13 Things to Do, See, & Eat During Winter in Japan

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Winter in Japan. Like every season in this amazing country, Japanese winter has its own specific sights, smells, and sounds. Let us tell you what to look for.

13 Things to Do, See, and Eat During Winter in Japan kyoto kinkakuji snow

What to Do, See, and Eat During Winter in Japan

I’ll be honest: winter is not our family’s favorite season. Indeed, we enjoy living in places with year-round heat (see: Thailand, MalaysiaVietnam, Indonesia and parts of Mexico).

That said, we enjoy winter in Japan because of what it means to us. It means seeing family (Keiko’s family all lives in or near Osaka). It also means seasonal Japanese food. Finally, visiting Japan in winter also means doing certain things that we won’t experience any other time of year.

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13 Things to Do, See, and Eat During Winter in Japan

Things to Eat During Winter in Japan

Much of Japan’s food is seasonal, so with each new significant change in the climate comes new fish, new veggies, and new dishes on the menu. Winter in Japan brings with it lots of hearty soups and stews, too, as well as a few of our family’s favorite fruits.

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Nabe

13 Things to Do, See, and Eat During Winter in Japan nabe ikura tofu

This communal cuisine is Japan winter favorite. With nabe, the evening’s ingredients are dropped into a bubbling pot in the center of the table. As it cooks, everyone plucks out their meal one bite at a time. Using chopsticks or a specialized straining spoon, you grab what you want and chow down.

There are too many versions of nabe to list here, but a few of our favorites include using miso or yuzu-based soups and then throwing in tofu, chicken, our favorite vegetables, and seafood such as clams and oysters. Our all-time favorite nabe uses Japanese hairy crab (another winter food). Vegetarian nabe works great, as well.

Want to eat like you’re at a sumo tournament? Then chanko nabe is the way to go. It’s a standard meal for sumo wrestlers training in Ryogoku and has just about everything thrown in. Loosen your belt before digging in.

Oden

13 Things to Do, See, and Eat During Winter in Japan oden

Oden is also under the nabe umbrella of winter Japanese food. It (mostly) consists of stewed fishcakes, tofu and root vegetables that you eat right after being pulled from the savory broth they are boiled in. Oden’s drab color scheme turned me off for years, but now I look forward to it eating every winter in Japan. Just be wary of the karashi, which is a potent yellow mustard with the kick of wasabi.

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Shabu Shabu & Sukiyaki

Two more cousins in the nabe family, both shabu shabu and sukiyaki involve meat, vegetables, and a boiling pot. They’re not specifically Japanese winter food, but people eat them more during winter in Japan than at any other time.

13 Things to Do, See, and Eat During Winter in Japan Japanese seasonal food shabu shabu

With Shabu Shabu you first dump veggies into boiling water to cook. Next, you use your chopsticks to peel up raw slices of beef or pork and dip them into the bubbling broth. Seconds later, you pull the now-cooked morsel out of the water, drag it through a variety of sauces, and pop it into your mouth.

13 Things to Do, See, and Eat During Winter in Japan sukiyaki

Sukiyaki on the other hand, cooks everything together first. Well, to be more precise, there are many ways to prepare sukiyaki, depending on the region, but here I will tell you how Kanto-style sukiyaki is prepared.

Thin slices of beef mingle with tofu and vegetables such as leeks, mushrooms, and cabbage. The soy-based sauce in has sugar in it, so the sweet and savory flavor is hard for anyone to deny. The key to a successful sukiyaki, however, is the quality and cut of beef. Thinly sliced Wagyu beef is ideal.

The final step isn’t for everyone and can be skipped: dip the newly simmered meat and veggies in a bowl of whipped raw egg. Raw eggs are eaten a lot in Japan — sometimes mixed into rice or used as part of a sauce. We love it, but if you’re not into it, it’s not essential.

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Japanese winter fruit

Must-Eat Food in Japan for Kids — 29 Foods They'll Love mikan

There are a number of seasonal fruits that we look forward to during winter in Japan, the most common being mikan (Japanese Mandarin oranges), which our family eats our body weight in during every winter in Japan. Kaki (persimmon) is another favorite, as well as yuzu, the citrus family’s lumpy uncle that tastes delicious as a syrup stirred into hot drinks. Around the winter solstice, it’s not unusual to find a few yuzu floating in an onsen, either.

13 Things to Do, See, and Eat During Winter in Japan Osaka Hikari Renaissance

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What to See During Japanese Winter

Whether you’re visiting Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto or further afield, there is plenty of amazing places to see during your winter in Japan.

Illuminations

13 Things to Do, See, and Eat During Winter in Japan Kobe Luminarie 2

Nearly every major metropolis has at least one jaw-dropping holiday light display in some prominent part of the city. That said, certain illumination displays stand out more than others.

In Tokyo, places like Omotesando, Marunouchi/Ginza and the Tokyo Midtown and Roppongi Hills complexes in Roppongi are resplendent with holiday lighting. The Shiodome area of Tokyo (on the monorail line to Odaiba) is also a sight to behold.

In Osaka, you have the Midosuji Illumination and Osaka Hikari-Renaissance, but in Kansai (and possibly in all of Japan), the Kobe Luminarie reigns supreme. Keep in mind, however, that it can get very crowded at the Kobe Luminarie, and quite cold at night.

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Traditional Towns

13 Things to Do, See, and Eat During Winter in Japan snow bridge shirakago gifu prefecture

Certain traditional Japanese villages have an almost magical air to them during winter in Japan. Walking past the homes in Hida, Takayama feels like stepping back in time. The same could be said for Shirakawago, in Gifu.

13 Things to Do, See, and Eat During Winter in Japan Hida Takayama snow street

Kyoto in winter is also a special place to be. As much as I like visiting in spring or autumn (summers are dreadfully hot), winter in Kyoto can be just as enchanting. Keiko’s family lives in the northern part of Osaka, which makes Kyoto only an hour train ride away. Therefore, whenever I visit the in-law’s during the New Year holidays, I always go to Kyoto for a day or two — with kids or without.

13 Things to Do, See, and Eat During Winter in Japan Kyoto Kifune snow hike

Things to Do During Winter in Japan

Summers in Japan are packed with activities for kids, but winter in Japan is not that different. Here are just a few recommended things to do in Japan during winter.

Go Skiing and Snowboarding

13 Things to Do, See, and Eat During Winter in Japan Zao snow monsters snowboard ski

Places like Nagano, Hakuba, and Niseko in Hokkaido are known and loved by snow bunnies all over the world. If you’re in Tokyo, however, and want only an overnight trip, places like Gunma have beautiful powder, a long ski season, and can be reached in a few hours by train.

Whether you’re an experienced skier or looking for beginner lessons for you or your kids, the guys that run Canyons in Gunma are a great place to start.

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Join the crowds at a sporting event

13 Things to Do, See, and Eat During Winter in Japan tokyo marathon

If you’re interested in watching sumo, the first basho (tournament) of the year happens over two weeks in January at the stadium in Ryogoku, Tokyo (there more to do in Ryogoku than just sumo, however).

About a month later, it’s Tokyo marathon time, when many of the city’s streets are shut down for participants and fans.

Soak in an Onsen

13 Things to Do, See, and Eat During Winter in Japan monkeys in Nagano hot springs onsen

One of our favorite activities during winter in Japan is to slip into a bath of mineral-rich, geothermally warmed water. I know people who can yammer on for hours about how certain nutrient-rich baths can cure ailments or augment your complexion, but I visit onsen for the same reason most Japanese people do: to relax.

Lots of people want to see (and photograph) the monkeys in Nagano prefecture, but if you prefer your tubs filled with homo sapiens, then the onsens in Gero (in Gifu), Yagen (in Amori) and Nyuto (in Akita) will deliver.

Perhaps you’re in Tokyo and just looking for a quick day or two out of town. For that, there’s Hakone, the capital’s most popular (and most accessible) mountain retreat. Our favorite onsen, however, is in Gunma prefecture. Takaragawa onsen has a lot of rotenburo (outdoor tubs) that hug the side or a picturesque creek.

Unlike most Japanese onsens, Takaragawa’s main tubs for both genders, which means that you can sit with all of your loved ones — male and female — in one tub. This is one of my favorite things to do during winter in Japan.

13 Things to Do, See, & Eat During Winter in Japan takaragawa onsen hot springs in Gunma

Naked, outdoors, and submerged in super hot water, I only hear the babbling creek because the falling snow muffles out other forest sounds.  Snowflakes land my hair, then fall into the water and melt immediately. It’s a borderline religious experience — I guess that’s what I’m trying to say.

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Festivals & Events

Visit Japan in winter and you’ll find your event calendar filling up quickly. Here are just a few events worth checking out for yourself.

Snow Festivals

13 Things to Do, See, and Eat During Winter in Japan sapporo snow festival bear

For snow lanterns, you can visit the Yokote Kamakura Festival in Akita or the Yunishigawa Onsen Kamakura Festival in Tochigi. The Snow Monsters Festival of Zao (Yamagata) is also astounding, but the big daddy of them all is the Sapporo Snow Festival, which delivers statues and other frozen artwork that often measure up to 5 stories tall. Similar festivals in Asahikawa and Iwate are not as large, but still astounding.

Coming of Age Day

Every year on the second Monday of January, hordes of Japanese 20-year-olds dress in stunning traditional (and often not-so-traditional) kimono. Afterward, they attend a ceremony where they are officially announced as adults. 13 Things to Do, See, and Eat During Winter in Japan coming of age day

The ceremony is frequently (and often accurately) accused of boring and berating its participants, but afterward, many of these newly minted adults hit the town to meet for a meal, take pictures, or visit a shrine with family.

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2 Bonus Things to Do During Winter in Japan

Okay, okay, so these two may not make anyone’s top 10 list for Japan winter activities. However, I feel they should be mentioned because we’ve enjoyed them so much.

Bonus #1: Visit Spa World in Osaka

Family fun in Osaka — Spa World 2

Classy it ain’t, but we love this cheesy hot spa attraction. Occupying the top floors of a nondescript Osaka building, Spa World has the best of both worlds.

Inside, you can have the “traditional” (ie. naked, gender-specific) soak in a hot tub. Or if you prefer, you can put on your swimsuit and head to the enclosed roof for a small water park with heated water and waterslides. If you want the sensation of sitting in hot water outdoors, there are a few tubs for that, as well.

Bonus #2: Fuji-Q Highland Amusement Park in Winter

13 Things to Do, See, & Eat During Winter in Japan Fuji-Q Highland

Whether you’re visiting Japan in winter with or without kids, chances are that you

  • A) Like roller coasters, and
  • B) Want to see Mount Fuji in all its glory

Fuji-Q Highland delivers on both counts. It’s one of Japan’s biggest amusement parks, and also happens to have one of Japan’s largest outdoor ice skating rinks. Oh, and it’s close enough to Mount Fuji to capture that postcard-perfect selfie.

What’s best about visiting Fuji-Q Highland during winter in Japan is because the lines for are much shorter. And they have some amazing rides — with a few Guinness records over the years. We appreciate short roller coaster lines in any country. However, we have a special appreciation for them in Japan since they grow to ridiculous lengths here. For example, I was once told at Tokyo Disneyland that the wait for a water ride was FOUR HOURS.

If you dress warmly and want to see a snow-capped Mount Fuji on a clear winter afternoon, there are few places better.

Tips for Visiting Japan in Winter

13 Things to Do, See, and Eat During Winter in Japan Takaragawa onsen room

A week or two of winter in Japan can make for an amazing adventure. However, before we get to our tips, a few bits of advice:

Tip #1: Central heating doesn’t exist on the same scale as it does in much of the West, and if you’re entering homes and some temples and shrines, you may need to take your shoes off. You might want to consider picking up a cheap pair of slippers to wear indoors.

Also, in most Japanese homes and apartments, people heat individual rooms, not the entire house. This means that living and dining areas may be warm and toasty, but the hallways and bathrooms might be frigid.

13 Things to Do, See, and Eat During Winter in Japan hokkairo heating pads

Tip #2: Keep a couple sets of hokkairo in your bag. Simply open the packet and peel off the tape and suddenly you have a small, disposable heating pad that stays warm for hours. Many Japanese parents stick these onto the lower backs of children under their coats to stay warm. I personally love the ones made to keep toes warm.

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Have You Been to Japan in Winter?

What did you enjoy? Where did you go? What kind of winter activities do you love most? Tell us in the comments below or contact me directly.

13 Things to Do, See, and Eat During Winter in Japan

Disclaimer: This article contains affiliate links. That means that if you buy something or book a hotel in Japan during winter using one of my links, we might get a small commission. You pay nothing extra, so don’t worry. Also, everything you see here is just my personal opinion. I only recommend places, activities, and gear that I believe will genuinely help my readers get the most out of Japanese winter. We loved exploring winter in Japan, and I think there are lots of fun things to do in Japanese winter, for families, for couples, and for solo travelers. If you know of more fun things to do in Japan in winter, let me know!

Image credits: #1#3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, #10, #11, #12, #13, #14, #15, #17, #18#21

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