only humid as it rains, and there is moderately dry air when it’s sunny.

Fall in Japan 秋 – Crisp, Cool, Colors and Clear Skies

I could spend all day riding in the canopies of Japanese Maples & Ginko Trees of the Japanese countryside!
I could spend all day riding in the canopies of Japanese Maples & Ginko Trees of the Japanese countryside!

Fall in Japan is my favorite season for riding. The second sunniest season (only to winter) fall delivers consistent strings of warm sunny days. Highs well over 15°C even into December are common for the Kita-Kanto Region. Lows can hit freezing, but most days by 9am the sun is high and hot bringing short sleeves weather, perfect for cycling.

Skies are clear most days leaving room for a big warm sun that instantly makes it feel 5°C warmer than the current temperature. The air is also cool, so breezes are refreshing and welcome.

It’s a layers time of year for sure, but a safe rule of thumb is if you are in the sun, it’s short sleeves and sunglasses. And, if you are in the shade you will probably want a light jacket.

Mid-September, October, November, and even through mid-late December can be a real treat to ride in. Especially because of the ever moving fall foliage down the mountains into the valleys.

Cycling in late fall foliage in the Kiryu Alps.
Cycling in late fall foliage in the Kiryu Alps.

Winter in Japan 冬 – Sun, Snow, and Wind

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Bluebird Skies, as they say, are a skiers paradise. But also for cyclists!

Winters in Japan are very depended on where you are. The east side of Japan (Kanto & Kita-Kanto) has its sunniest season, while the westside of Honshu is getting pummeled with snow and is starved for sunlight.

In general you can expect eastern Japan to have cold to frigid evenings with cool to even warm days. Big warm sunny skies and a decent cold wind blowing are the key features. A few layers to block the wind and you will often find yourself unzipping on the way up and zipping back up for the descents.

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A warm jacket, pants, and gloves and you can ride all winter. This photo is mid February at over 1,000m above sea!

In the west and high mountains expect lots and lots of clouds and snow, perfect for skiing. But even there the occasional bluebird days can be had if you are lucky!

Riding this time of year it’s really quite nice and just requires some layers. Full length pants, jackets, and gloves are a must, but you will still want to dress in layers as it is still warm in the sun.

This is also one of the best times of year for visibility, a great time to get to the top of the mountain and soak in the views.

Riding passes this time of year can be epic.
Riding passes this time of year can be epic.

Why Ride in the Kita-Kanto Region?

Cherry blossoms on a small valley road on a clear spring day.
Cherry blossoms on a small valley road on a clear spring day.

Up where we guide trips in the Kita-Kanto Region we love the fact that we live in one of the sunniest area in Japan. It is also THE DRIEST area in all of Japan, meaning we get less rain, humidity, and clouds than anywhere else!

What does this mean for you as a rider? This means the best weather for cycling!

Our spring is warmer faster, meaning that we can easily be in short sleeves by early March. Our summer is less rainy, meaning less wet rides compared to other areas. Our Fall is drier and sunnier meaning longer fall colors and more clear skies to see them in. And our winters are the least wet, and even as warm as southern Japan, meaning you can get lots of warm sun all day.

Now that all sounds pretty great, so what’s the catch? Remember that “Heatwave” in August I mentioned? Well Kita-Kanto has the hottest August in Japan. As in it can hit 40°C+ and not get below 30°C in August.

It’s certainly not every day, and many days will be very enjoyable to ride in the mornings in August. But, that’s the price we pay for an otherwise incredible 11 month long riding season. Hey, I’ll take it!

A perfect end to a fall day at Lake Kusagi in Gunma Prefecture.
A perfect end to a fall day at Lake Kusaki in Gunma Prefecture.

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