January in Japan
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.
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.
- Celebrate the New Year
- Pick Strawberries
- Ice skate
- Try some snow sports
- Take in the illumination
- View winter scenery
- Snap some winter blooms
- Indulge in a hot spring
- Eat some seasonal foods
- 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. You can spectate these 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 ladder acrobatics in fire fighting costumes from the Edo period.
- Traditional games – during the month of January most period houses and several museums lay out traditional new year games for patrons to enjoy. 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.
- Shishimai – a lion dance put on by some temples, shrines, city offices even restaurants during the month of January.
- For those in / near Saitama, check out this excellent Street Performance Festival.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. Snap some winter blooms
- 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.
8. 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!
9. 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.
10. 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.