Hello from Tokyo! My name is Blanka, and as a Czech citizen who's spent 17 years immersing myself in the vibrant tapestry that is Japan, I'm thrilled to share a slice of my love for this city. Each season in Tokyo unfolds a unique array of experiences, and winter here is indeed a delightful chapter.
While Tokyo's modern skyscrapers and neon lights often steal the limelight, its frosty landscape has a captivating charm. The biting chill mellows down in the warmth of food stalls selling piping hot treats, and the city's parks, veiled under a soft snow blanket, appear almost ethereal. The brisk season also serves as a backdrop for an array of cultural festivities that truly encapsulate the spirit of Japan. This time of year in Tokyo is like a symphony, a harmonious blend of tradition, gastronomy, culture, and the unmistakable hum of city life.
As a local guide during my Tokyo tours, one question pops up quite often, "What are the best things to do in Tokyo in winter?" Well, this is exactly what I'm about to share with you through this article. So, wrap yourself in your favorite throw, make yourself a warming cup of your preferred drink, and let me take you on a virtual stroll through a Tokyo draped in a winter's embrace that will captivate your heart and spark your desire to experience it firsthand. Trust me, Tokyo's cold-weather charm is something that truly deserves a spot on your travel bucket list.
1. Marvel at the Tokyo illuminations
Winter in Tokyo is a special time of year. It's not just the seasonal shift that stirs excitement, but also the onset of winter illuminations that grace our streets, parks, and attractions. Every evening from late November to February, Tokyo bursts into a glittering mosaic of lights. These illuminations, ranging from sparkling displays in Roppongi to shimmering trees lining Omotesando, extending even to the picturesque Tokyo Bay.
Two of the most iconic symbols of Tokyo, the Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree, play a big part in this winter spectacle. Not only do these towers provide a bird's eye view of the city from their observation decks, but they also transform into magnificent beacons of lights that can be spotted from miles away. Another must-visit place is Tokyo Disneyland, a dreamy wonderland that takes on a magical dimension during this magical time of year. Illuminated parades, festive decorations, and special winter-themed performances are a sight to behold and enjoy with your family and friends.
But Tokyo's winter charm isn't all about flashy lights and towering monuments. It's also about the peaceful allure of places like the Meiji Shrine, encircled by a tranquil forest in the heart of the city. Here, a different kind of winter illumination occurs. As the sun sets, the lanterns around the shrine light up, casting warm, gentle light on the snow-clad surroundings.
2. Partake in New Year traditions
Let's dive right into how Tokyo in the frosty season celebrates the New Year. The city hums with anticipation, embracing a blend of traditions that add a unique flavor to any visit to Tokyo. This period offers an exceptional opportunity to experience the local 'onsens', or hot springs, which provide a warm, soothing contrast to the cool weather. And let's not forget the firework displays! As the clock strikes midnight, Tokyo's sky is adorned with beautiful fireworks that add an extra dash of excitement to the New Year celebrations.
Among the famous places for 'Hatsumode', Senso-ji Temple holds a unique allure with its vibrant Nakamise shopping street leading up to the temple, adding to the festive spirit. Meanwhile, Tokyo Skytree and Tokyo Tower, two of the city's iconic structures, buzz with celebratory energy. The view from Tokyo Tower's observation deck, overlooking the city's lively New Year's celebrations, including the spectacular firework displays, is truly a sight to behold. Yet, it's the Yasukuni Shrine, nestled in the heart of Tokyo, that truly comes alive. Known for its Winter Peony Garden and significant historical relevance, Yasukuni Shrine draws people from all over Tokyo to take part in this cherished tradition. When you visit Tokyo during New Year's Eve, you're not just an observer - you get to be a part of this shared hope for prosperity, health, and happiness. So why not make your frosty season truly memorable by becoming a part of Tokyo's New Year celebrations?
3. Pick strawberries
Strawberries and winter? It may sound odd, but in Tokyo, it's quite the norm! From January to late March, strawberry picking becomes a go-to activity for residents and visitors alike. Local greenhouses, thriving with plump, juicy strawberries, welcome people of all ages to partake in this engaging activity.
The weather might be nippy outside, but step into these greenhouses and you're met with a cozy warmth and the sweet aroma of ripe strawberries. You can enjoy a laid-back afternoon with family and friends, hunting for the reddest strawberries and maybe getting a bit competitive about it. You won't only savor the tastiest, just-picked strawberries, but also the calm that comes with being in a lush, green space. And if you're looking for an outdoor setting, Tokyo has plenty to offer like Hibiya Park and Hanegi Park.
So, when you visit Japan during the colder months, be sure to include a greenhouse trip in your itinerary. This strawberry-picking tradition is a quintessential Tokyo experience that you'll cherish. It's a simple yet memorable activity that lets you see another facet of Tokyo, beyond its usual urban appeal.
4. Relax in an Onsen
Can you imagine anything more relaxing than soaking in a hot spring while it's chilly outside? On your visit to Tokyo during the frosty season, spending time in an onsen, a traditional Japanese hot spring, is a must-do. It's an ideal way to unwind during the colder months, especially in January and February, when the Tokyo chill is at its peak.
Hot springs might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Tokyo, but you'd be surprised to know that the city hosts only a handful of these hidden gems.
It's not merely about escaping the brisk weather, but immersing yourself in a distinct facet of the winter season culture of Japan. Picture this: sharing this warm, relaxing experience with family members or savoring a moment of solitude amidst your Tokyo itinerary. A visit to these hot springs is not just a dip into warmth, but a plunge into a traditional experience that mirrors the simplicity and tranquility of the snowy season in Japan.
5. Watch a Sumo match
On your visit to Tokyo, there's nothing quite like the thrill of watching a Grand Sumo Tournament. It's one of the most exciting things to do in the city, offering an intriguing glimpse into a sport that holds a special place in the heart of Japan.
So why not take a break from the many shrines and usual sightseeing spots? A sumo match gives you a fresh perspective on Japanese culture. It's vibrant, it's thrilling, and it's uniquely Japanese. Watching these heavyweights battle it out in the ring, you can almost feel the energy reverberate through the crowd.
6. Day trip for skiing
Winter in Tokyo is special, but did you know that amazing things await just beyond the city limits? That's right, one of the great joys of a frosty visit to Tokyo is the opportunity to head out for a refreshing day trip to nearby ski resorts. If you love winter sports and are thrilled by the idea of swooshing down snowy slopes, then this is an experience you won't want to miss.
Picture yourself sliding down the soft snow under the clear winter sky at these exceptional ski resorts – it's a fantastic way to experience the season! Plus, if you're up for more winter fun, many resorts also offer ice skating.
For those making their first visit to Tokyo during the frosty season, a skiing day trip is a splendid way to make the most of the season. It's a delightful blend of adventure, fun, and the natural beauty of a snowy landscape. So, lace up your boots, put on your winter gear, and get ready for a thrilling journey down the slopes on your chilly visit to Tokyo!
7. Feast on winter dishes
In Tokyo, winter brings a delightful change in the food scene. The city's restaurants and eateries start serving comforting, warming dishes that are perfect for the chilly weather. As you explore the town, make sure to stop by a local eatery and try out some of these delectable Japanese winter dishes.
Savoring Japanese food is an integral part of experiencing Tokyo. Winter dishes, in particular, offer a different palette of flavors that reflect the season's spirit. The taste of a hot, sumptuous nabe on a cold day will surely become one of your favorite memories of your winter trip to Tokyo. So, why wait? Come and experience the delicious warmth of Tokyo's winter cuisine!
8. Christmas KFC tradition
Christmas in Japan comes with its own unique twist given the country's non-Christian majority. As you explore the festive atmosphere in the town, you'll notice something curious – the queues outside KFC outlets. That's right, one of the unique Japanese traditions is indulging in KFC on Christmas Eve. What started as a marketing campaign in the 70s has now become a beloved annual custom for many Japanese families.
Picture yourself in the midst of the bright lights and Christmas markets in Tokyo on a winter night, soaking in the festive vibes, and then, following the locals to KFC. Join in the fun and excitement as people line up to get their hands on the special Christmas meals, complete with fried chicken, cake, and even wine in some packages. These aren't your everyday KFC meals, they're great deals put together especially for the festive season.
Participating in this unique tradition is a sure way to feel a part of the local winter culture. It's quirky, it's unexpected, and it's absolutely fun! So, when you're in Tokyo for the winter, why not try a finger-licking Japanese Christmas Eve? It's all part of the warmth and charm that winter in Tokyo offers.
9. Visit Comiket
Tokyo is the heart of the manga and anime world, and no visit to the city would be complete without a peek into this vibrant facet of Japanese pop culture. One way to do this is by visiting Comiket, one of the largest comic book conventions in the world. This event is an opportunity to immerse yourself in Japan's otaku culture and see the country's unique side of life.
Comiket is usually held twice a year, during summer and winter and is easily accessible for anyone visiting Tokyo. It's a bustling marketplace for self-published comics, known as doujinshi. But more than just a marketplace, it's an event where fans dress up as their favorite characters, bringing a riot of color and energy to the scene. You'll see firsthand how much the world of manga and anime means to its fans.
Visiting Comiket offers a unique perspective on the quirky side of Japan's pop culture. It's a must-see for anyone interested in manga and anime, but also for those curious about the contemporary life in Japan.
10. "Osechi Ryori" New Year cuisine
As New Year's Eve arrives in Japan, the excitement and anticipation is not only for the fireworks display that will light up the night sky. There's another fascinating tradition that the country awaits with equal joy - Osechi Ryori, the traditional New Year meal. This isn't just any meal but a collection of various dishes, each symbolizing a wish for the upcoming year, like to bring good luck, health, fertility, or a bountiful harvest.
Just like opening a lucky bag, each box reveals a variety of treats that are not just delicious but also easily accessible and reflective of Japan's culinary heritage. From sweet black beans (kuro-mame), signifying health, to herring roe (kazunoko) symbolizing fertility, each dish has a meaning that adds to the charm of this New Year tradition.
Experiencing Osechi Ryori is a delicious way to participate in Japan's New Year festivities. It's a tradition that gives you a taste of Japanese culture in the most delightful way. So if you're planning to visit Tokyo during New Year's Eve, remember to savor Osechi Ryori - a gastronomic adventure that you'll remember long after the fireworks have faded from the sky
There you have it, my winter-in-Tokyo itinerary that combines the best of cultural immersion, fun, and delicious culinary adventure! Tokyo in winter is truly a special time to visit, where the bustling city gets a gentle dusting of snow, and the lights twinkle a little brighter. It's a season of illuminations, sumo matches, public baths, flavorful cuisine, and so much more.
From the unique KFC Christmas tradition to the grandeur of Comiket, every experience is designed to warm you in this cold season. I hope this list of top 10 things to do in Tokyo in winter sparks a sense of adventure and a desire to embrace the Japanese winter culture.
As a local guide for Tokyo Japan tours, I look forward to showing my guests around this city that I have come to call home. If you are wanting to plan a trip to Tokyo with me as your local guide then don't hesitate to book a zoom meeting through the City Unscripted website! So pack your bags, brace for a cool breeze, and get ready to have the most exciting winter of your life in Tokyo. See you soon!
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