How is winter in Japan? Mild pleasant, to bitter cold, answers can vary depending on whom you are asking. Even though it is not the longest or the widest of land mass known to humans, the weather varies widely. Hokkaido island in the North is cold, very cold, neighbor to Siberia. Okinawa island in south is mild, hot, akin to some of the white sand island gateways one sees in holiday brochures. In between, it’s a mix. Too much of mix if I may say. Within the main island of Honshu, home to 100 million which is ⅘ of Japan’s population, one half enjoys summer while the other half shovels ice to keep roadways open. Tokyo on the east side of the island might have already woken up from the hangover of spring parties, when Tateyama in west of the same island tries to manage a pathway running through 60 feet high snow!
So yes winter varies here, a tad bit widely.
But that is probably not the answer we intend to hear, right? Rational beings that we are, we should look at the Max, Min, Average and variances to understand the full picture. For example in Tokyo the average Max and Min temperatures are 10 and 2 degrees centigrade for the 4 months of winter between December and March. It snows, for about a couple of days. For up to a couple of inches. Sometimes enough for the neighborhood kids to take out those plastic sleds onto the streets. Severe snow in 2013 stopped the trains and made people take a day “working from home”. It happened once only after 100 years.
For the other 99 years it’s been generally mild. It rains in winter, but not enough to cause traffic disruption or a day off at home. This is the season for influenza though. If you see scores of people wearing white masks rushing out of a underground station exit, it means influenza is spreading amongst office goers.
Winter used to be more cold in Tokyo, according to the old timers. But no longer so. Blame it on global warming. Blame it on changing pattern of ocean currents. Or the Sun’s flares. Whatever. But as the calendar turns its pages from October to November, preparation for winter starts in town. Shopping malls and tourist places deck up in Christmas lights. Ads for Seasons sales flash on TV, on the LCD screens inside the metro trains, on bill boards at road junctions.
Even though Tokyo is kind of umm hot, the right kinda cold with the right kinda snow still covers a vast region for the ski lovers. Ski resorts in Nagano, and Niigata prefectures in West Honshu are wildly popular; Nagano was the host of Winter Olympics in 1998. Karuizawa town, just about 1.5 hours drive from Tokyo is a fashionable mall city with ski resort attached!
Another well known ski area,Yuzawa, has resorts that connect to ski slopes directly from the train station. It is just above an hours journey from Tokyo by Shinkansen, so convenience combined with quality ski is a key attraction here. Possibly the best established facilities for international skiers though is in the north, in Hokkaido. Tourists from Australia head straight to ski huts managed by expats who could not escape the lure of Hokkaido puff. If interested have a look into the following web sites
Even if not a hard core skier or having a family with kids, you could still enjoy skiing in regions close to Tokyo, in economical day-return or weekend packages offered by Japan railways and some other private operators. See this page for details of a day trip by your Couchflyer team.
For something closer home, enthusiasts head to ice skating, for a mix of sports with artistic expression. A number of indoor and outdoor rinks pop up in winter. Few like the indoor rinks in Tokyo Omotesando and Mizue open doors early at the onset of winter and continue till summer is around. And then in summer turn into swimming pools. But the others like the outdoor one at Akasaka literally appear out of nowhere, run for two months in the peak winter months of January/February and then vanish. In any case, the venues crowd out pretty soon on weekends and you have to be really skillful to find your way through the heaving mass all enjoying their winter day out! But more on ice skating in another writeup later.
Apart from skiing Winter is otherwise also a season for celebrations. Sapporo snow festival is world renowned for fabulous ice sculptures. Held every year in Hokkaido, the creations by international teams draw large number of tourists.
Another festival popular with tourists is the Kamakura festival in Akita prefecture. A tradition over many centuries, locals build huts from snow, light up with fire in the evening and invite guests over for food and drinks.
In many prefectures there are traditional winter sports held for the youth, such as competing for grabbing a stick, in cold, dressed only in bare minimal. Then there is this hit the unlucky ones event, wherein all 25 year old and 42 year old men in a village are chased down the streets with snow balls aimed at their bare bodies. These people who attained 25 years or 42 years of age are supposed to be unlucky so they must be thrashed! Matter of principle, reminiscent somewhat of similar dunking in ice water event held across Russia and the Nordics. For the more sedate, there are evening parades called Yuki Toro where people parade through or dance in the snow with lit torches / lanterns in hand.
Winter can be the time for ultimate relaxation. By sheer coincidence the year end holidays happen to come around winter. And when the day is a holiday, outside is chilly, what better to do than relaxing inside in a warm ambiance. In Japan this relaxation can extend beyond the mental, relaxing you physically as well. Soaking in a hot onsen bath, while it is snowing outside, can be the ultimate relaxation both mentally and physically. It is a tradition to hit the onsens after a hard day out skiing. This tradition is said to be old, really old, predating even the arrival of human beings. Monkeys have known this for ages, and are known to partake in the pleasures of onsen bath amidst the snowy hinterlands of Nagano.
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Japan in fact is culturally a society very close to nature. The four seasons of Spring Summer Autumn and Winter are celebrated across. The wide range of temperatures have given rise to individual traditions in each region, and Winter is no exception. If you plan to.visit Japan, even smack in the midst of winter you can perhaps experience something unique to remember about. So, answer to the question How is Japan in Winter is…fun, just like autumn spring and summer.