Winter in Japan is magical. Imagine those quaint narrow streets lined with traditional wooden houses, all covered in light white flakes. Think about the delicate silhouette of an elegant geisha walking in the powdery snow. Japan is one of the most photogenic countries on Earth, so seeing it during the snowy season must be a photographer's dream. During my first 2 weeks in Japan, I enjoyed various wintery activities and learned what it's like to celebrate Christmas and New Year outside of Europe. Winter in Japan turned out to be better than I expected, especially because many attractions were less crowded and the overall hotel prices were lower. It's one of the best times to visit Japan if you are on a budget.
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Winter in Japan
So why would I recommend winter in Japan? Most tourist attractions are less crowded. As temperatures plummet, many avoid spending winter in Japan, hence shrines, temples and museums attract fewer travellers. Tourism in Japan slows down towards the end of December, making it the ideal time for travel enthusiasts which enjoy quieter times when photographing a landmark. Another fantastic reason to enjoy winter in Japan is because you get to experience an unconventional Christmas and New Years in a completely different culture. The Japanese don't celebrate Christmas in the same way as Westerners, although they picked up a rather bizarre habit from us. During Christmas time, some foreign visitors would go to places such as KFC to buy their chicken or turkey to celebrate Christmas whilst in Japan. The Japanese seemed to have liked the approach and now, they form long queues in front of the local KFC stores to pick up their festive meals. Since the Japanese tend to eat so fresh and healthy, it's a rather fun thing to see them queue for junk food for what we consider one of the most important meals of the year.
Winter is Japan is magical in larger cities such as Tokyo. Long roads lined with trees covered in ferry lights, incredible visual shows in Ginza and the snowy central parks, sure make Japan's capital look surreal.
Packing for winter in Japan
One of the dilemmas I had prior to my Japan travels, was how to dress for winter in Japan? It seems rather obvious to say: wear warm clothes, but because Japan is an archipelago, the winter weather in Honshu could be greatly different than say winter in Romania or even winter in the UK. I talked to many people who live in Japan and everyone recommended me the same thing: pack lots of layers. The weather is ever changing, hence December could be rainy, sunny or even snowy from one day to another. When I arrived in Tokyo, I realised that layers were indeed vital.
Remember that in Japan people dress fashionably and chic. Winter in Japan is no exception as most Japanese will wear long dark woolly coats with neutral coloured boots and accessories. Wear a scarf, a hat, thick socks and waterproof boots. Remember that whilst women tend to wear boots, men are more likely to wear Sperry type shoes, even during winter. Salarymen will continue to wear suits, with a fashionable dark-coloured scarf, hat and coat. Unless you are in search of Japanese kawaii, chances are most Japanese will have long, elegant black umbrellas.
Surviving winter in Japan
I got rather ill during my first two days in Tokyo and together with the cold air, sure made it a bit more difficult to me. I became a loyal visitor to the local pharmacy. Despite my fever, I continued to enjoy the might winter in Japan. It's important to remember that most Japanese don't speak English. To be on the safe side, it's a good idea to get some flu medicine with you. However, note there are restrictions on what you can bring to Japan so always check the official government website to make sure your medicine will be ok. An alternative idea is to make a list of your symptoms and translate them into Japanese. Based on these, the pharmacist will be able to help you out and offer you over the counter treatment. As with everything, make sure to get travel insurance prior to your trip in case need to visit the doctor whilst in Japan. Medical treatment in Japan is top notch but also very expensive.
Winter in Japan comes with these complications and getting the flu is just normal during the cold season. I recommend being respectful and buying a surgical mask. You will find many others who do the same. It's just courtesy.
Furthermore, during my Tokyo itinerary, I discovered something which was about to change my life forever: THE HEAT PATCH.
Do you know what a heat patch is? A heat patch is your next best friend. A heat patch will revolutionise the way you dress during winter in Japan. A heat patch is a white rectangular thin pouch which you can stick to your clothes in order to heat up. You can hide them under your layers and they will keep you warm for hours. I used one for my tummy, one for my upper back and one for my lower back. Apparently, this is the secret to all those brave Japanese girls who dare to leave the house in skirts without wearing tights during winter. Their secret? Heat patches.
Winter in Japan in different regions
Winter in Japan can be different depending on whether you spend in Tokyo (milder climate) or in the mountains (definitely cooler). I didn't quite catch snow, but I did get caught in the rain during my trip to the Snow Monkey Pass. It was cold and wet, but the hike itself was so beautiful. Kansai Region was cooler as well. Kyoto was mild and pleasant in December, but Nara and Uji were quite cold. On Mount Hiei I had to wear a fluffy scarf, tonnes of layers and a woolly hat too. Despite all these (including my heat patches), I was still relatively cold. However, just before Christmas, something magical happened in Tokyo: it got so sunny and hot, that we spent a whole day sunbathing in t-shirts in Ueno Park. Can you imagine this? Late December, t-shirt time in Tokyo. As you can tell, the weather can be quite unpredictable during winter in Japan, hence it's always a good idea to layer up.
To survive winter in Japan, you don't just need layers and heat patches, but you also need to make use of what Japan does best: food! A hot ramen and two cups of tea later, you will feel full, warm and fuzzy, which makes the perfect way to spend the cold season in Japan.
If you wish to visit Japan during any other season, you could check out When to Visit Tokyo: Reasons to Visit in Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring
Are you prepared for spending this coming winter in Japan? What month will you be visiting? Tell me all about it in the comments section below.