Winter in Tokyo is a crisp, clear chance to ski down nearby snowy slopes, soak in hot springs and enjoy the quiet traditions of the New Year.
Wrapping up and trying some delicious warm sake is a pretty perfect way to imagine a wintery trip to Japan. While many opt for a warm winter break to revitalize, there are some real perks to seeing Japan at a quieter time of the year. Whether you enjoy the fiery festivals or want to sink back into a hot spring surrounded by snow, there’s plenty of ways to warm up that are far more exciting than a crowded beach in Thailand. We have a winter itinerary to get you started with ideas for the capital as well as plenty of suggestions below!
1. Tokyo’s winter weather: Clear and chilly
Winter is a beautiful season to be in Japan, but you have to keep warm. Temperatures average out at about 50 °F (10 °C), but luckily it’s mostly dry, with only a handful of rainy days each month to contend with. Snow in Tokyo is never too intense, so unless you’re heading up north or plan to go skiing you won’t need to worry about getting snowed in.
If you’re truly cold averse, we have some top tips on how to survive the winter months. Keep in mind that Northern Japan has much more extreme winter weather, and the mountainous regions that are close to Tokyo can also have very different climates. If you plan to visit these areas then make sure you have decent clothing and especially suitable shoes—you don’t want a broken ankle to ruin your trip!
2. What to wear in winter
As always, layers are the answer—even more so in the depths of Japanese winter. You’ll find yourself hopping between chilly streets and overly heated shops and trains, so be sure to have a few options you can easily open or remove so you don’t overheat.
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Uniqlo have a great Heattech range, which keeps you extra toasty without being too thick; an excellent option if you’re not keen on bringing a bunch of bulky layers with you.
Unlike the shops and trains, however, Japanese homes are pretty poor when it comes to heating and insulation. If you’re staying in an older Airbnb/vacation rental or a traditional ryokan, you may find it a bit chillier than you’re used to, but you will gain a new appreciation for heated toilet seats and the kotatsu (a heated table). Make sure to pack a few comfy layers too for relaxing—you can’t sit under the kotatsu forever (although you totally can!).
3. Activities: Skiing, soaking and sightseeing
Three main things signify winter in Japan, and they’re all pretty great. Skiing and snowboarding have long been major draws for visitors (especially from Australia) while soaking in a hot spring is the perfect way to relax your muscles after a day on the slopes. If you’re looking for more of a relaxed option, strolling through the incredible illuminations is pretty perfect, especially if you have a warm drink to hand.
Skiing and Snowboarding
There are a surprising amount of ski resorts you can visit from Tokyo, and we have a guide to finding groups to go with if you don’t fancy being a solo-skiier. If you need to pick up the gear, we have tips on that too.
Soak in hot springs
Onsen are the savior of winter in Japan (whether you ski or not)—especially once you get over the nakedness and etiquette fear, that is. Choose between naturally heated onsen and the public baths known as sento, which often come in the form of super-sento like this Edo-themed option. We detail the best onsen in Tokyo as well as some great escapes if you want to go on a weekend away!
There are some unique natural phenomenon that take place in winter, from soaking snow moneys to snow tunnels as tall as a house. We have a collection of the best wintery day trips to take from Tokyo (and how to get to them).
For more ideas on what to do in winter read our full round-up of all the best seasonal activities!
4. Seasonal foods to feast on
While some of the foods are easily pegged with winter, some are a little less obvious. Tofu is available year round but considered at its best in winter as it comes at the end of soybean season.
Citrus fruits like yuzu and mikan are also at their peak in winter, far from the Mediterranean images of oranges we have in Europe.
One of the most surprising is strawberries, which top the Japanese-style ‘Christmas cakes’. Read on for more of the top winter foods, including poisonous fugu!
In addition to a seasonal focus, there’s also a large cultural element to winter food (and we’re not talking about KFC or that interpretation of a Christmas cake either). Osechi ryori is the traditional New Year food, which consists of countless small dishes each representing hopes for the upcoming year. While midnight is a time for a simple bowl of soba, osechi is served during the day on January 1st and usually needs to be ordered in advance. If you’re here over the New Year and fancy trying it, we have a guide to some affordable osechi options.
5. The best festivals and events
Bringing a little heat to the festival scene, winter is a time for fire-walking as well as New Year cleansings, sumo tournaments, bean throwing and plum blossom festivals! (Note: Some of these annual events may not be taking place or may be canceled last minute in 2021 due to COVID-19. Be sure to check the individual event pages for up-to-date information.)
- The Chichibu Yomatsuri is one of the big three float festivals in Japan and it’s held at night, so enjoy the lanterns!
- The Akibasan Fire Festival in Odawara is a fiery display with a chance to test your feet on the hot coals!
- The 47 Ronin Winter Festival is a sombre event with a graveside ceremony held at Sengakuji Temple.
- The Sensoji Hagoita-Ichi fair is one of three events selling beautifully decorated ornamental bats that bring good luck.
- The Oji Inari-jinja Shrine Fox Parade celebrates an ancient Japanese legend of costumed foxes visiting the shrine to bring in the year.
- The Geikosai New Year’s Festival on Mt. Takao starts at midnight and continues into the following day with fire rituals.
- The Torigoe Shrine Tondoyaki gives you the chance to burn your New Year decorations and get some good-luck smoke.
- The January Grand Sumo Tournament is one of six and provides a seat at the sumo ring for surprisingly reasonable prices.
- Setsubun is a bean-throwing celebration that takes place on February 3rd every year at temples across Japan.
- Winter illuminations can be found all over Tokyo and are a perfect way to stroll and soak in the festive season.
- Plum blossom festivals allow you to embrace the earliest precursor to spring with all the fun of cherry blossom but none of the crowds!