Unbeknownst to many, the winter season can be one of the most exciting times to visit Tokyo. With an average temperature of about 5°C in January, winter weather in Tokyo can be chilly but, thanks to a vast majority of sunny days, it’s quite enjoyable. From traditional Japanese New Year’s celebrations and illuminations, to hot springs and holiday shopping, Tokyo has a winter activity for just about anyone! Find out what the city has to offer during this special season.
See Tokyo’s Winter Illuminations
Winter in Tokyo may be cold, but beautiful illuminations will warm your heart as they light up the city. If ever there was an urban landscape that was made for illuminations, Tokyo is it. Thousands of lights illuminate locations across the city, in a variety of ways. From champagne-colored bulbs that cover tree-lined streets to creative, modern-styled designs, December is the time of year that Tokyo becomes a bright and merry winter wonderland! Stroll around streets and parks, or at one of the many shopping centers featuring brilliant illuminations.
Experience the Christmas Markets in Tokyo
It may come as a surprise, but Tokyo has some impressive European-style Christmas markets! Each December, Tokyoites flock to one of several seasonal markets for shopping, workshops, and food. Gorgeous decorations and traditional Christmas music set a charming, and magical atmosphere.
The markets feature stalls and booths featuring crafts, ornaments, and plenty of delicious food. While shopping and sipping on mulled wine, you’ll think you’ve been transported to a German village!
Unwind with a Hot Bath in a Sento or Hot Springs near Tokyo
Communal bathing has been long been a part of traditional Japanese culture. Public baths called “sento” were the common place to wash up during the times when many people did not have a bath in their own residence. Lending to Japan’s fascination with baths is the fact that the country, located within the “Ring of Fire,” is home to thousands of natural hot springs, called “onsen.”
Even in modern day Japan, visiting onsen and sento is a pastime that continues to be enjoyed by young and old alike, especially during the cold winter months. Whether visiting a small local sento, or taking a trip to a luxurious hot spring spas, enjoying a traditional Japanese bath is an activity we recommend every Japan visitor experience at least once. Travelers to Tokyo have plenty of options, both within the city, and a bit further out, where you can find a number of resorts that are perfect for a convenient getaway from the urban jungle.
Visit Shrines and Temples for New Year's Eve
Shogatusu (the New Year) is one of the most important holidays of the year in Japan, and the most traditional way to ring in the New Year is with a visit to a shrine or temple. This first visit of the year, known as “hatsumode,” is a time for both prayer and celebration. The shrines can become quite crowded, but the lively atmosphere is worth the visit. Visitors wait patiently in long lines in order to ring the bell and say a prayer.
The celebration isn’t just limited to New Year’s Eve; Tokyo shrines and temples are visited by thousands of people within the first few days. If you’re looking to experience an authentic Japanese tradition during the winter, there is no better occasion than this.
Eat Popular Japanese Winter Food: Nabe or Nabemono
One tried and true method of keeping warm in any country is with a piping hot meal. Japan is no exception, and has a winter specialty dishes that keeps hungry people asking for “okawari!” (extra helpings)–”Nabe" or "Nabemono,” otherwise known as a Japanese style hot pot. Enjoyed at home or in a restaurant, nabe is one of Japan’s favorite meals to eat during the colder months. Nabe can contain a variety of ingredients including, seafood, meat, vegetables, and tofu, boiled together in a pot, before being dipped in “ponzu,” a thin, citrusy sauce made from vinegar and rice wine. For people spending winter in Japan, nabe is a must-eat menu item!
Test Your Luck and Buy a “Fukubukuro”
In addition to highly traditional New Year’s activities, Japan also has some customs that fall more in line with modern culture. One such tradition is buying a “fukubukuro,” also known as a “lucky bag.” At the start of the New Year, Japanese department stores and other shops offer a mystery grab bag filled with various goods. The collection of the goods inside the bag is typically worth a lot more than the actual price. The only catch is that you might not know exactly what you’re getting–but for many, the fun is in the gamble! For serious shoppers, however, some stores have taken to revealing some, or all of the contents of their lucky bags beforehand, to further entice customers. Whether you love Japanese gadgets, fashion, or otaku goods, you are sure to find a lucky bag for you!
Explore Japanese Winter Holiday Traditions
Christmas and New Year’s aren’t the only winter holidays celebrated in Japan; there are quite a few other celebrations to be had. Not long after New Year’s hatsumode shrine visits have finished, comes another major holiday: Seijin no Hi, otherwise known as Japan’s Coming of Age Day. Other holidays that are related to the new year are Kagamibiraki, the cutting of New Year’s rice cakes on the 11th of January, as well as Koshogatsu on the 15th of January, which literally means, “Little New Year,” which is then followed by Setsubun on February 3rd. One uniquely Japanese winter holiday is Setsubun, which occurs on February 3rd, Hinamatsuri or Japanese Doll Festival on March 3rd and so on. This celebration, during which children throw beans at a family member or other acquaintance wearing an ‘oni’ (Japanese demon) mask, while shouting “Oni out! Luck in!” as a traditional means of purification. This soybean throwing is called mame-maki and also done at temples and shrines by priests and shrine maidens.
Discover more about Japan’s vivid New Year’s and winter traditions and festivals below!
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