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Japan in winter often gets overlooked but it’s a magical time of year and for a lot of reasons. From delicious warming oden to relaxing in an onsen or getting your adrenaline going with some winter sports, it’s a great time to settle into the country. Here is a look into the best things to do in Japan in winter.
While Japan’s mainly a Buddhist and Shintō country there is one aspect of western society that they embrace with gusto and that’s holidays. If you head out in early January many of the Christmas illuminations are still up and they’re a truly spectacular sight to behold. It’s like a magical winter wonderland and they certainly put European displays to shame.
As well as Christmas, Valentine’s day is also a big holiday in Japan. So much so, they spread it across two separate days a month apart. February 14th is normally set aside for women to give gifts to men. They’ll often make homemade chocolates for their boyfriend or husband and buy some chocolates for friends and male colleagues. Don’t worry though, the men have their turn too, only a month later on White Day, 14th March. While not quite winter anymore, the two days are still strongly connected.
Of course, with holidays, comes shopping. For those with an eye for a bargain, January is a good time to shop in Japan. January sales are everywhere. If you’ve never had a chance to visit a Japanese department store, you should definitely put it on the list for when you move here. Not only are they massive, but they have everything you could possibly need to set up your new home and if you move in January you’ll be sure to get a lot of the essentials for much cheaper than normal. What’s more, it’s a perfect place to experience traditional omotenashi (お持て成し). The service in Japan is as exceptional as they make out and it’s a delight to experience.
As you may already know, 73% of Japan is mountainous. Mountains mean snow and snow means excellent ski resorts. There are plenty of them in Japan with some just an hour or two outside of Tokyo. That means you can even do a day trip for some skiing or snowboarding with a relaxing trip to an onsen before heading back to the bustling metropolis of Tokyo to continue your studies. This makes going out for a skiing or snowboarding trip one of the most popular things to do in Japan in winter.
One of the more famous areas for it is Nagano, just 2 ½ hours from Tokyo. The city and prefecture held the Winter Olympics back in ‘98 and as such has some of the best resorts in the country, there are resorts for every level and even a snow fun one for those who would prefer to sled than snowboard. It’s a beautiful region and the city itself is worth a visit with the Zenko-ji Temple (善光寺) at the center. It also has one of the most famous onsen (温泉) in the country, although this one isn’t for people, it’s for monkeys. The Japanese Macaque or Snow Monkeys, in the region, like to head down the mountain each day in the winter to relax, unwind and warm up. There’s a naturally occurring hot spring heated by the nearby volcanos, that has been channeled into a pool just for the monkeys. It’s a wonderful sight and you’ll want to watch them going about their business all day.
Once you’ve done all your shopping in the sales and had an adventure in the mountains, follow the example of the monkeys with a trip to an onsen. It’s the best possible way to relax. Even if you’re not into winter sports so much, if you have a chance to venture into the mountainous regions of Japan then a trip to the local onsen is a must. These natural hot springs are beautifully located and there are some ones that are out in the open and give you a chance to experience the mountain views from a very serene and warm spot. While onsen are often separated into men’s and women’s pools, it can be a little scary visiting them for the first time but don’t worry, we’ve put together a handy etiquette guide to help you through.
Once you’ve relaxed in the hot spring, it’s time to warm your insides too with some delicious winter food. Every region in Japan has its own favourite dish but there are some universal delights available throughout Japan in winter and most of them are a variety of nabe (鍋) or one-pot dishes. Oden is one you must try and is available in most konbini too. A hot-pot type of dish, it consists of a variety of items stewed in a dashi broth. You can often choose which items you’d like and they can range from boiled eggs to tofu to fishcakes. It’s a perfect quick bite to warm you through. Alternatively, there’s shabu shabu where you have a central pot on your table and cook thinly sliced meat and vegetables in boiling water or Daishi. There are plenty more varieties and they’re all worth trying.
Japan in winter is a magical time of year to see this country. With crisp cool days and lots to do, you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to activities to fill your weekends with when you need a break from study.
If you want to enjoy winter in Japan, with people from all over the world, and experience the best of Japanese culture with us, check out our Winter in Japan course. With this 3-week study trip you will experience the best of Japanese winter culture – un unforgettable experience for sure.
For more information about life in Japan, keep following our Go! Go! Nihon blog.
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