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 measures—as Tokyo residents found out this year when the coldest day was recorded for 48 years. Yet while some people have hibernation solely on their minds (yes, I’m talking about you hiding under your kotatsu) you don’t just have to just take refuge in your house or in a museum. Here are some fun Japan winter activities without breaking the bank.
It’s no surprise that one of the world’s most futuristic countries has some of the best winter illuminations. Best of all, the majority 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 an competitive affair, with each ward seemingly trying to outdo each other 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 picks for Tokyo.
Hot eats on the cheap
Let’s face it, stuffing your face is an obligatory part of the festive season. But if you’re looking for some winter grub with a Japanese twist look no further than oden—a bucket load 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 they 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 are often notoriously 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
Featuring enormous snow sculptures of Pokemon, Mario and and, er, Donald Trump, the Sapporo Snow Festival is perhaps the most well-known winter festival in Japan. Now approaching its 70th anniversary, it has in recent years attracted the attention and participation of sculpture teams from outside Japan.
This year’s festival will be held from February 5-12, but if you are thinking of going get on the ball now. Hotels get booked up quick, and flight prices will rocket closer to the time. Be sure to eat some snow crab and Sapporo ramen while you are there. Hokkaido in general is a winter wonderland at this time of year, but unlike Tokyo the cities are designed to cope with the weather: public transport is reliable and places are heated well. For some inspiration, check out our guide to the fastest and cheapest ways to get to Sapporo here.
Japanese snow monkeys aren’t the only ones that can enjoy lying about in steaming water while the rest of us bundle up in scarves and hats. Get up close and personal with the locals at a neighboring bath house (sento), or if you’re looking for a bit more glam, stay in a glorious Japanese ryokan complete with private onsen 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 and boiling water escaping from this volcanic area you’ll soon understand why. Of course remember to respect the park and use common sense: don’t irritate the monkeys or feed them.
Visit a shrine—with some foxes
Of course, 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 fireworks like New York or London 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 ways to see in the new year in Japan.
Hike up to see the first sunrise of the year (Hatsuhinode)
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, and Mt Fuji’s mountain trail is more akin to the stairs at Shinjuku Station during rush hour as opposed to a hiking route.
Saying that, 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. If you do want to tackle Fuji, it’s probably best to book a tour so at least you know you can make it to the top in time.
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 evil 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!”) It dates back about 600 years. Mamemaki is an age-old Japanese tradition, and a unique way to strengthen bonds and unite forces against evil. Make sure to buy little packets of soybeans to keep as souvenirs, or even a demon mask.
Bag a bargain
No, we don’t mean at one of Japan’s many 100 yen shops, rather at the high-end department stores that slash their prices over the new year, 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 electrical 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
Chances are you’ve seen a photo of this colossal white wall online 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. The best way to visit here is via a coach tour from a main hub such as Shinjuku, but always check with tour operators the state of the roads and if any delays are expected before parting with your cash.
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