Japan is a country proud of its prominent four seasons. Spring is warm, summer is hot and humid, autumn is gentle, and winter is severely cold. The changing seasons naturally bring changing temperatures and weather, with the gentle warmth during cherry blossoms and the vivid colors of autumn being both gorgeous and pleasant. However, summer gets scorching hot with temperatures close to 40°C while dropping below freezing in winter. Certain areas also experience more than 2 meters of snow.
Nonetheless, winter sightseeing in Japan is beautiful and offers a plethora of iconic sights. To make your winter vacation a perfect one, here are five things that you need to know before your trip to Japan!
1. Delays and More: Snowfall Impacts Public Transport
Much of Japan, excluding warm areas such as Okinawa, experiences snowfall during winter. It’s important to know that public transport is negatively affected by that. Especially in the Kanto area around Tokyo and Kansai around Osaka and Kyoto, snow usually causes delays and other issues. Not only trains but also flights, buses, ferries and so on may be late or canceled altogether, ruining your vacation plans.
Especially planes have strict rules when it comes to weather and if the snow cover on the runway rises to 1.3cm or more, they are not allowed to land or take off anymore. Even if the snowfall only seems minor, it may already have an effect and cause delays and cancellations. These rules are less clear for bullet trains, regular trains, and buses, but the Kanto area usually experiences issues from snow of about 5cm, while 10cm or more tends to bring many cancellations and interrupted traffic.
Low temperatures not only mean snow but also icy roads. Even rural areas, where people are more accustomed to such conditions than people in larger cities, experience traffic jams during peak hours in the morning and evening. Bus schedules are severely affected by that and even taxis or rental cars might not save you from being late or having to cancel plans. It’s important to plan around possible delays and more during Japan’s winter.
Generally speaking, winter in Japan does bring the risk of issues in public transport, flights, and so on. When making a plan or schedule for your trip, try to be generous and leave yourself enough breathing room to be able to adjust to possible delays or cancellations. However, don’t let that stop you either – make reservations for hotels, amusement parks, restaurants, and whatever you want to experience, and simply try to get there early!
2. More Accidents and Greater Infection Risk During Winter
Winter also sees a rise in accidents and infection risk. Even if you only stay in Japan for a short amount of time, it’s important to keep that in mind and prevent getting sick by wearing a mask.
December to March is influenza season in Japan. Being affected by an influenza virus means suddenly getting sick after a few days with symptoms such as high fever, exhaustion, loss of appetite, and so on, often accompanied by headache and other pain. Washing your hands frequently and wearing a mask are two common measures to prevent an infection during that time. Even Japanese people who diligently take proper measures catch influenza easily, so being aware of this risk is particularly important. Masks are sold for little money at every convenience store.
Winter depression, sometimes known as the “winter blues,” is caused by much less hours of sunlight. The basic symptoms are similar to depression, but it is a seasonal condition by a lack of sun that reduces serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked to positive emotions such as happiness and well-being. Since serotonin production is stimulated by direct sunlight, a lack thereof can cause imbalances and lead to this winter depression.
Especially people who stay in Japan for a longer period of time need to be aware of this and try to get as much sunlight as possible during the winter months. On top of that, eating soy products, dairy products, blueback fish, meat, and vegetables helps your body producing serotonin. Combine these efforts with trying local foods as you’re traveling, and it becomes a fun gourmet experience! With a balanced diet and sufficient sleep, winter won’t be able to ruin your mood.
High Blood Pressure
While the climate in winter differs by area, it is not uncommon for temperatures to fall below freezing in Japan. That can lead to hypertension. One way to prevent a sudden increase of blood pressure is allowing your room to warm up properly when taking a bath or showering.
Accidents Caused by Snow and Ice
Traffic accidents also see a spike during winter because roads are covered in snow and ice. That also goes for sidewalks, making it much easier to slip and fall. Bring appropriate shoes, such as boots with a good grip. Wearing weather-appropriate clothes will make your winter vacation so much better!
3. The Winter Climate in Big Cities
We say “winter in Japan” but every Japanese area is different when it comes to temperature and snowfall. Winter in Hokkaido is an entirely different beast than winter in Tokyo, for example. Here are the main two points to keep in mind:
・ The Japanese archipelago spreads from south to north, with the temperatures getting colder the further north you are.
・ Japan has a Pacific side in the east and a Sea of Japan side in the west. Snowfall is much higher on the Sea of Japan side.
Japan stretches long and thin from north to south, with the climate depending on the latitude of the area. Hokkaido is the northernmost part of Japan and known to be cold, while Okinawa far down south is warm, generally speaking. The amount of snowfall also varies from east to west. Because of seasonal winds, the Sea of Japan side in the east experiences a lot of rain and snow while the Pacific side in the east is rather dry. Of course, other factors such as mountains also play a role when it comes to climate, but the most basic points to keep in mind are the two listed above, letting you roughly assess an area’s climate. Let’s look at the climate of big cities in different regions.
・ Average temperature: -3.6°C/25.52℉
・ Maximum temperature: -0.6°C/30.92℉
・ Lowest temperature: -7°C/19.4℉
Hokkaido experiences heavy snowfall throughout the entire area and the cold is particularly severe, even for Japan. On the Pacific side, the Sea of Okhotsk side, and the Sea of Japan side, the temperature can drop easily in both summer and winter. Naturally, you need to take appropriate measures to deal with the cold. In Hokkaido, snow trekking shoes are the best choice and snow grips are sold in many places around the area as well.
Much like Hokkaido, the Tohoku area is one of harsh cold. However, Sendai and its surrounding area is comparatively mild thanks to the sea breeze from the Pacific Ocean and also has less snowfall. While there are many cold days the temperature rarely falls below freezing, except for mid-January. Especially mornings and evenings have roads freeze over, so pay attention to that when driving or walking.
・ Average temperature: 2.8°C/37.04℉
・ Maximum temperature: 5.5°C/41.9℉
・ Lowest temperature: 0.2°C/41.9℉
Niigata is in the Hokuriku area on the Sea of Japan side. The water vapor from the ocean creates many damp clouds that are then caught in mountain ranges stretching from the center of Niigata to its southern tip. They bring heavy snowfall of 2 meters and more not only to Niigata but also to other areas on the Sea of Japan side, earning this part of Japan a reputation as “heavy snowfall area.” While the climate is somewhat mild compared to Hokkaido and Hokuriku, the amount of snowfall is massive despite the area being further south. Because temperatures fall below the freezing point in certain areas, it is important to pack warm clothes that can withstand the snow.
・ Average temperature: 5.2°C/41.36℉
・ Maximum temperature: 9.6°C/49.28℉
・ Lowest temperature: 0.9°C/33.62℉
Tokyo is famous as the capital of Japan and its average temperature in January is rather mild with 5.2°C/41.36℉. One factor for that is believed to be the heat island phenomenon, but the actual temperature tends to feel much colder than it actually is. The wind around high buildings and the humidity seem to make a “cold that seems to sting the skin.” Next to a thick coat or down jacket, removable outerwear is also recommended.
・ Average temperature: 4.5°C/40.1℉
・ Maximum temperature: 9°C/48.2℉
・ Lowest temperature: 0.8°C/33.44℉
In August 2018, Nagoya broke the records for the highest recorded temperature at 40.3°C. The scorching summer of the area was dominating the news, despite the Japanese summer generally being very hot. On the other hand, Nagoya’s winter temperatures fall rather low in the northeast. Around Aichi prefecture where Nagoya is located are two major mountain areas, Mount Ibuki and the Suzuka Mountains. Winter brings a particularly cold and dry wind called Ibuki Oroshi that blows in from between the mountains, causing a sudden drop in temperature. As for clothes, follow the same rules that you should follow for Tokyo.
・ Average temperature: 6°C/42.8℉
・ Maximum temperature: 9.5°C/49.1℉
・ Lowest temperature: 2.8°C/37.04℉
Osaka is blessed with a stable climate that has little temperature difference throughout the year. While there is more snowfall than in Tokyo, it rarely stays around to pile up. For one, the snow clouds coming from the Sea of Japan collide with high mountains such as Mount Rokko and dissolve. Temperatures also easily rise due to topography such as basins, melting any snowfall almost immediately. While it is rather mild around Osaka, mornings and evenings are cooler.
・ Average temperature: 4.6°C/40.28℉
・ Maximum temperature: 8.9°C/48.02℉
・ Lowest temperature: 1.2°C/34.16℉
Kyoto is fairly close to Osaka, located in a basin and surrounded by mountains. That geographic characteristic is exactly why Kyoto is the area with one of Japan’s largest temperature differences. In summer, the foehn phenomenon causes temperatures to rise to almost 40°C. It is also incredibly humid, making the felt temperature rather different from the actual numbers. On the other hand, that humidity suddenly decreases come winter. It doesn’t only feel much colder then, but radiative cooling also makes for severely cold mornings and evenings. Kyoto is one of Japan’s most popular sightseeing destinations, but its climate is quite harsh. Brace for the cold and you will have a great trip nonetheless!
・ Average temperature: 5.2°C/41.36℉
・ Maximum temperature: 9.7°C/49.46℉
・ Lowest temperature: 1.7°C/35.06℉
Hiroshima is nestled between the Chugoku Mountains and the Shikoku Mountains, enjoying many sunny days throughout the year. Because it faces the Seto Inland Sea with its calm waves, the climate is stable and pleasant as a whole. Sill temperature differences are big during winter, so you need proper attire to resist the cold. While there might be almost no snow, a thick coat is recommended nonetheless.
・ Average temperature: 6.3°C/43.34℉
・ Maximum temperature: 11.9°C/53.42℉
・ Lowest temperature: 1.6°C/34.88℉
Kochi is an area of temperature climate that is in the southern part of the Shikoku region. Temperatures differ greatly between the mountains in Shikoku’s mountainous part and plains as well as the seaside. Seasonal winds bring a lot of snowfalls near the mountains and the winter cold is rather harsh there. On the other hand, the plains and coastal areas are much warmer thanks to a mild ocean current called the Kuroshio Current. Speaking of the highlands, Kochi is rich in temples that are part of Shikoku Henro, a prominent pilgrimage to 88 sacred sites. They are dotted throughout the mountains and offer a one-of-a-kind experience, so do pack thick and appropriate clothes to withstand the winter temperatures.
・ Average temperature: 6.6°C/43.88℉
・ Maximum temperature: 9.9°C/49.82℉
・ Lowest temperature: 3.5°C/38.3℉
Fukuoka is in the Kyushu region and known throughout Japan for its particularly temperate climate. There is little snowfall, making it a pleasant place to spend the winter compared to other areas of the country. However, mornings and evenings are predictably colder, so having a coat that you can put on quickly is recommended.
4. What to Bring for a Japanese Winter Vacation
While the Japanese winter may sound mild to some, it feels surprisingly cold. Depending on which areas you plan on visiting, here are some must-have items to make your trip cozy and comfortable.
Disposable Heating Pads
Disposable warmers aren’t something you have to bring as they are sold for little money at Japanese convenience and drug stores. The small bags contain ingredients such as iron powder, water, activated carbon, vermiculite, and more. Iron oxidizes when coming in contact with air and that oxidization produces heat, so simply by opening the little bag, you will have a nice handwarmer. Others feature a glue surface and can be stuck right into your clothes. How long these warmers stay warm varies by product, but it’s usually about 10 hours. With a temperature of about 40°C, they will keep your body warm and cozy to the core.
Coldproof innerwear is essential for traveling Japan during winter. Thin innerwear is sufficient for large cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, but if you are exploring the countryside, opt for thicker options that can even be used for mountain climbing. If that kind of innerwear isn’t available in your country, you can get it in convenience stores and other shops in Japan.
Taking pictures is a major part of sightseeing and a lot of people use the built-in camera of their smartphone for that. If you’re wearing gloves, however, that suddenly becomes an issue. We recommend bringing gloves with special fingertips that allow you to use your smartphone normally for maximum sightseeing fun in winter.
5. Traditional Japanese Ways to Stay Warm
Winter is cold in Japan and staying warm is important. Last but not least, let’s take a look at some of Japan’s traditional methods of fighting the cold! Some of them are useful even nowadays and might make for a unique experience.
Japan has a prominent bathing culture that includes taking a long bath every day. It’s an indispensable custom that isn’t only about cleanliness but also battling the cold of the winter. The vast majority of hotels and hostels offers bathtubs in the rooms or public baths, so partake in Japan’s culture by giving your body a long, relaxing soak. Japan is also a hot spring country and especially mountainous regions are dotted with fantastic hot spring facilities. Particularly outdoor baths that let you gaze over the winter scenery are an amazing experience that you should not miss out on.
The kotatsu can be called Japan’s traditional indoor heating system. It is basically a low table that features a wide blanket and heater underneath. Nowadays, these heaters are electronic, but traditionally, the cozy hear was created by charcoal briquettes and similar methods. The result is the same – wonderful warmth from your legs up. There are different kinds of kotatsu. The type called hori-godatsu features a little “step” underneath to put your legs in, having you sit like you’re on a regular chair. You’ll find them at regular households throughout Japan but also at accommodation facilities such as traditional inns. If you get the chance, experience the warm coziness of a kotatsu yourself.
Yutanpo (Hot-water Bottle)
Yutanpo are a traditional warming tool used during winter. Hot water is poured into a metal or plastic container, wrapped in cloth, and put in the bed. It does not only warm the bed itself but also whichever part of your body you place it on, such as feet or belly. While these hot-water bottles are commercially sold, you can easily make your own using a plastic bottle. Simply fill a 1.5-liter bottle with hot water, wrap it in a towel, and you’re all set.
The irori is very rarely found in modern households, but this type of hearth was once a must-have for winter. A square is cut out under the flooring in the center of a room and filled with ash, firewood, and charcoal. A fire can be lit inside to heat the room or even prepare a meal and you might have seen an irori in a historical TV show or anime. Some inns and sightseeing facilities still have an irori, so if you spot one, sit down next to it and enjoy this traditional way of staying warm.
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*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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