January in Japan

January is a great month to visit Japan, with so many things to see and do.

Have you always wanted to visit Japan, but its a little on the pricey side for you? Or maybe you’ve been to Japan several times and seen the cherry blossoms, autumn leaves and summer festivals. What next? Without a moment’s hesitation, after 20 years living in Japan, let me suggest January for your Japan trip. It is one of the most underrated and, good news for those on a budget, cheapest times to visit Japan. And for those living here already, I hope you can find something below to try this January in Japan.

>>You might also like: the round up of January events in Saitama Prefecture.

January in Japan

January is one of the driest months in Japan. Yes, it is cold, but the days are bright and sunny. If you wrap up well, there is plenty to enjoy in the first month of the year. Not least, it is a month of celebration in Japan, with the New Year and all that brings. Here is a list of 10 things you can do in Japan in January.

  1. Celebrate the New Year
  2. Witness the Hatsuhinode
  3. Practise Hatsumode
  4. Spectate a Dezome Shiki
  5. Participate in a Dondo yaki
  6. Try some traditional games
  7. Be invigorated by a Shishimai performance
  8. Pick up an unique souvenir at a Daruma market
  9. Enjoy a Mochitsuki dance
  10. Take the Seven Lucky Gods pilgrimage
  11. Watch a Kagura performance
  12. Pick Strawberries
  13. Ice skate
  14. Try some snow sports
  15. Take in the illumination
  16. View winter scenery
  17. Snap some winter blooms
  18. Indulge in a hot spring
  19. Eat some seasonal foods
  20. Bargain shop

1. Celebrate the New Year

This is something that can be done in every city, town and village around Japan. The New Year celebration is one of the most important calendar events in Japan. Furthermore, it is not just one day as in many countries, but several days. Unofficially, it is said to end on January 15th. But its also not unusual for there to be New Year type events right up until the end of January. There are many different ways to celebrate the New Year in Japan, but if you just want to soak up the atmosphere, head to any large shrine or temple! Pick up your first fortune of the year and / or buy yourself a talisman for the year ahead.

Moreover, to enhance the experience even further, you can spectate the following only-in-Japan events, usually free of charge. You can even participate for an experience never to forget. Here are some of the key (non food) aspects of Japanese New Year:

2. Hatsuhinode

Hatsuhinode is the practice of witnessing the first sunrise of the year. Some places are more famous for Hatsuhinode than others, such as Mt Takao in Tokyo. Several observation towers open early on New Year’s day so that you can watch the first sunrise of the New Year from a height.

3. Hatsumode

Hatsumode is the first homage at a shrine or temple in the New Year. Typically it is held between January 1st and 3rd, but there are hundreds of shrines around Japan that actually perform New Year ceremonies right up to February. You can pick up your first fortune, omikuji, of the year too. Nowadays, several of the more famous shrines have English language fortune telling paper.

4. Dezome Shiki

Firefighters perform Hashigo Nori ladder acrobatics at the Kawagoe Dezome Shiki
Hashigo-nori at a Dezome Shiki, annually in January in Japan

Dezome shiki – a dezome shiki is hard to translate into English as it is a Japan only New Year’s tradition. The local firehouses put on a festival of sorts. Fire fighters display their prowess in several exhibitions, including ‘hashigo-nori’ – ladder acrobatics in fire fighting costumes from the Edo period. January 6th is a common date for these festivals, but they are also carried out on other dates throughout January.

5. Dondo-yaki

Dondo-yaki Japanese ritual burning of old amulets and daruma done in January in Japan
Dondo-yaki, most often on January 15th in Japan

Dondo-yaki is the religious ritual burning of last year’s amulets and religious artefacts bought at shrines and temples. Most often, Dondo-yaki is done on January 15th. Some say, it marks the end of the New Year period.

6. Kite flying and traditional games

You can enjoy Traditional games during the month of January at a lot of period houses and several museums. They lay out traditional new year games for patrons to try. Examples include Karuta, Hanetsuki, Fukuwarai and Kendama, to name but a few. Another tradition in Japan is to fly a kite. You can pick up a cheap kite in most of the 100 yen stores around Japan. There are also kite competitions, although not as common as days of yore, in several cities and towns around Japan.

7. Shishimai

Shishimai Japan
Shishimai in Japan in January (and other times of the year)

Shishimai is a type of lion dance put on by some temples, shrines, city offices even restaurants during the month of January. You can see several between January 1st and Coming-of-Age day, which is generally the second Monday in January.

8. Daruma Market

Daruma Market – there are several temples where you can buy daruma over the New Year. January 3rd is a common date for ‘daruma market’, but there are also other dates too. Generally speaking, they are on during the first two weeks of January, but you will find exceptions too.

9. Mochitsuki Dance

Mochitsuki, glutinous rice cakes, are a popular New Year treat. There are several places you can try your hand at pounding the rice. But there are also so really beautiful mochitsuki dance events, where you watch dancers in festival robes rhythmically pound the rice. Again, most of the New Year mochitsuki dance events take place sometime during the 1st and the 15th of January. There are also mochitsuki dance events at other times of the year.

10. Seven Lucky Gods

You can participate in the Seven Lucky Gods pilgrimage at anytime of the year in Japan, but often cities and towns have special events on certain days of the month. Moreover, for the very first Seven Lucky God pilgrimage of the year, you can find large events. Such as this Seven Lucky Gods procession in Saitama City, beside Tokyo.

11. Kagura

Kagura, traditional theater, is performed at different times of the year, but the first kagura of the year is a significant event. Some shrines have their first kagura of the year during the New Year period.

12. Pick strawberries

Strawberry picking can start as early as mid December in Japan. However, it isn’t until the middle of January that the vast majority of strawberry picking farms are open for picking. Strawberry picking in Japan is in greenhouses. It is generally 30 minutes of all-you-can-eat picking. If you want to bring strawberries back to your lodging, you have to pay an additional charge. You can find strawberry picking farms in every prefecture in Japan.

13. Ice skate

There are plenty of all year round indoor ice skating rinks in Japan. But, the seasonal outdoor rinks are generally only open in the winter months. Most of the outdoor rinks are manmade, but you can also find a few natural ice rinks too.

14. Try some snow sports

There are dozens of prefectures that have snow resorts. Even prefectures where snow doesn’t fall often have an indoor ski resort. In my own prefecture of Saitama we have the closest indoor ski resort to Tokyo. Generally, if you are on the mainland you will be within commutable distance of outdoor ski and snowboarding slopes.

15. Take in the illumination

A lot of the night illumination in Japan ends at the end of December. However, the larger displays usually run until at least February 14th (Valentine’s day). Moreover, there are some locations that only start their illumination in January. For example, icicle and snow festival’s only light up the snow and ice in January and February. You can take in some winter illumination in most prefectures in Japan in the month of January.

16. View winter scenery

There are winter scenes in all but the southern most islands of Japan. You will also find that there are large snow and ice festivals in Northern Japan in particular. Each prefecture has something different to offer. In my own prefecture of Saitama, the three great icicles of Chichibu are one of our most famous winter scenes. Moreover, there are some quintessentially Japanese ways to enjoy winter scenes, just one example – a kotatsu boat ride.

17. Snap some winter blooms

Wintersweet at Shinrin park January in Japan
Wintersweet / Allspice / Wax Plum fills the air with its sweet fragrance in Janauary in Japan
  • Daffodils
  • Camelia
  • Plum blossoms
  • Early blooming cherry blossoms
  • Wintersweet (Robai / Allspice / Wax Plum)

Apart from winter scenes, there are also winter flowers and blooms. You maybe missing the cherry blossoms and / or autumn leaves, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t “instagenic” blooms in Japan in January. In fact, in some locations you can actually see some early blooming cherry blossoms as well as their lesser appreciated but equally beautiful sister – the plum blossom. Moreover, the most underrated tree blossom of all – the wintersweet (allspice / wax plum) fills the air with its sweet aroma from early January. Here’s 10 places for wintersweet (robai) in Saitama Prefecture.

18. Indulge in a hot spring

Of course this can be done all year round, but what better time to take a hot bath then in the cold months of winter! And hot springs are a dime a dozen in most cities around Japan. Also, in January, there are several places you can see monkeys and / or capybara indulge in a hot bath!

19. Eat some seasonal foods

In Japan, there are several foods that can only be seen around New Years. For example, osechi ryori. Osechi ryori is an artistic culinary delight served around the New Year’s. Most hotels and restaurants have an osechi meal on offer throughout the month of January. You may have to book it in advance. You can also pick up parts of the meal at a supermarket or on Amazon.

There is also other foods that are only readily available in winter. For example, oden (which can be eaten all year round) is generally only readily available in convenience stores in the winter months. Furthermore, strawberries are at their best and plentiful in the shops.

20. Bargain Shop

Have you heard about Japanese lucky bags fukubukuro? These are a popular element of New Year in Japan. They generally go on sale the 1st day a shop opens in the New Year. Years ago that was January 3rd, but nowadays many shops and department stores open from January 1st. However, the vast majority open from the 2nd. The popular fukubukuro fly out the door early on, but you can generally pick up some fukubukuro until the end of January. Apart from the lucky bags, most department stores have January sales too. So its a great month to pick up a bargain.


January really is a great month to visit Japan. It always surprises people to hear this, but January is actually my favorite month in Japan. I hope you enjoy it too. HAPPY NEW YEAR.

6 Comments

  1. A good list for every year!

    Just for 2021, make sure you wear a mask.

    1. Author

      Here, here. And here’s hoping 2021 will end up a better year than last. A very happy New Year to you and yours Ozburger.

  2. Great post and suggestions! One of my daughters is teaching ESL in Japan, and indulged in almost all of your ten picks. Onsen, oshechi ryori and fukubukuro were her favourite. Happy New Year!

    1. Author

      You must miss her Irene, but what a great adventure she is having. My 2nd time in Japan, before I made the permanent move, I taught ESL too. 🙂 Thank you for your kind words and a very happy New Year to you and yours too!

Comments are always appreciated...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.