Growing up in Florida’s endless summers, I’ll admit that my current all-encompassing love for the changing seasons was hard won.
I moved from Florida to California, living blocks from the beach, and did not own a pair of closed-toed shoes until I made the unfortunately timed decision to move to Virginia at the tail end of autumn, where I quickly discovered that I needed boots, coats, scarves, hats, gloves, towel warmers, indoor heat on blast, hot cocoa, and an attitude adjustment if I were going to survive until spring.
After eight years in Virginia, I had just rediscovered a begrudging admiration for the showstopping beauty of autumn foliage when we moved to Japan. With a similar climate as Virginia’s Coastal Tidewater region, we weren’t too shocked when we arrived outside Tokyo in December to grey skies and bare trees.
What was a shock, was how quickly the Japanese appreciation for seasons (and their wholehearted commitment to celebrating every flower, tree, holiday these shifts bring with seasonal activities, foods, and *especially* chu-hais) would charm me.
Winters in Japan quickly became one of my favorite times of year – and I didn’t even hate the cold. Here’s my list of favorites.
Visit the Imperial Palace
The inner grounds are only open twice a year, on the Emperor’s birthday and for the New Year’s greeting on Jan. 2. It’s a looooong wait in a meticulously organized line, and our two-year-old son lost his patience with it about three minutes in. He’d been going through a phase of calling things he disliked ‘monsters,’ so his sweater was a monster, the line was a monster, standing still was a monster. Once we told him we were waiting to wave to the Emperor, he decided that ‘the Emperor was a monster’ also, at which point we upped our parenting game to keep him quiet and happy. Being surrounded by thousands of Japanese people, especially lots of elderly people standing with canes, waiting to catch a glimpse of the royal family was one of the highlights of our time in Japan. There was such excitement and joy in the air waiting for a five-minute speech and the love of the crowd really moved
us my better half and I. Our son was moved by the ability to wave a paper flag and finally shout an enthusiastic (and polite!) greeting right back to the royals.
Visit Temples & Shrines
New Year’s Day shrine or temple visits are a tradition in Japan, and learning more about the customs and meaning behind the Shinto and Buddhist religions – and getting to experience some of it ourselves – was one of my favorite parts of living in Japan.
I’ve never been much of a skier, but Japan made me want to try. We loved Nagano and went up all three winters we lived in Japan to ski at their world-famous, Olympic caliber slopes. This is more snow than I’d ever seen in my life, and the hotels in Japan teach you how to make the most of it. Nearly every place we stayed had sleds available, quick buses to the slopes, and cozy furnishings with wide windows if you wanted to stay in and savor the snow from beneath a blanket instead.
New Year’s Bentos
Meeting monthly with a group of Japanese women to make delicious lunches was one of my favorite ways to spend my time. Each month, we’d swap out menus between Japanese and American to share favorite traditions, recipes, and stories.
Each January, they introduced us to traditional foods a Japanese family would make to celebrate the new year – and as always, it was oishii and beautifully plated! I’m sad to say that the grilled cheese recipe I brought in exchange another month was nowhere near as healthy or beautiful, but the heart loves what it loves.
Each January, the grand sumo tournaments take over Tokyo. We booked through a tour company and went twice to the tournament, seeing the final match both years – one of which made international news! Look for a tour that will also serve a meal afterward – we tried Chanko Nabe – the sumo wrestler’s staple meal – and hot pot!
Seven Lucky Gods Walk
Another winter temple tradition is to visit each of the Seven Gods of Fortune at local temples built to honor each of them in order to earn good fortune for the new year. We did our pilgrimage in our tiny town, finding beautiful hidden gems tucked behind office buildings and in secluded neighborhood streets, but the most famous pilgrimages are in Kamakura and Tokyo.
I’d never visited an illumination prior to living in Japan, so while I know they exist elsewhere, these will always have a special place in my heart. The Sagamiko Illumination in Kanagawa Prefecture was my personal favorite (skip Tokyo Station’s underwhelming lights!) but illuminations can be found throughout the country, each more spectacular than the last.
The Sapporo Snow Festival
There’s three sites in Sapporo set up for the annual snow festival, and I’d recommend a visit to all three. We sampled delicious butter and snow crab ramen near the ice sculptures, threw snow balls and drank beer from an ice cup we chiseled ourselves at the children’s festival site (about 45 minutes by bus from the city), and drank mulled wine as we strolled through the truly phenomenal main event: the multi-story and multi-sensory experience of the snow carvings. We missed our flight to Sapporo (and subsequently, a full day in the town), but it was an easy weekend trip. With more time, and older kids, we’d love to return to pack in a ski day in Niseko as well – we sadly didn’t experience the skiing, although we did find time to try the Sapporo Beer Garden.
Enjoy! I’d love to know what other must-dos are on your Japanese seasonal bucket lists – leave a comment below!