Exciting Things To Do In Japan This Winter


(I made a few updates to this post in consideration of the coronavirus pandemic.) Autumn in Japan remains my favorite time to experience the country;  however, winter is an amazing time to immerse yourself in the culture and history of Japan. Whether you’re an expat or just visiting, here are a few exciting things to do in Japan this winter. Don’t forget to stock up on winter skincare essentials to keep dry skin at bay!

Visit Tokyo Disney Resort

(What better way to welcome the Year of the Mouse than with a greeting card featuring a family coordinated outfit with Mickey Mouse himself? Perhaps you’ll run into Tigger for a festive Year of the Tiger photo op!)

Hear me out on this one:

Yes, Tokyo Disney Resort get crowded at this time of the year, no doubt about that. Basically, if you can’t make it on a weekday (or on a day that a typhoon is approaching), there will be crowds. And in the time of COVID, you’ll need to act fast to reserve tickets online for your desired date. But, if you give yourself realistic expectations and immerse yourself in the holiday spirit, the wait times are manageable and there is plenty of fun to be had.

If you’re thinking, “Why should I send so much money on a visit when my child won’t even remember,” I’ll say, yeah, you’re probably right. Eventually, they (might) forget. But you, as a parent will likely never forget the look in their eyes and seeing how the holiday magic excited them. Plus, Tokyo Disneyland Electrical Parade Dreamlights is back!

Be Awed By Illuminations Displays

Ever since the very first illumination display went up in Sapporo nearly 40 years ago, braving the icy temperatures to see dazzling twinkling lights with friends and loved ones has become a national past-time.

In the time of COVID, you’re bound to be worried about limiting your risk of infection and asymptomatic transmission. But, thankfully, you won’t have to go far or face holiday crowds to get your illumination fix. Many of Japan’s biggest illumination displays are set up outdoors, like Ashikaga Flower Park. (Read about our visit and strawberry picking experience here: Strawberry Picking at Iwafune Fruit Park and Ashikaga Flower Park Flower Fantasy.)


You’ll also find holiday displays on the way to the train station and on the display windows of shopping malls.

Another way to experience intimate holiday illuminations this year is to book a COVID staycation and enjoy the hotel’s festive décor:

Visit Towns and Villages Covered in Snow

There’s just something about snow-covered towns and landscapes that make it feel like you’ve been whisked away to a time centuries ago. 

One of my favorite winter memories is of using the Seishun 18 Ticket* (青春18切符 | seishun juuhachi kippu) to make my way from Tokyo to Niigata. As the train exited the tunnel at Minakami Station, the scenery was straight up out of the book Snow Country – pure white snow blanketed the entire town as far as I could see. 

Definitely head north this winter if you can squeeze it into your schedule! And don’t forget to visit an onsen (温泉 | Japanese hot springs) while you’re there! My daughter loves foxes so we’re planning a trip to Zao Fox Village in early 2022!

*The seishun 18 kippu is a discount train ticket that allows the user unlimited rides on any local and rapid JR trains during a period of 5 days.

Eat Christmas Cake

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Who doesn’t like cake? Christmas cake refers to a sponge cake topped with cream and strawberries that couples and families eat together during the holidays. (It’s also a super-dated and sexist term used to describe unmarried women over 25 years old). In recent times, Christmas cakes have evolved from their simple origins to decadent gourmet creations. 

Department stores, pastry shops, supermarkets, and convenience stores all sell an impressive variety of Christmas cakes. More elaborate cakes require reservations (予約 | yoyaku) but simpler ones can be bought even on the days leading up to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as well.

A tasty alternative to Christmas cake is all-you-can-eat holiday buffets at hotels:

Indulge in Seasonal Delights

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Winter foods in Japan are heartwarming comfort foods that taste even better when shared!

Try:

  • Nabe (鍋): a hot pot of veggies, meats, and/or seafood stewed in a broth
  • Shabu Shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ): thinly sliced meat cooked by dipping into seasoned boiling water then dipped in sauces before eating
  • Sukiyaki (すき焼き): veggies, tofu, and beef stewed in a sweet soy sauce broth and dipped in raw egg before eating (you can definitely skip the raw egg part — I always do!)
  • Oden (おでん): a smorgasbord of fish cakes, skewered meats, veggies, whole boiled eggs simmered in a savory broth. You can also get oden at any convenience store.

Don’t forget to stop by a convenience store for some “only in Japan” limited edition snacks!

Shop for Fukubukuro

Before settling here permanently, I made three consecutive yearly pilgrimages to shop at Shibuya 109 during the New Year’s sale (初売り | hatsu uri) to grab fukubukuro (福袋), “lucky bags” or “happy bags” filled with marked-down clothing. I also worked several hatsu uri sales in my time as a charisma sales clerk in Shibuya 109. So I know a thing or two about shopping this time of year. This is the perfect time to shop for souvenirs and to stock up on presents or clothes for the family!

Nowadays, you no longer need to wait for January 1st for scoring serious deals on makeup, clothing, and big ticket electronics and household appliances. You can even buy fukubukuro weeks before and even after the new year has begun. And, with the growing rise of online shopping in Japan, you can earn points as you shop from the comfort of your home.

In recent years, shops have begun to disclose the contents in order to entice customers. The above photo is my fukubukuro haul from 2021! This particular drugstore listed all the contents in a newspaper advert, so I knew exactly what to expect!

Another trend for highly sought fukubukuro is online pre-registration in order to stop third-party resellers. These lotteries require a form of ID/special ticket or bar code on the day of purchase.

Ring in the New Year with Joya no Kane

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While the new year means parties and champagne for some, in Japan, it’s a time of reflection. (New year’s parties and countdowns do exist, though I’m not too sure how that will work out this year!)

As soon at the clock strikes midnight, the final joya no kane (除夜の鐘) rings out at temples across Japan.
These 108 chimes represent the 108 worldly desires (煩悩 | bunnou) of Buddhism. When the final bell rings, it’s time to wipe the slate clean and enter a new year.

You can attend the ringing of the bells in person or watch the countdown on NHK or listen to it on the radio! Look out for “Yuku Toshi Kuru Toshi” (ゆく年くる年 | A Year Ends, A New Year Comes). It starts 11:45 pm on December 31st.

Visit A Shrine or Temple for Good Luck in the New Year

If visiting a temple at midnight isn’t your thing, you can time your visit for hatsumode, or the first shrine or temple visit of the new year.

Sanpaisha (参拝者 | visitors) wish for good health, to pass exams/enter their desired school, success in business endeavors, among others.  Pre-COVID, you could expect massive crowds January 1-3 at most shrines and temples, especially if you visit popular ones like Naritasan in Narita City, Chiba Prefecture and Sensoji in Asakusa, Tokyo Prefecture. This year, things will obviously be different with calls of social distancing.

How do you plan to spend winter in Japan this year?

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