I’ve visited Japan three times (so far), and each of our trips took place in the winter. We’ve visited twice in late November, and once in December. Winter travel has its pros and cons, but it might just be the perfect time for you! I can only speak for winter travel in Japan, but some of these points might transfer to other locations as well.
I’m one of those people who likes to have the bad news delivered first – I like to end things on a high note – so I’m going to start off with a few winter-travel cons.
Depending on where in the country you travel, Japan can get cold in the winter. Really, really cold. Winter in the northernmost island of Hokkaido brings inches and inches of snow, biting winds and slippery, treacherous sidewalks. Tokyo can get positively nippy in winter, and we were wearing our puffy coats even in the southernmost main island of Kyushu. Houses are often poorly insulated, and we spent a few frigid nights in Sapporo and Hakodate curled up in several layers of winter clothes, shivering and waiting desperately for dawn.
If you’re planning on visiting Japan in winter, come prepared for the elements. Having the proper attire is absolutely necessary, and can make the difference between a fantastic holiday and a miserable one. Invest in some good-quality layering pieces to help keep you warm and comfortable, and make sure that your footwear is appropriate for rain and snow. I can’t tell you how many times I slipped and slid while struggling to make my way down snowy sidewalks!
Short Daylight Hours
When the sun sets at around 4pm, you need to pick your daily itineraries carefully. A stroll through a scenic garden, for example, is best done early in the day. Shops and tourist attractions similarly tend to have shorter opening hours in the winter months, and some attractions may close completely for the winter. Locations that are best known for their views and vistas might be shrouded in cloud and mist in November or December, or only be clearly visible for a few hours each day.
To get the most out of a winter day, try and get up and out as early as you can to maximize on reduced daylight hours, and try to pack as much sightseeing as you can into the short days. Outdoor activities can sometimes be a bit of a struggle in winter – hiking isn’t always the easiest in several feet of snow, cities can look gloomy and grey on dark, rainy days, and beaches are sad and empty shadows of their glorious summer selves.
But don’t forget about indoor attractions! Winter is a great time to visit museums and art galleries, watch a movie at the cinema, stroll through a temple or go shopping. A freezing, slushy day is the perfect time to eat your way through a ramen museum, or taste test as many different dango recipes as you can.
Winter is the perfect time to travel if you want to avoid the crowds. Visit the famous temples and parks, wander through the top foodie districts and shopping areas, explore the most popular museums and galleries, and still have room to move and breathe! Now, some famous places are going to be busy no matter when you visit, and bus tour groups are unavoidable in popular places, but winter is often a quieter, more relaxing time to visit.
Save, Save, Save!
Travel can be expensive, no matter where you’re heading, but you can sometimes save yourself a bit by travelling during the shoulder season. Now, if you’re planning a trip to Mexico or Hawaii, travelling during winter isn’t likely to be the most economical choice. But if you’re heading to many other locations, like Asia or Europe, winter can be a much cheaper time to set out. We used Air B&B almost exclusively on all our trips to Japan, and by travelling in November and December we saved quite a bit on every location.
Choice, Choice, Choice!
Not only are hotels and Air B&Bs typically less expensive during the off-season, availability can greatly improve as well. In most of the cities we visited we were spoiled for choice when it came to accommodation, in terms of price, location, and size. We also had an easy time arranging couch surfing accommodations, as fewer tourists were competing for limited spots. You’re much more likely to find the perfect spot to say when you’re travelling in the off season!
Japan is beautiful in the spring and summer, but late autumn and winter aren’t without their charms. The trees explode in riots of gold, red and orange, creating breathtaking leaf displays. Snow turns cities into magical winter wonderlands (that, as tourists, you don’t have to drive in or make your way to work in). Many cities put up incredible light displays, and Japanese Christmas markets are free, fantastic and absolutely worth visiting in every city you can. Japan is beautiful in winter, and shouldn’t be missed.
And there you have it – just a few pros and cons to winter travel in Japan. Have you travelled in winter, whether to Japan or somewhere else? I’d love to hear your experiences!