From winter illuminations and snowy weather to uniquely Japanese Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations, December is the most wonderful time of the year.
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It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Japan in December offers everything from winter illuminations and snowy weather to uniquely Japanese Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations. With your Japan Rail Pass in hand, you can explore the entirety of this beautiful and unforgettable country thanks to Japan’s world-renowned rail network. Even though winter is here, December has a lot to offer visitors and has become a favourite time of year to experience Japan, especially if you’re a fan of snowy weather and spectacular celebrations.
Reasons to Visit December
The official start of winter in Japan, December is a unique month and a great time to visit. In fact, the winter months generally are becoming an increasingly popular time to experience Japan, particularly if you’re keen to avoid the crowds and you love snowy winter wonderland scenes. The seasons each have a special symbolism in Japan and winter is no different. December is also a time for celebration with both Christmas and New Year’s Eve being celebrated and the weather isn’t quite as cold as January or February. Add to that, winter food, illuminations, skiing and snowboarding, and much more, and December starts to look better and better.
In Japan, winter is associated with the Shinto concept of purification and there are echoes between the season and one of Japan’s key creation myths about the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami. She was so offended by the actions of her brother, Susanoo no Mikoto, that she hid in a cave and the absence of her warmth and light brought darkness to the world. Thankfully the other gods were able to trick her out of the cave using a mirror to startle Amaterasu with her own reflection and they were able to return her to the sky. The sun’s return is celebrated on 21 December, the Winter Solstice, each year in Japan, and is sometimes referred to as The Festival of Light.
Top 10 Things To Do In Japan in December
With so much happening in Japan during the month of December, it can be hard to choose between all the things to see and do. Thankfully, we’re here to help with our list of top recommendations for Japan in December.
1.) Attend Winter Illuminations
December sees Japan indulge one of its many love affairs with all things shiny and spectacular - in this case, winter illuminations and snow festivals. Of the major cities, Tokyo has a huge number of illuminations to see in the run-up to Christmas, but some of the biggest take place elsewhere in Japan. If you love illuminations as much as people in Japan, try Kobe Luminaire or Sagamiko Illumillion festival in Kanagawa, which is said to use six million LED lights in its Pleasure Forest at Lake Sagami Resort. Snow festivals featuring incredible ice sculpture creations, and much more are also very popular in Japan and are known for their spectacular visuals. To read an extensive rundown of all the best winter illuminations in Japan read our guide to Winter Illuminations in Japan You Can’t Miss.
2.) Visit Hokkaido
Few places in Japan are so perfect for visiting in winter as the northern island of Hokkaido. The cold weather actually accentuates its many qualities. Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, is famous for its winter celebrations, regional food and incredible landscape. Find out everything you need to know in What Is There To Do in Hokkaido in Winter?
3.) Spend A Unique Christmas in Japan
While not a Japanese celebration, Christmas is getting bigger every year in Japan. However, it is a little bit different and uniquely Japanese. Yes, you have Santa Claus, Christmas lights and decorations, and festive winter markets, but there are some key differences too. For example, when it comes to food, it’s a Kentucky Fried Christmas. Yes, you did read that right! Believe it or not, Kentucky Fried Chicken or KFC is a big Christmas favourite in Japan, with an estimated 3.6 million Japanese families celebrating with KFC at Christmas. The chain’s success over Christmas has been attributed to a successful advertising campaign in the 1970s. Next up, Christmas Cake - Japanese-style. Japan’s middle class adopted the cake as a symbol of wealth after the country’s economy bounced back after the Second World War. And don’t forget, romance on Christmas Eve. Couples spend Christmas Eve together and celebrate it almost the way Valentine's Day is celebrated in western countries. Gifts are also exchanged on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. Looking for somewhere to celebrate with your family? Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most fun places to enjoy Christmas celebrations in Japan is Tokyo Disney Resort, which goes big on Christmas every year. For a more detailed guide to these traditions, read Do People Celebrate Christmas in Japan?
4.) Celebrate New Year Japanese-style
New Year is a major celebration in Japan, and it all begins on 31 December - New Year’s Eve. The New Year celebrations are considered the country’s most important national holiday. While Shogatsu is the overall name of the celebrations there are many special traditions to look out for such as Hatsuhinode, Hatsumode, Omamori (good luck charms) and Shishimai (a traditional lion dance).
The final day of the year, December 31, is called omisoka (New Year’s Eve). In keeping with Shinto beliefs, houses are often thoroughly cleaned from top to bottom, including attics, basements and under tatami mats, to welcome the gods. The big clean-up is known as Oosuji. The same happens in shops, and merchants often use this as a chance to sell off old stock by offering fukubukuro, or lucky bags. It is also a tradition to pay off any outstanding debts and settle any disputes ahead of the New Year, to start afresh. Families will often start cleaning well in advance of New Year’s Eve to ensure their house is in order. On New Year’s Eve itself, families gather together to watch special omisoka TV programs (such as the popular music program ‘kohaku uta gassen’) and eat toshikoshi soba (‘year-crossing’ buckwheat noodles) in the belief that their lives will be as long as the noodles. Children are also allowed to stay up late. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, Buddhist temples all over Japan ring their bonsho (temple bells) exactly 108 times. This ritual is known as Joya no Kane.
Finally, while Tokyo Disney Resort is one of the go-to places for Christmas, Universal Studios is well known for its New Year’s Eve countdown party and fireworks over Tokyo Bay. Japan has many wonderful traditions for marking the New Year. Read our detailed guide to Celebrating New Year in Japan to find out everything you need to know.
5.) Festivals in December
As well as the big celebrations such as New Year’s Eve, December also has its own festivals such as Chichibu Night Festival in Saitama Prefecture, Sampoji Daikon Festival in Kyoto, and Iwatsuta Shrine Fire Festival in Osaka. Festivals or matsuri as they are known in Japan take place right across the country all year round and December has no shortage of matsuri to experience. For recommendations on which festivals to visit and information about the most famous matsuri read our guide to Japan’s Top Festivals.
6.) Explore a Winter Wonderland in Shirakawa-go
Shirakawa-go is a travel destination right out of a snowy fairy tale. Hidden away in the mists of the Japanese Alps, the region of Shirakawa-go was long isolated from the outside world. The result is a unique local culture and history, marked by the Gassho-style houses (with distinctive inverted V-shaped roofs) and sustainable way of living in local, sometimes harsh, conditions. It is not without reason that Shirakawa-go is a UNESCO world heritage site. December is a great time to visit Shirakawa-go to experience those Gassho houses covered in snow. Read our guide to Visiting Shirakawa-go with the JR Pass for more information.
7.) Enjoy Winter Food
Japan is a paradise for food lovers all year round and December is no exception. The winter months are known for wholesome, hearty food designed to warm you up on cold days. Look out for dishes such as nabe - Japanese hot pot - as well as Sukiyaki and Shabu Shabu. You’ll also find ramen, Kaki, pine mushroom broth, pumpkin soup, chestnuts, Kyoho grapes, sweet potato, comforting Pacific mackerel, Sanma fish and more on the menu too. There is even food specifically for New Year’s Eve - 31 December. Toshikoshi soba literally means ‘year-end’ soba - this is a dish of noodles in hot broth traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve. Of course, Japan being Japan, you don’t just have to restrict yourself to seasonal winter dishes, you also have everything from Michelin-starred Japanese fine dining to favourites such as sushi and ramen, right through to street food, Izakaya bar-restaurant meals, and much more. Find out more in our Beginners Guide to Japanese Food.
8.) Go Skiing and Snowboarding
December is a great time for winter sports. Having hosted the Winter Olympics twice in 1972 and 1998, as well as the Asian Winter Games, it’s probably not surprising to find out that winter sports are hugely popular in Japan too and December is peak season. As a result, Japan has more than 500 ski resorts with some of the best slopes and winter sport infrastructure anywhere in the world. Amazingly, one of the very best is just three hours from Tokyo meaning you don’t have to travel too far to enjoy some winter sports. Hakuba Valley in the Japanese Alps announced itself to the world as the main event site for the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, but it has been famous within Japan for much longer. With its stunning mountainous peaks, white powder snow, ski slopes, and hot springs, Hakuba Valley Winter Resort is a genuine winter wonderland, making it a No.1 destination for snow sports enthusiasts. For more recommendations read our guide to Skiing and Snowboarding in Japan.
9.) Warm up in an onsen
What better way to warm up after skiing and snowboarding than to lower yourself into a beautifully warm onsen? Quintessentially Japanese, almost nothing can compete with the sheer relaxation offered by bathing in an onsen whether it’s at a traditional Ryokan inn, an onsen town, a spa resort, or even outdoors in the mountains or forests. There are many hot spring resorts throughout Japan and December is an ideal month to warm up. For an overview of onsen resorts across Japan, plus advice on etiquette, read our Relax and Unwind in an Onsen guide.
10.) Head to Okinawa’s subtropical beaches
Finally, if you need a break from the snow and fancy spending December in a totally different way, why not take a trip to Japan’s subtropical south where white sand beaches await? Check out our guide to Japan’s Best Beaches for a few ideas.
- What is it like to travel during the holiday period in Japan? Read our guide to Things You Need To Know While Travelling During Japan’s Holidays for more.
- While not as cold as January and February, temperatures are still on the lower side during December (unless you head to the south of the country). This means dressing appropriately for cold weather and packing the right suitable clothing and footwear. Find out more by reading our guide to Spending Winter in Japan.
- Unsure if December is right for you? Read our month by month description of Japan’s weather and seasons, When Is The Best Time To Visit Japan?
- Whatever month you choose to visit, it’s super useful to stay connected to the internet and not just to upload selfies to social media. Whether you need language tips or directions, investing in a PocketWifi device for constant internet access and high speed unlimited data is highly recommended.
If your December visit to Japan is your first time in the country, why not make life easier by using our Meet & Greet service on arrival? It’s like having an expert on Japan as your personal assistant. We’ll take care of you from the moment you arrive.