Tokyo in Winter – Things to Do in Tokyo in Winter
Winter in Tokyo is dripping with activities to try and events to take advantage of. With our guide, finding things to do in Tokyo in winter has never been so easy.
Tokyo can be quite a dreary place in winter if you don’t know what you’re doing. We’re here to help you find your groove in the Japanese capital as the weather turns cold by introducing you to some of the best activities and festivities the city has to offer.
For the sake of clarity we’ve broken it down into two sections: winter activities and winter events. Find here everything you need to fill your Tokyo winter itinerary.
Tokyo Winter Activities
Tokyo gets cold in the winter. Very cold. As such, you’re going to want to escape the chills as much as humanly possible by sticking to the comfort and warmth of the indoors. Here are your best options:
Going for a hot bath in one of Tokyo’s onsens is a tried and tested way to beat off the cold. While onsens (natural hot water sources) aren’t as abundant in Tokyo as more rural locations, there are many “Sento” (銭湯 public baths) around which can do the job just as well. This form of bathing is very public. Everyone is together (although men and women are commonly separated) and naked, sharing the baths as one. It’s a very enjoyable way to relax once you get over any initial embarrassment.
For more information on Tokyo onsens, check our article below:
If you’re up for some history and culture in Japan, you’re in luck: there are plenty of museums and galleries at your disposal. The one in the picture above is the sprawling Tokyo National Museum, home to some great permanent and temporary exhibitions on Japanese history from its very beginnings. If you’re into a specific period or subject, there are numerous museums dedicated to different parts of the country’s history and cultural life, from the broad to the esoteric. Check the list below for more details:
As you’ve probably guessed, shopping in Tokyo is great! There are plenty of different shops selling everything you could possibly want. International chains like Lush, H&M, Bershka, Zara and more are common sights and you’ll also find a lot of traditional and specialized stores. Japanese subcultures have birthed a myriad of unique styles which light up Japanese highstreets. In areas such as the famed Harajuku you’ll find stores dedicated to these styles which are well worth checking out even if it’s just to look. Don’t be shy, go find your inner Japanese and try on something new. Perhaps even go through what Japanese call an “imeche” (short for “imeeji chenji” イメージチェンジ Jap. for “image change”).
Although some of the best shopping is found on the city’s streets, the indoor shopping malls that proliferate in all corners of Tokyo are a good option should the weather be unbearable.
Here are a few articles on shopping in Tokyo:
4. Winter Food
As you might imagine, Japan is a culinary heaven. There are plenty of different foods to try all year round but winter specialties are a real treat. Hot pot (“Nabe” 鍋) is a popular winter soul food involving a big pot filled with veggies and meat eaten as a group whilst huddled around a “Kotatsu” (electrically heated floor table) and perhaps enjoyed with some warming sake. Restaurants across the city offer such winter warmers and dishes like “Oden” (similar to Nabe, a stew in broth) are even sold at most convenience stores. Check out the links below for some sage advice on food in Tokyo:
Nabe restaurants in Tokyo:
Check out our articles on food in Tokyo:
Now, you might have thought that as a tourist you wouldn’t be able to visit Japanese theaters due to the language barrier. Wrong. Japanese theaters have prepared diligently for the foreign visitors, with most offering futuristic subtitle glasses/tablets or English pamphlets. A trip to the theater in Japan is a lot of fun – check out our guides and get yourself there:
There are also a lot of traditional Japanese ceremonies for you to check out during the winter. Some are held all year round like the Tea Ceremony and some are seasonal like the Great Purification, a ceremony held at all shrines in Japan on the 30th of December.
Visit one of the larger shrines on a Sunday morning and if you’re lucky you’ll catch the proceedings of a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony. The private part will usually be held at a separate venue but much takes place outside in the grounds of the shrine. The wedding party and guests dress in traditional regalia and follow age-old custom, something that is a real treat for the uninitiated.
6. Karaoke, Arcades and Pop Culture
A great way to experience Japan in winter is, of course, opting for some indoor activities like grabbing a bunch of friends and hitting the karaoke. In Japan, the motherland of Karaoke, it rarely takes place in bars full of people you don’t know, rather, in rented private rooms decked out with sound equipment and even musical instruments. Find out more here:
Arcades are another good indoor option. Littered across the city, find arcades of all sizes and varieties, with their many games and photo machines popular with all generations. Dare to enter the sparkly, loud and colorful arcades and be rewarded with hours worth of entertainment options. The center of Tokyo’s gaming scene is the district of Akihabara with arcades aplenty as well as many other insights into Japan’s notorious subcultures.
For more on Tokyo’s best arcades:
Tokyo Winter Events
For a complete “Japan experience” head to one of Tokyo’s seasonal winter events or festivals. Rather than hiding from the weather, you can celebrate it in style alongside hordes of other revelers. Although crowds are inevitable, don’t be put off, they are after all a tell-tale sign of the quality of the event. Here’s a selection of the best:
7. Christmas/New Year
Christmas in Japan is about lovers rather than family. Couples head out on dates and enjoy romantic dinners rather than staying home with the family as is traditional in Christian countries. New Years, however, is much more family-focused and usually doesn’t involve wild partying like in the West (although this is catching on). People will visit their parents in the countryside or have a nice family evening and visit the shrine for the customary New Year’s “Hatsumode” (prayers). If you happen to be around at this fascinating time of year, get to the shrines early to beat the crowds, which, at the larger shrines easily number in the thousands. Detailed info on Tokyo’s best shrines below:
8. Daikoku Matsuri (at Kanda Shrine)
Daikoku, the god of wealth, is honored in a festival called “Daikoku Matsuri” at Kanda Shrine in Tokyo on January 10th each year. The festival includes a purification ceremony where people coming of age pour icy water over themselves in a ritual usually observed in the morning. There is also the ceremonial slicing of a large carp (hocho-shiki) by an expert that can usually be observed around noon. The festivities are usually used to pray for good fortune in all kinds of endeavors including relationships, business, health and more. It is usually held in mid-January but be sure to check the official tourist guide page for updates.
9. Setsubun no Hi
Held annually on February 3rd, the devil banishing ceremony or “setsubun no hi” (節分の日 Jap. lit. day of seasonal division, as it is the day before Spring begins in Japan) is always a fun winter festival. Roasted, slightly sweet soybeans are thrown around to chase out any demons lurking in houses, shrines or temples. It is a merry event with some people dressing up as demons to be chased by the crowd. Sensoji-Temple in Asakusa is probably the best place to check this out.
On March 3rd every year Japan celebrates Hinamatsuri, also called Doll’s Day or Girl’s Day. Ornamental dolls representing the imperial family and their attendants during the Heian period (784 – 1185 AD) are displayed at religious sites and in homes with great pride taken in the elaborate displays. Many families display the dolls up to the actual Hinamatsuri but take them down immediately after, as superstition dictates the daughter might otherwise have a late marriage. Origins of the ritual and festivities are to be found in the Heian period where dolls were sent floating out to sea, taking with them troubles and misfortunes.
11. Winter Lights
There are some fantastic light displays around Christmas and New Year in and around Tokyo’s shopping malls, parks, temples, along rivers and in other public areas. The most famous are Tokyo’s Midtown and Marunouchi Illuminations, although other impressive displays can be found in Roppongi Hills, Ebisu Garden Place, Tokyo Tower, Skytree and Odaiba. You practically just need to keep an eye out for glittering lights whilst strolling around to take advantage of the lights which start in November and last until mid-February in some cases.