August offers similar summer fare to July with beach trips, highland excursions and water sports all popular pastimes. The difference is the increased heat and the colorful backdrop of summer festivals and firework displays-not uncommon in July, just much more pronounced in August.
Some of the biggest and best festivals include Tokushima's Awa Odori and Aomori's week-long Nebuta Matsuri. Both feature dancing and night illumination in the form of bright floats, fireworks and lanterns-common motifs in August celebrations.
Commonly called Obon in Japanese, the summer holiday period-typically between August 11 and 16-is a time when the spirits of deceased family members are said to return to the realm of the living and revisit their loved ones. Traditionally, it's a time for relatives to gather at their family homes, enjoy festive community dance events, and take family outings. Seats on planes, trains and highway buses sell out in advance, so plan ahead or consider staying in one of the big cities which enjoyer far fewer crowds than usual.
For a definitive summer festival experience, consider touring the Tohoku region in early August. This is when the Sandai Matsuri (three major festivals) of Tohoku take place over multiple days. The iconic festival floats of the Nebuta Matsuri (8/2-7) make this event the best known of the three. Every night for five days, the human-powered platforms are lit up like giant paper lanterns and paraded through the streets before huge crowds.
Around the same time, you can also attend the Tanabata Matsuri (8/6-8) in Sendai, in which long colorful streamers are attached to poles and carried in procession through shopping arcades. In Akita, the Kanto Matsuri (8/3-6) features street performances involving pole-mounted lantern towers that give the festival its name.
On a more serious note, further south in Hiroshima, the anniversary of the atomic bombing on August 6, 1945 is marked with a beautiful and moving ceremony in which glowing lanterns are set adrift on the river running through the Peace Memorial Park and Atomic Bomb Dome.
Marking the end of Obon on August 16, the Kyoto Gozan Okuribi is held adorning the Kyoto hillsides with giant, flaming Chinese characters. Appropriately, the most famous of these is the character meaning "large" on Daimonjiyama in the Higashiyama district.
Fireworks are serious business in Japan and July and August are the peak period for them. Major cities like Tokyo and Yokohama host high-profile displays, all showcasing the work of big name pyrotechnics artists over several hours.
Two smaller cities which stage major events are Nagaoka in Niigata (8/2-3) and Suwa in Nagano (8/15). The latter benefits from a charming lakeside setting that inspired scenes from the 2016 Japanese film, Your Name, or Kimi no Na wa. Be advised that both locations see visitors in their hundreds of thousands during festival time, so making accommodation and travel arrangements early is a necessity.
Heading for cooler climes at higher altitudes is a no-brainer in August and this logic isn’t lost on the Japanese. The national parks of Hokkaido (and nationwide), the Japan Alps in central Honshu and destinations like Mt. Daisen in Tottori Prefecture, and the Iya Valley and surrounding mountains in Shikoku, are popular destinations worth considering.
Okinawa is the Japanese beach holiday destination par excellence, but equally impressive and slightly less well known are the beach resorts and islands of Kyushu. Miyazaki has some prime surf spots and the trendy Aoshima Beach Park-a leisure complex and event space.
Neighboring Kagoshima Prefecture is home to Amami Oshima and the Amami Islands which include Yoron Island and Okinoerabu Island. All have picture-perfect beaches and diving spots that include reefs, wrecks and underwater ruins.