Brrrr. From the top of Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, right down to Kyushu, the Japanese winter can be both freezing and beautiful in equal measure. But while some people have hibernation on their minds (yes, I’m talking about you, hiding under your kotatsu), you don’t have to just take refuge in your Tokyo flat or in a nice warm museum. Here are some fun Japan winter activities to get you out and enjoying the season.
Marvel at the winter illuminations
It’s no surprise that one of the world’s most high-tech countries has some of the best winter illuminations. Best of all, most of them are free—allowing you to see Japan’s cities transformed through projection mapping and millions upon millions of LEDs. It doesn’t matter if you’re a tech nerd or just a hopeless romantic, each city and district has something different to offer.
Illuminations have become something of a competitive affair, with each area seemingly trying to outdo the others with bigger and bigger shows each year—and even theme parks are now competing to provide you with the best show. Can’t decide which one to go to? Then check out our top 10 illumination picks for Tokyo.
Enjoy hot eats on the cheap: Oden and nabe
Let’s face it, stuffing your face is an obligatory part of the festive season. But if you’re after some winter grub with a Japanese twist look no further than oden—a bucketload of Japanese ingredients simmering in a comforting broth made from soy sauce and fish stock. The smell is a bit of a love-it-or-hate-it affair, but whether you decide to eat it on the run from a convenience store, or go to a dedicated oden restaurant, no food sums up the Japanese winter months more.
Still not warm or full enough? Then head to a nabe restaurant for your annual hotpot fix. The best part about these restaurants is that many of them offer all-you-can-eat for a designated time period, allowing you to stuff yourself full of vegetables, meat and soup.
Vegetables in Japanese supermarkets can be expensive, so a nabe session is a good way to fill up on veggies on the cheap. Many nabe restaurants also offer split pots, giving you the opportunity to sample two different broths. A good idea is to get a sweet sukiyaki broth in one side of the pot and a spicy kimchi broth in the other.
Visit the world-famous Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido
Featuring enormous snow sculptures of Pokemon, Mario and, er, Donald Trump, among others, the Sapporo Snow Festival is perhaps the most well-known winter festival in Japan. Now celebrating its 70th anniversary, it has in recent years attracted the attention and participation of sculpture teams from outside Japan.
Pro tip: The 2020 festival will be held from Jan 31-Feb 11, but if you are thinking of going, get on the ball now. Hotels get booked up quick, and flight prices may rocket closer to the time.
Hokkaido is a winter wonderland at this time of year, but the cities are designed to cope with the weather: public transport is reliable and central heating is everywhere. If you’re thinking of heading up north, check out our guide to the fastest and cheapest ways to get to Sapporo. Be sure to eat some Sapporo ramen while you are there.
Our favorite Japan winter activity: Seasonal steaming at onsen and sento
Japanese snow monkeys aren’t the only ones that can enjoy lazing about in steaming water while the rest of us bundle up in scarves and hats. Hang out with locals at a neighborhood bath house (sento), or if you’re looking for a bit more glamor, stay in a glorious Japanese ryokan complete with private onsen (hot spring) experience. Some aren’t as expensive as you might think.
Of course, if you want to see those snow monkeys for yourself, then you’ll have to make the pilgrimage to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park in Nagano. The word Jigokudani means “Hell Valley”—and once you see the steam billowing off the hot water in this volcanic area you’ll know why. Of course, remember to respect the park and use common sense: don’t bother or feed the monkeys.
Visit a shrine—with some foxes: Oji Inari-jinja, Tokyo
If you really want an authentic New Year celebration in Japan, then head to a shrine on New Year’s Eve to pay your respects and look forward to the year ahead. Be warned though, the more popular shrines will be rammed. It’s worth remembering that New Year in Japan is very much a family affair—you’ll not see any insane New York- or London-style fireworks here, but if traditional culture is what you’re after then it’s very much the place to be.
If you want to combine your shrine experience with an event you’ll see nowhere else in the world, check out the the Fox Parade at Oji Inari-jinja in Tokyo. Fox masks and fox paint make it a unique way to see in the new year in Japan.
Hatsuhinode: Hike up a mountain to see the first sunrise of the year
Feeling adventurous and want to get up in the middle of the night in freezing temperatures to climb to the top of a mountain in the dark to watch the first sunrise of the year? Many people do: Tokyo’s Mount Takao has a queue to the top.
That said, the feeling you get watching the first sunrise of the new year in Japan is hard to beat (even if you are surrounded by hundreds of raised smartphones everywhere you look).
Bag a bargain at New Year sales
No, we don’t mean at one of Japan’s many 100-yen shops. Many high-end department stores slash their prices over the new year period, offering prices you will see at no other time of the year.
Many people know exactly want they want—but if you’re feeling lucky, why not go for a fukubukuro (literally meaning lucky bag)? The bags are sealed so you don’t know what’s inside, but you can often get three times as many items for the usual price if you are willing to take a chance. A good place to try these bags out is an electrics store, as you are sure to have some use for what you receive.
The sales season is not as hectic as in the US—so you can enjoy wandering about and looking at the deals without fear of being stampeded. Do expect queues though!
Visit Japan’s most famous snow wall: The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route
Chances are you’ve seen a photo of this colossal white wall before—a huge compacted snow corridor that snakes its way through the Japanese Alps and can reach heights of up to 20 meters. The roads are painstakingly carved out every spring with the aid of bulldozers and GPS to help find them under months of heavy snowfall.
Pro tip: The best way to visit this area is via a coach tour from a main hub such as Shinjuku, but always check with tour operators about the state of the roads and if any delays are expected before parting with your cash. Note that tours may only be bookable in season.
Hit the slopes: Take a snowboarding and/or ski trip from Tokyo
There is powder aplenty in the Japanese winter, just waiting to be carved. See our guide to snowboarding and skiing trips from Tokyo for where to go for your adrenaline fix.
Ward off demons during Setsubun
No visit to Japan is complete without taking part in at least one traditional festival. Setsubun is a festival held the day before the beginning of spring in Japan. It’s accompanied by a special ritual called mamemaki to cleanse away all the evil of the former year and drive away nasty spirits for the year to come.
Traditionally, roasted soybeans are thrown at a person dressed in a demon mask, while people shout “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“Demons out! Luck in!”). Mamemaki is an age-old Japanese tradition, dating back about 600 years, and a unique way to strengthen bonds and unite forces against evil. You can buy little packets of soybeans, or even a demon mask, to keep as souvenirs.
While we do our best to ensure that everything is correct, information is subject to change. Originally published in January, 2018. Last updated in November, 2019.