Tokyo's hot, humid summers can get locals grumbling, but there's lots of seasonal fun to be had with traditions (both old and new) to make the most of warm summer nights and help keep you cool, while seasonal festivals bring joyous colours and explosive sounds.
This is a time of year when the usual sightseeing can take a backseat and travellers should just enjoy the city. Read on for our best things to see and do in Tokyo during the summer.
Catch a firework show
Hanabi (fireworks) literally means ‘fire flowers’, and Tokyo puts on several gorgeous displays each summer. The biggest showing, with some 20,000 fireworks, is the Sumida-gawa Fireworks Festival in Asakusa (2019 date: 27 July). Get there early to get a good spot, but it's still fun even if your view is only so-so. There are other shows, big and small, held around the city through July and August; see Go Tokyo for listings.
See the O-bon festivities
O-bon (13–15 August in 2019) is one of the most important events on the traditional calendar, along with O-shōgatsu (the celebration of the New Year). It takes place over three days in mid-August, during which it was long believed that the spirits of one's ancestors returned to the abode of the living.
Many Tokyoites return to the their hometowns to join their extended families to sweep graves, perform Buddhist rites and take part in local festivals. But there are some public O-bon events in the city: Yasukuni-jinja puts on its annual Mitama Festival, which sees the shrine decorated with tens of thousands of lanterns, over 13–16 July (O-bon according to the old lunar calendar). During Kōenji’s Awa Odori, ten thousand folk dancers take to the streets, drawing a million-plus spectators. It’s held in the evenings over the last weekend of August.
Note that some smaller businesses close over O-bon, often for the whole week.
Knock back a cold one (or several) at a summer beer garden
Stroll the streets of Tokyo in summer and it may seem like everyone is sealed inside air-conditioned boxes. But that's only because the al fresco options aren't obvious from street level: every year, many of Tokyo's major department stores host rooftop beer gardens. If you want to drink in an actual garden, Forest Beer Garden is a summer institution (that has a great all-you-can-drink and -eat deal). Or go up-market at Beer Terrace Sekirei, which sets up on a beautifully manicured lawn (otherwise used for fancy weddings). Another summer classic: Mt Takao Beer Garden, on a mountain in the city’s far west.
Most beer gardens run from May through September (mid-June to mid-October for Mt Takao Beer Garden), so even if you're not visiting during the peak heat you can still take advantage of the opportunity to clink glasses outside.
Celebrate true love during Tanabata
Tanabata (rooted in the Chinese Qixi Festival) takes place on the seventh day of the seventh month. On that day, according to myth, the stars Vega and Altair, stand-ins for two star-crossed lovers, meet across the Milky Way. To celebrate, colourful lanterns and streamers (symbolising the Milky Way) are hung from shopping strips around town. Look for displays at the entrances to Harajuku's Takeshita-dōri and Shibuya's Center-gai.
Asagaya's Pearl Centre shopping arcade does an unorthodox display of paper mache lanterns – often with pop culture references – made (or sponsored) by local businesses, community groups and schools.
Tanabata is typically celebrated on and around 7 July, though Asagaya goes with the lunar calendar and celebrates in August.
Go for a bay cruise on a yakatabune
Taking to the water on a yakatabune, a traditional wooden pleasure boat, is another of Tokyo's long-running summer traditions. Most often these low-slung barges are chartered by groups for private parties, but Tsukishima Monja Yakatabune takes reservations for its group cruises from just two people.
Shop for a yukata
At summer festivals, it's common to see Tokyoites dressed in yukata – colourful, cotton summer kimono. During this season, department stores and even chains like Uniqlo sell them. There are shops that specialise in them, too: we love the punkish yukata at Tsukikageya and the chic, bespoke ones at Y. & Sons. Though much easier to wear than a silk kimono, the obi (sash) on a yukata can still be trickier to tie properly; for this reason, some shops sell them with pre-tied sashes.
Hit an outdoor music festival
Summer is the season for outdoor music festivals, though the best ones require a little travel from Tokyo. Japan's biggest, the three-day Fuji Rock Festival, is held in late July in Naeba, a ski resort in Niigata prefecture (about 90 minutes from Tokyo on the bullet train). The massive event (with several stages and a star-studded marquee) is so popular that Tokyo feels noticeably quieter the weekend it takes place.
Closer to home, Summer Sonic is held over a weekend in August, in neighbouring Chiba prefecture (40 minutes from Tokyo Station); this half-indoor, half-outdoor festival is heavy on pop and international acts. Want to zero in on homegrown music? Check out Rock in Japan Festival, in Ibaraki, two hours northeast of Tokyo.
Cool off with summer dishes
The ultimate summer treat is kaki-gōri, shaved ice topped with colourful syrup (and sometimes also fruit, condensed milk or adzuki beans). Himitsu-dō is a local favourite that uses 'natural' ice harvested from rivers outside of Tokyo; prepare to queue on a hot day.
At ramen shops look for hiyashi-chuka, a dish of cooled noodles topped with crisp vegetables, like cucumber, and maybe some shrimp, sliced ham or slivers of omelette. Another thing to look forward to: fresh edamame (young soybeans), the perfect accompaniment for beer.