50 Things to Do, See, and Eat in Japan this Winter
What comes to your mind when you think of wintertime in Japan? Probably food, festivals, and nature, right? Well we've got all of those, plus a few surprises, in this definitive list of the top 50 things you should do, see, and eat in Japan this winter! From chocolate ramen to unique local festivals and stunning natural scenery, there is sure to be something to satisfy everyone, so keep reading to find out more.
Dec 27 2018 (Sep 09 2020)
Festivals & Events
1. teamLab Brings Its Magic to Kochi Castle!
In a historical Japanese setting of Kochi Castle, which was built in 1600's, teamLab creates a world of interactive art. This festival of light extends to the nature surrounding the castle as well. Be mesmerized by teamLab's acclaimed colorful digital art surrounded by a contrasting traditional Japanese environment.
2. All the Colors of the Rainbow! Winter Fireworks in Odaiba
Fireworks is not just for the summer! Enjoy a spectacular display of fireworks in Odaiba every Saturday during the month of December. A recommended spot for view the event is right by the Statue of Liberty in Odaiba Marine Park. On Saturday 22nd, the display will be accompanied by music for an added wow factor!
3. Floating Lights at Tsunan Snow Festival
The highlight of Tsunan Snow Festival in Niigata prefecture has to be when a multitude of paper lanterns are released into the night sky. Taking place on March 9th, 2019, there will be some lanterns launched on the previous day, but the second day of the festival will see thousands of lanterns take to the dark, winter sky. It's not a sight you see every day.
4. Get in the Festive Spirit at a Christmas Market!
In recent years European style Christmas markets have made their way over to Japan! The market held at Roppongi Hills has been running for 12 years, and is one of the longest running ones in the country. Grab a warming cup of mulled wine, and check out what festive goods the stalls have to offer!
5. Bamboo Battle Mayhem at Rokugo, Akita
This is a bit of an unusual festival held in Akita every year, where participants divide into 2 teams, and beat each other with 7-8m long green bamboo sticks to pray for abundant harvest. As it takes place in winter in the northern prefecture of Akita, there may be some significant snow fall during the festival, but this only adds to its fierceness and chaos. This is a high-powered festival that you wouldn't want to miss!
6. Close out the Winter at this Traditional Festival
February 1st, 2019 will see the 16th annual Setsubun Omizukumi Festival of Dojima Yakushido, an event held to mark the end of winter. One of the highlights of the festival is the procession of women and monks of the temple clad in various costumes, complete with demons and dragons. The parade is led by lanterns of the temple, and winds its way around the district of Kitashinchi, Osaka.
7. Feel the Heat at a Fire Festival
Onisube is a Shinto ritual held at Dazaifu Tenmangu, a famous shrine in Fukuoka, and is known as one of the three biggest fire festivals of Japan. On January 7th, an oni (demon) is driven into Onisube-do, one of the buildings of the shrine. In order to smoke the demon out, a mountain of pine leaves and straw are gathered in front of the building and set alight, sending gigantic flames up to the chill, winter sky. This festival is worth a look, for sure.
8. Sairinka, a Festival of Sound and Light
A winter festival of sound and light, Sairinka, is held amid the vast nature of Tokachigawa, Hokkaido in winter. It provides a unique experience, with approximately 600 light bulbs and LED lights illuminated to create various movements of lights in coordination with music.
9. Step into a Fantastical World in the Center of Tokyo!
Many people think of Shibuya when they imagine Japan, and the Blue Cave in Shibuya should not be missed this winter! Around 600,000 blue lights adorn the tress of Yoyogi Park and Shibuya Koen Street, creating a magical and festive atmosphere.
10. A Captivating Field of Lights at Kadaru Snow Festival
Kadaru Snow Festival is held in what used to be Akinomiya Ski Resort, and features around 3,000 mini-igloos. At night, candles are placed in each igloo, making for an enchanting sight! The best part of this festival is that anyone can get involved and make an igloo! "Kadaru" means "participate" in Akita dialect, and anyone can join in in the fun at this fantastic festival.
11. Enjoy the Festive New Year Spirit at Okunitama Shrine
Visit this temple on January 1st to be treated to a festival, complete with stalls selling unique Japanese foods and drum performances. Every year, around 500,000 people visit this temple just to attend the event and pray at the temple, so you know it'll be a grand time!
12. Stare in Awe at the Kasedori
During this festival, people in a tiny town in Yamagata Prefecture march down the snowy streets in straw coats, splashing water over themselves with buckets. This is believed to bring about a good harvest and success in business. This is one of Japan's weirdest festivals, and it can only be seen in the winter, so don't miss out on it!
13. Curse Up a Storm at the Akutai Festival
You may think that Japanese are incredibly polite, but at this strange festival, it's customary to curse at the priest and steal their offerings! In fact, bringing these food offerings home is believed to keep the family safe for the whole year. Check out this peculiar sight at Kasama, a town in Ibaraki Prefecture!
One of the pleasures of going to a festival is getting to eat special festival food. Japan's festival food is not just about okonomiyaki or yakisoba - there's so much more than that! If you're looking for a comprehensive, easy-to-understand list, check out the article below.
Food & Drink
14. Fruit Stew?!
A staple winter food, Japanese hot pots are always continuing to evolve, and the 2017 trend was the strangest yet: fruit hot pots. Surprisingly, these tasted so good that restaurants started making their own versions! Why not challenge yourself to making one of your own?
15. Oozy, Gooey, Cheesy Camembert Hot Pot!
2018 brought about an even stranger hot pot trend: camembert cheese hot pot! All you have to do is grab a large block of camembert cheese, cut it up, and dump it in. If you're a fan of cheese, this is a hot pot trend that you have to try out this winter!
16. Keep Healthy and Warm this Winter with Tomato Sukiyaki
If you're looking for something both delicious and strange, you need to check out tomato sukiyaki. Not only does it have classic winter vegetables like napa cabbage, but adding tomato apparently makes it even more delicious! Not sure where to try it? Pay a visit to Mita Basara, a restaurant that won a Michelin star 3 years in a row!
17. Adhere to Japanese Tradition by Eating KFC on Christmas!
Instead of eating turkey on Christmas, Japanese people like to eat KFC chicken from a bucket! KFC branches all across Japan get so many reservations that you need to reserve your bucket of chicken weeks or even up to a month in advance if you want to celebrate Christmas like the Japanese do!
18. You Can't Have a Christmas Party Without Pastries and Cake!
There's no place better to get Christmas pastries and cakes than at qu'il fait bon! The lineup changes every year, but what doesn't change is just how delicious they are. The picture above features some of their Christmas lineup; doesn't the tree-shaped tart look stunning?
19. Celebrate New Year's Day with Luxurious Bento from FamilyMart?!
"Osechi" refers to boxes of foods that are traditionally prepared and served only on New Year's Day in Japan. If you're interested in trying it out, choose from 17 varieties and book yours at FamilyMart before the 20th of December! Once you've reserved your box, pick it up between the 29th and the 31st.
20. One Bite of this Winter Fish Will Have You Coming Back Every Winter!
Sushi can taste very different depending on the season; in general, in-season fish are better. If you're in Japan during the winter, don't miss out on the best winter fish in the country, kanburi (Japanese amberjack, in season from November to February). The ultimate way to eat it is raw as sashimi or sushi!
21. The Super Fatty Kinmedai is Great in the Winter
Kinmedai (splendid alfonsino) is a type of fish that you absolutely must try during the winter time, as around this time of year, its meat is super fatty without being too heavy. Be sure to try it as a topping for sushi in order to best appreicate its flavor!
22. There's More Winter Fish to Try?!
Another winter sushi topping that you ought to try if you're in Japan from November to February is hirame (olive flounder). You won't be able to resist how deliciously fatty it is!
23. Avocado in... Oden?
Oden is a type of Japanese stew that you will definitely want to try while in Japan. Sometimes you can find truly unusual oden ingredients....like avocado! It might be hard to find a restaurant serving this, but you should try it out if you ever make this tasty winter dish at home.
24. Chocolate Ramen? It's Better Than You Think!
February is still considered winter in Japan, so it's not wrong to say that Valentine's Day is a winter event. Innovative chocolate-related goods get released during this month to prep for the big day, but it wasn't until a few years ago that chocolate ramen actually became a thing. You'll only find this unique combo in the winter, so make sure you try some out if you're in Japan during this time period!
25. Pudding Manju? Where Do We Sign Up?
One of 2017's biggest hits on social media was the "Marugoto Pudding-man", consisting of manju (Chinese steamed dumpling) with a whole pudding inside! This limited-time product is coming back in the winter of 2018-19, so visit your nearest Japanese convenience store to try this and many other winter-only manju flavors!
26. Western x Japanese Fusion Food: Matcha Fondue
Fondue is a great winter food, and if you're looking for one with a Japanese twist, there's no better place than Kagurazaka Saryo. Enjoy fondue that beautifully blends Kyoto matcha and white chocolate together!
27. Get Your Hot Potatoes at Fuji
In the past, Japanese people would roast and eat sweet potatoes in the fields during the winter. This is rarely done today, but sweet potatoes are still a classic winter food in Japan. You can eat 8 varieties of this at Fuji, a shop that's famous for specializing in sweet potatoes. Take out or eat in - whatever you choose, you're in for a treat!
28. McDonald's Christmas Special: Sankaku Choco Pie
One winter classic for McDonald's in Japan is Sankaku Choco Pie, pictured above. 2017 brought about the flavors Black and White, but in 2018, McDonald's decided to change it up by switching White out with Strawberry. They're only available until the end of February, so give these super popular pies a try before it's too late!
29. A Unique Way of Eating the Traditional New Year's Dish, Zoni
Zoni is a traditional winter soup in Japan whose ingredients differ by region. Nara Prefecture has a rather unique version called "kinako zoni" where you take out the ingredients from the soup and dip them in kinako (roasted soybean flour) before eating. You won't find a similar dish in all of Japan, so if you'll be in Nara during the winter, definitely try it out!
30. Dive Into Crab Hell this Winter
If you're looking for all-you-can-eat crab, you need to visit Kani Jigoku (Crab Hell) in Shimbashi, Tokyo. All their crabs come from Hokkaido and are available at super reasonable prices. Also, they hold crab auctions every night, making this an incredibly lively dinner spot!
31. Brave the Cold Winter with Kotatsu... on a Terrace?!
You've probably seen kotatsu in many Japanese movies and anime, but it's rather hard to find a place where you can sit in one if you're just a tourist. That's where Bane Bagus Akasaka-mitsuke Branch comes in to save the day! It's a dining spot that has kotatsu installed on its terrace and rooftop. You have until March (or April) of 2019, so pay them a visit before it's too late!
32. Get Hot or Cold Dashi in a Can
Dashi is a kind of soup stock that is frequently used in Japanese cooking. One particular variety that's actually sold hot or cold in vending machines is "Yamaya no Uma-dashi". You can drink it as it is or use it in cooking. Some vending machines at Haneda Airport actually stock it, so why not drink some this winter on the way back home?
33. A New Ingredient for Your Winter Oden
When winter comes around, you can find oden being sold at convenience stores in Japan. Lawson Japan has decided to introduce a new oden ingredient for 2018: imitation crab and edamame wrapped in konjac, a kind of potato jelly. Give it a try the next time you visit Lawson in Japan!
Though we've covered a lot of foods that are typically eaten during the New Year's period in Japan, there are actually a ton of other New Year's foods that Japan has to offer. If you're not sure what else you should try during this time period, check out the article below for ideas!
Nature & Scenery
34. See Sparkling Winter Scenery from High Up
The best place for winter scenery in Japan is Hokkaido, and the top sights can be viewed from a place called "Terrace of Frost Tree", located at an altitude of 1,088m. You'll be able to see magnificent wintery nature scenes like frost-covered trees and the majestic Hidaka Mountains. It's easy to access, too - just take a gondola (until April 1, 2019)!
35. Watch Out for the Snow Monsters!
If you pay a visit to Zao in Yamagata Prefecture during the winter, watch out for the snow monsters! Called "juhyo", these monsters are actually trees so covered in snow that they don't even resemble trees anymore. Make a reservation and you can even tour around this area in the dead of night on a snow plow! A must for horror fans.
36. Welcome the New Year by Watching the Sunrise
There's no better way to usher in the new year by watching the first sunrise! If you're not sure where to do so, what about giving Ameharashi Coast in Toyama Prefecture a try? It is a famous viewing spot where you can view a gorgeous sunrise and the 3,000m tall Tateyama Mountain Range! The sunset there is also incredibly beautiful.
37. Observe How Winter Changes the Retro Townscape of Takayama
While in Japan, you can't miss out on seeing townscapes that evoke old Japan! They take on an entirely new visage in the winter, and nowhere is this more apparent than Takayama City in Gifu Prefecture. Observe the contrast between the jet black walls of old structures and the white snow-covered pavements while enjoying foods like grilled Hida beef skewers!
38. Experience Hanami in the Winter?!
You can actually experience both spring and winter during Japan's winter season! Just head to Okinawa, the southernmost part of Japan. Of course, this means that you can also see sakura there earlier than the rest of Japan! The dates haven't been announced yet, but 2018's hanami (sakura viewing) festival at Nakijin Castle Ruins fell from January 27th to February 12th, so plan to visit Okinawa around then.
39. See the Spring Ume Blossoms in the Winter
Spring in Japan is not only about sakura; there's ume (plum) blossoms, too! View them during Japan's winter season by visiting Shizuoka Prefecture, which gets its spring faster than many other areas of Japan. At its Atami Baien Plum Festival, you can view 472 trees of 59 varieties of ume. The 2019 schedule has not yet been released, but 2018's festival happened around early February to early March, so expect it to fall around that period.
40. Even Monkeys Want a Warm Bath in the Winter!
Arrive too late for most of Japan's winter attractions? Well, you're not too late for one amazing natural phenomenon: monkeys bathing in hot springs! You can see this unique sight at Saruyama Onsen in Hakodate City, Hokkaido, from December to early May.
41. Play in the Snow at Gala Yuzawa Snow Resort
No winter trip is complete without a round of fun in the snow! One great place for winter sports is the Gala Yuzawa Snow Resort in Niigata Prefecture. Not only is it extremely accessible thanks to being connected directly to the shinkansen (bullet train) station, but you can rent equipment even by credit card, meaning that you don't have to bring any heavy luggage with you!
42. Skate Outdoors While Surrounded by Colorful Lights
If you enter the amusement park Yomiuriland in Tokyo between October 11th to February 17th, you'll be able to ice skate outdoors while surrounded by colorful lights! At night, the whole outdoor ice skating rink takes on a romantic and festive appearance that you just can't miss.
Undoubtedly, one of the best places for winter views in Japan is Hokkaido. Other than what we've already listed above, there's a ton of other amazing sights and scenes that the region has to offer. We've summed up a couple more choices in the article below, so please take a look.
Shopping & Goods
43. Go Crazy Shopping the Winter Sales at COREDO Nihonbashi
Winter is the season for shopping! Keep an eye out for when winter sales will start at the department store COREDO Nihonbashi (most likely early January). If its winter sales start, chances are that other stores in the Tokyo and Ginza areas will be on sale, too! You can get up to 60% off branded items, so it's worth checking out.
44. Jazz Up Your Sake Tasting Experience this Winter
If you're a sake lover, you can't miss out on trying hot sake while in Japan, especially in the cold winter! To add to the experience, try getting the unique sake bottle shown in the video above, called "Uguisu Dokkuri". As you pour the sake, you'll hear birds chirping!
45. Test Your Luck at McDonald's Japan!
When shopping in Japan during the winter, watch out for "fukubukuro", which are lucky bags that contain a random assortment of the shop's items. This year, McDonald's Japan is also putting out their own fukubukuro, which will come with a bag, pouch, and even discount coupons! Not all branches have it and they're limited in number, so check with your nearest branch before it's too late!
46. Uniqlo's Heat Tech Items Are Essential to Surviving Japan's Winters
Uniqlo's Heat Tech clothing line took the world by storm when it first launched, and the Japanese have been using it in the winter ever since. In the fall of 2018, the brand made a new addition to the product line called "Heat Tech Knit Leggings", which are reputed to be 2.25 times warmer than their regular stuff. Pick up a couple for yourself, and don't forget to pass some on to your friends and family back home!
Let's get practical. To make it through Japan's winter, you'll need to gear up with some basic Japanese essentials. If you're not sure where to start, check out the article below... then get shopping!
Hotels & Onsen
47. Adding Apples to... Hot Springs?
You'll definitely feel like soaking in onsen every day during Japan's winter, so why not make the experience extra special by trying a unique kind of bath? We're talking about apple baths, where apples are added to make the water fragrant. Some inns offer this kind of bath, often changing out the apples every day with a different variety or color. Keep your eyes peeled for such a hotel or inn!
48. Huddle Up in a Historic Japanese Inn this Winter
If you want to make your stay in Japan extra special, why not stay at a hotel or inn with historic value? One such ryokan (inn) lies in the Tohoku region and is called "Mukaitaki". It has been operating since the middle of the Edo period (1603 - 1868) and the building it is housed in has not undergone any reconstruction since then. Furthermore, it has a gorgeous garden that gets lit up at night in the winter!
49. Surviving Japan's Winter with No Electricity?!
This lodge is a bit unique. Located in the mountains of Aomori Prefecture, it is well known for its guest rooms having no electricity. The only lighting you'll get at night is from lamps, and considering that the area has incredibly heavy snowfall, that can be quite a scary experience. This is recommended for those who want to get closer to Japan's outdoors!
50. Sleep in a Hotel Made Completely Out of Ice!
How would you like to be Elsa and live in a block of ice? At Hokkaido's Hoshino Resorts TOMAMU, you can! For just 500 yen, you can enter a village where the church, bar, ice skating rink, and hotel, and other structures are completely made out of ice. If you come between January 19th to February 28th, you can actually stay at the hotel (1 party per day)! Just don't forget to bring your sleeping bag...
Not enough hot springs for your taste? Don't worry, we've got several more options in the winter wonderland of Hokkaido, Japan! Just click on the link below to be taken to the best list of hot springs you'll find out there.
Apart from the 50 things introduced above, there are many other foods, activities, and places worth trying and exploring in Japan. Once you've managed to cross all of the above from your bucket list, look around to see what else you can find out there. We guarantee that the fun in Japan will never, ever stop!
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.