Kyoto is highly attuned to the seasons – a maiko (apprentice geisha) has a different hair pin for every month of the year – and your travel plans should be too. Make the most of your time here by seeking out the experiences and tastes that define each season.
With traditional Japanese architecture that looks great in all types of weather, plus a year-round calendar of festivals and a sophisticated food scene, it’s almost always a good time to visit Kyoto. Here’s our guide on when to go.
Best for cherry blossom season
One of Kyoto’s prettiest times of year is also one of its busiest. In spring, the city erupts in the pale-pink blossoms of Yoshino cherries and the darker, bubblegum-colored petals of the shidare-zakura (weeping cherry). It’s a sight to behold, and crowds descend on Kyoto’s sublime gardens to witness the ephemeral event. If you decide to visit during peak season, you should either be strategic about where you go or willing to bear the brunt of crowds.
Accommodation at this time is at its most expensive. Expect to pay top rates for everything from atmospheric ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) to chic boutiques to budget hostels.
Best for festivals and cultural events
No doubt about it, this is festival season in Kyoto. The summer calendar is packed with major events like Gion Matsuri (July), in which huge wooden floats roll through Downtown Kyoto, and small celebrations such as Takeiri-eshiki (Bamboo-cutting Ritual) at Kurama-dera, which has local men donning warrior monk costumes and competing to cut bamboo poles. The summer weather is hot and muggy in Kyoto, but the city’s verdant gardens, such as the one around Giō-ji, are at their best just after a summer rainstorm. The heat and humidity keeps the crowds away, but accommodation rates can spike around key events and festivals.
Best for fall colors
Kyoto again explodes in color come fall, when the city’s maples and other deciduous trees change to the deep reds, brilliant golds and fiery oranges of autumn. Prime leaf-peeping season is mid-November to early December. Crowds head to Eikan-dō, Kyoto’s top destination for autumn colors. The temple stays open well into the evening with illuminated grounds. Comfortable temperatures and autumn colors attract many visitors to Kyoto in the fall. Plan on booking accommodation several months in advance.
Best for seeing snow-covered temples and soaking in an onsen
Winter is a quiet time for Kyoto. Cold temperatures keep most visitors away, but the city isn’t without its winter charms. It occasionally snows in January and February, and a blanket of white over the city’s traditional architecture can lend a certain magic to its temples and teahouses. A traditional onsen (hot springs) is the perfect winter experience. Visitors during winter will have more choice in accommodation and generally lower rates. Several winter festivals, such as the Sanjusangendo Archery Contest, can briefly fill up area hotels.
Kyoto comes to life after the lull of the New Year holiday (things open on 2 or 3 January). It’s cold, but not too cold for traveling and the city is uncrowded.
Key events: Hatsumōde, Tōshiya (Archery Contest).
It’s still cold in February and snow is possible in the city (but usually melts by noon). The mountains north of the city may be covered in snow all month.
Key events: Setsubun Matsuri at Yoshida-jinja.
By March it’s starting to warm up. Plums usually bloom in mid-March and the cherry blossoms usually start to emerge by month’s end.
Spring is in full swing by April, although mornings and evenings can still be chilly. The cherry blossoms usually peak in early April, which means thick crowds in the sightseeing districts.
Key events: Cherry Blossom Viewing.
May is one of the best months to visit Kyoto. It’s warm and sunny, and the blossoms are blooming. Note the Golden Week holidays (29 April to 5 May) and book well in advance.
Key events: Yabusame at Shimogamo-jinja, Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival).
June is a lovely time to visit Kyoto – it’s warm but not sweltering and the new green on the trees is beautiful. However, it’s also the wettest month, so expect humidity and occasional downpours.
Key events: Takigi Nō.
When the rainy season ends in late June or early July, the heat cranks up and it can be very hot and humid. Still, if you don’t mind sweating a bit, travel is perfectly possible.
Key events: Gion Matsuri.
August is hot and humid in Kyoto, but the skies are usually sunny and most tourist sites are uncrowded, except during the O-Bon holiday in mid-August – book ahead.
Key events: Daimon-ji Gozan Okuribi, Tōki Matsuri.
Sometime in mid-September, the heat breaks, cool breezes arrive and temperatures become very pleasant in Kyoto. Skies are generally clear, making it a great time to travel.
Key events: Karasu Zumō, Kyoto International Manga Anime Fair.
October is one of the best months to visit: the weather can be warm or cool and it’s usually sunny. The leaves start changing color at the end of the month, particularly in the hills.
Key events: Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages), Kurama Hi Matsuri (Kurama Fire Festival), Kyoto Experiment.
November rivals October and April/May as the best time to visit. Skies are clear and temperatures are pleasantly cool. Foliage usually peaks late in the month and the city gets crowded.
December is cool to cold in Kyoto. The autumn foliage may still be good early in the month. Most shops, museums and restaurants shut down from 29 or 30 December, but transport runs and accommodation is open. Almost all temples and shrines stay open throughout.
Key events: Ōmisoka (New Year’s Eve).