Tokyo is all the more enthralling with its clear winter skies and the snow capped peak of Mount Fuji finally visible in the distance. Maybe the cold weather keeps the crowds away, or maybe it’s because many Japanese traditions take place over the winter months, but the coldest season is actually a great time if you’re wondering when to visit Tokyo, or looking for a reason to visit. Traditional winter foods are shared between friends and family, and soaking in the therapeutic waters of an onsen becomes weekend ritual for locals. So make the most of things to do in Tokyo in winter without the hoards of summer visitors, and see another side to this vast metropolis beyond the concrete jungle. Here are some of the best things to do in Tokyo in winter.
Marvel at the Tokyo Illuminations
Even in the depths of winter, Tokyo glows. Millions of glittering lights are draped across the city’s landmarks and public spaces, transforming the city into magical winter wonderland. The illuminations can be found at various locations across the city, and there are actually so many that locals will visit one each weekend from November, when they first appear, right through to New Year and beyond. My favourite is the Caretta Shiodome Winter Illumination, where an ocean of blue LED lights washes over the grounds and walls of the Shiodome Mall, creating an incredible sea of blue lights which feels like something from a fairytale, or another planet! The illuminations run right through to the end of winter, so if you’re looking for things to do in Tokyo in February, add this to your list - although really, it would be impossible to miss them!
Take part in the New Year traditions
I personally wouldn’t recommend visiting Tokyo over New Year, as most attractions and many restaurants are closed, and hotel prices sky-rocket. But if you are spending New Year in Tokyo, you’ll experience a unique glimpse into local life and traditions. The most notable is to visit a shrine on New Year’s Day. Local custom is to visit a shrine at some point between the 1st and 3rd of January, to say thank you to the gods for your good fortune the previous year, and to pray for the same again the following. Visiting a shrine is called hatsumode, and the most popular shrine for this is the Meiji Jingu Shrine which attracts over 3 millions visitors! In Buddhist tradition, a monk rings the bell of the shrine 108 times at midnight on New Year’s Eve, but at the Asakusa Kannon Shrine, locals are actually permitted to ring the bells themselves, which is a special experience to see.
Think of things to do in Tokyo in December and strawberry picking probably won’t be the first thing that comes to mind. But it is actually an activity that’s great if you’re looking for things to do in Tokyo with family, and many local families will do this at weekends. The strawberries are grown in huge greenhouses, and although most are located about an hour from the city centre it’s a fun thing to do and a great excuse to venture out of the city. You can visit the Ichigo no Sato Farm from early December right through until spring, and feast on as many strawberries as you can while you pick. A hidden gem that's really only done by locals, you'll be the only tourist there!
Relax in an onsen
Japanese sento, or public bath-houses, are a traditional part of the culture which are still part of everyday life. The best part of the bath-houses are onsen, which are hot spring baths filled with volcanic water and are renowned for their healing properties. During winter in Japan, there’s nothing better than soaking in an outdoor onsen, luxuriating in the hot water as the steam rises, and if you’re lucky snow drifts down from the sky. If you want to really immerse yourself in onsen culture, it’s worth venturing a little outside of Tokyo and heading to the mountains, or to Hakone where there are plenty of family friendly onsen resorts. But if you don’t have time for a full day trip, LaQua is a good option when you’re in the centre, or Rokuryū Kōsen if you’re after a more authentic sento experience.
See a sumo match
When it comes to looking for things to do in Tokyo in January, you can’t miss the Grand Sumo Tournament, which is one of 6 held across the year. Three of these take place at the Ryoguku Kokugikan (Sumo Hall) in Tokyo, and are really an incredible experience. Even if you’re not Japanese and know nothing of the rules, it’s easy to be swept up in the excitement! The tournament runs for 15 days, although tickets aren’t cheap and can be hard to come by. Try to book in advance, and save money by taking your own snacks and drinks in with you. Local tip: if you don’t feel like splashing out on a ticket, you can still see the wrestlers training by visiting the sumo stables (this is really what they’re called), where the wrestlers practice every morning.
Go skiing for a day
If you feel like a break from the city, why not try skiing in Japan? There are Japan ski resorts less than two hours from Tokyo, and you can even reach the popular Nagano area in just an hour and a half on the bullet train. Some locals will even go just for the day! If you want to join them, take the bullet train to Gala Yuzawa, which is only 75 minutes away, and once you arrive you can rent all of your gear for the day. Hop on the gondola which is located at the same station and hit the slopes straight away! It’s certainly one of the best things to do in Tokyo during winter, even if its not technically in Tokyo.
Feast on winter dishes
The most traditional winter food in Japan which will warm you up when the weather turns cold is nabe - although its full name is nabemono. This classic is a hot-pot style dish which is shared amongst friends and family, never eaten alone. A large, usually earthenware pot is placed in the middle of the table and heated with a gas burner, and full to the brim with a steaming broth, and a mixture of meat, seafood, veggies and tofu. First, the meat and other items are eaten, then noodles are added to the broth at the end and left to simmer before the steaming soup and noodles are slurped up too. But there are countless local dishes you should try!
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