May is the last month of spring in Japan, and temperatures throughout the country are fairly warm. While the northernmost island of Hokkaido remains quite cool—Sapporo has an average May high of just 63° F (17° C)—most southern places are much hotter. Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Fukuoka have average May highs of 74° F (24° C), and by the end of the month are likely to be quite hot. The sub-tropical and tropical islands of Okinawa are a few degrees warmer.
In Okinawa, May is the start of the rainy season, but further north it's still fairly dry in May.
Crowds and Costs
If you dislike crowds, avoid traveling to Japan in the first week of May. The major national holiday, Golden Week, starts on April 29 and continues until May 5. Many Japanese people have holidays at this time, and popular (as well as less popular) spots get very crowded with domestic travelers, or just local people enjoying their time off. Domestic flights and shinkansen trains may be hard to book unless you plan far in advance, and crowds at popular amusement parks, gardens, and art galleries can reach extremely uncomfortable levels.
The good news though is that most Japanese go back to work immediately after! So, the rest of the month is far less busy, and a better time to visit Japan. This is peak travel season though, so book accommodation and transport in advance, where possible.
Where to Go
With the exception of Okinawa, which is quite wet in May, everywhere in Japan is comfortable and accessible this month.
For cultural and big-city highlights, spend time in Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan's two cultural and historic centers. If the weather outdoors gets a bit hot, especially towards the end of the month, there are many indoor activities in these places to enjoy, such as museums, galleries, and restaurants. If you have a bit more time, add Nara and Hiroshima to your itinerary, as these cities also offer diverse and attractive natural and cultural attractions.
If you'd like to see something beyond the main highlights that all visitors see, head to the islands of Kyushu or Shikoku. The third and fourth-largest of Japan's islands, respectively, these places have distinct cultures of their own. Learn about Nagasaki's unique history, stay inside a volcanic crater at Mt. Aso, or check out some of Shikoku's 88 important temples encircling the island.
What to Do
May is a great time to go hiking in Japan, as temperatures will be pleasant but not too hot in most places, and conditions mainly dry. Travelers seeking a mix of culture, history, and physical activity should check out the 88-temple pilgrimage trek in Shikoku, Japan's least-visited main island. You can do the whole 745-mile (1200 km) trek, or just parts of it. Alternatively, the Japan Alps, Chichibu Tama Kai National Park, and the area around Nikko are all great places for shorter hikes.
Fuji-no-hana viewing. The Japanese love a good flower-viewing party, and early May (or, late April in Kyushu) is fuji-no-hana (wisteria) season. People flock to see the dangling purple flowers in manicured parks and gardens.
Sanja Matsuri, Tokyo. Held in the old Tokyo neighborhood of Asakusa, this Shinto festival is one of the largest festivals in Japan. More than 100 portable shrines are paraded through the streets over three days, attracting over 2 million visitors.
Traveling to Japan in May? Check out these great itineraries
Japan's Culinary Heritage - 11 Days. Eat your way through the Land of the Rising Sun on this immersive culinary tour. Get to know Japanese history and culture through its legendary cuisine, and treat your taste buds to everything from home-brewed sake to the freshest sushi.
Kumano Kodo Self-Guided Tour - 6 Days. Get ready for an unforgettable village-to-village trek on the Kii Peninsula along sections of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail. Perfect for avid hikers, this self-guided tour will take you past thermal hot springs, grand shrines, and waterfalls.
Japanese Cycling Adventure - 7 Days. The beautiful ancient city of Kyoto is the spiritual home of Japan and the perfect base for this week-long cycling adventure. Explore the streets of Kyoto by bike and venture further afield as you delve into Japanese culture and cuisine.