Winter in Tokyo means donning your furry coats, seeking out the warmest establishments or snuggling up at home under a kotatsu – a wooden table with a built in blanket and a heater underneath – and enjoying a cup of steaming miso soup.
Even though it gets very cold, Tokyo doesn’t get a lot of snow compared to other areas of Japan and in winter most visitors will often skip the capital en-route to the ski regions in the North. However, just because it’s cold it doesn’t mean it should be overlooked because there is still plenty to do, even when the temperature drops. Some may say it’s the best time to visit the city.
To get you started, here are Tokyo Urban Adventures guide Kimiko’s tips on things to enjoy in winter:
Coordination? Who needs it! You don’t need to be Torvill and Dean to enjoy this iconic pastime at any one of Tokyo’ pop-up outdoor ice rinks. And you can participate whether you’re with friends, family or flying solo. If you fall you will most likely see an outreached hand and a friendly smile to help you get back up and dust yourself off and keep going. So grab some skates and hit the ice! Be sure to check out:
When it comes to Christmas lights, Tokyo doesn’t do things by halves. From tree-lined streets to glistening gardens and softly illuminated buildings. Throughout December and January the whole city is awash in festive lights. The illuminations, as they are called in Japan, provide a fairytale glow in contrast to Tokyo’s neon lights and gives the city a softer vibe that truly gets people into the Christmas spirit. After sunset, just as the lights come on, is the perfect time to take photos.
In Japan, Christmas is more of a commercial holiday than anything, and in contrast to the western world, it’s considered to be a holiday you’d be more likely to spend with friends or on a date night with your significant other. But that doesn’t mean the city doesn’t celebrate. With December comes the Christmas markets where German influence is most prominent. It calls for everyone to get into the festive spirit. You’ll find ornaments and holiday-themed knick knacks for sale, can sip on some wine or beer, and even snack on some bratwurst. If you find yourself in Tokyo over the Christmas holiday, here are a few markets to check out:
Visitors from far and wide come to Tokyo solely to enjoy it’s flavours. The beauty of Japanese cuisine is its seasonality which makes you appreciate the fresh delicacies that are on offer as you know you won’t be able to get try them again until the following year.
Some of Japan’s most common winter flavors include sweet potato and strawberries which both grow in abundance. Sweet potato comes into season around October, and strawberries are at their best in February. During these months, you’ll find all different kinds of sweet potato and strawberry flavored treats – from ice cream and cakes to grilled delights.
For more of a sit-down type meal, be sure to add these Japanese dishes to the list of things to eat while you’re here:
Visit an Onsen
During the summer the Japanese flock to the beer gardens but when winter comes around it’s all about the onsen – a natural hot spring bath thats water source is usually sourced from neighboring mountain regions or volcanoes. Come winter, the Japanese love to indulge in regular visits to the onsen to take advantage of the warmth and relaxation that it provides. Even a quick 15-minute soak is said to improve blood circulation, metabolism, digestion, skin rejuvenation, and help release muscle tension.
Most onsen are equipped with shower stations that have body wash, shampoo, and conditioner and some places also have saunas. You shower prior to getting into the public bath and again upon exiting. Towel rentals are available at most onsens and it should also be noted that swimsuits are not necessary or sometimes even allowed… birthday suits only!
There are no time limits imposed at the onsens so you can stay in the bath for as little or as long as you like. When you’re done with your soak, head to the rest areas, usually located at the front of the building, where you can continue to relax and re-hydrate with plenty of water and a cup of green tea.
In Japan, we have a tradition called Hatsumode which roughly translates to ‘the first shrine visit of the new year’. Families come together to visit their local neighborhood shrine to make their wishes for the year. While at the shrine, people will also buy an omikuji – a personal paper fortune that reveals all the areas in which they will have good or bad luck that year (i.e. health, relationships, travel, etc.). In addition to a private prayer at the main hall, you can also write down a public wish that you want for yourself, your family and friends, or for the world on an ema – a small, wooden plaque with the shrine’s unique design on one side, and a blank space on the other for you to write your wish before hanging it up. Even if you’re not religious, it’s a great local experience to join the Japanese in their annual tradition of visiting a shrine at the top of the year, setting your personal intentions for the year, and seeing to it that you make your own magic happen.
Enjoy all this and more on a Create Your Own Tour