So you've decided to stay in Japan for your winter vacation, huh? Nice choice! This is an excellent chance for you to experience an important time of year in Japan. There are lots of places to explore and tons of seasonal food to eat. The most difficult part of staying in Japan for the winter is deciding where you want to go and what you want to do! Here are my tips for enjoying your Japanese winter staycation.
1. Start planning early!
The time around New Year's is one of the busiest travel seasons in Japan. It usually starts a few days after Christmas and ends a few days after New Year's Day (roughly 12/28 - 01/04). Many Japanese people return home to spend some quality time with the family. Since everyone in Japan will be traveling during this time, it's important to make your plans as early as possible!
Take a look at the shinkansen for example. You can start buying tickets about 30 days ahead of time. I went to buy a few tickets last year about 25 days before my proposed travel date of January 3rd. One of the trains I wanted to take from Nagoya to Tokyo was completely sold out. All of the trains within the next three hours were also fully booked. Keep in mind that one train can carry up to 1300 passengers and they leave every 5 to 10 minutes. That means that thousands of people had already booked up those trains within a matter of days. In the end, I was lucky enough to get a couple of seats on a train later that day. If you can't get an assigned seat, you can always try your luck with an unreserved seat. Keep in mind that you may end up standing in between the cars!
You may possibly run into the same problems with lodging, buses, planes, and attractions. Even if you are able to find something, it might be more expensive. If you plan ahead, you'll be in a much better situation!
Tips for saving money:
If you're going to be traveling during this season, you can save a lot of money by using Airbnb and staying in business hotels. You'll also want to factor in the cost of getting from major train stations to your lodging when making a decision.
It's also a good idea to bring your passport with you. Sometimes transportation companies, hotels, and different tourist attractions will have special deals for foreign passport holders.
2. Travel before the busy season
Most Japanese people don't start their vacation for New Year's until the 28th of December. That means that if you can start your vacation around the 20th you'll have about a week to travel around while the rest of Japan is at work. Many places like theme parks and tourist attractions will be a lot less crowded than they will be around New Year's. It's also easier to find cheaper options for lodging and transportation won't be as crowded.
3. Enjoy Christmas, Japanese style!
If you've never spent Christmas in Japan, you will probably be surprised by a few things. First of all, the traditional Japanese Christmas meal is a bucket (they call it a party barrel) of fried chicken from KFC that comes with a cake. Many super markets and convenience stores will have some kind of deal on their special Christmas Cakes and fried chicken, too.
If you want to have fun with some Japanese people and watch their jaw hit the floor, let them know that you've never eaten chicken on Christmas (they really believe that this is a custom in the USA).
A traditional Japanese Christmas dinner
Yes, people do line up for it
In Japan, Christmas is more of a holiday for couples similar to Valentine's Day or just a day to go out and have a good time with friends. It's kind of the reverse of the USA where Christmas is a family holiday and New Year's is a day to party.
The streets of Tokyo are filled with nicely dressed couples heading out to fancy restaurants on Christmas Eve. Keep in mind that many higher-end restaurants change up their menu to offer more exquisite (and expensive) options for the special occasion. This might mean that the (insert name of the meal) that you've heard so much about and wanted to try may be temporarily unavailable and has been replaced by something twice the price.
The Christmas course at Ginza Skylounge
4. Stay home or visit friends for New Year's
New Year's is probably the most important holiday in Japan. As such, many shops and services are either closed or have limited hours. The once vibrant community that you wanted to visit in (insert name of Japanese city here) during this time may only appear to be a shadow of it's former self as most of it's residents are at home with their families for the holidays and many business are closed. The only people you'll see on the streets are other tourists and the few Japanese people that don't have any plans for the day or are being forced to work.
Since transportation and lodging can be expensive during this time, I suggest either planning a staycation or possibly staying with a friend. If you travel, you might end up spending a lot of money to go some to a place where there might not be a lot going on. You can save some money and have a better time by relaxing at home or with friends.
Whether you stay home or hit the road around New Year's, try to be on the lookout for special schedules at stores (Don't always trust google). You don't want to have a fridge with no food only to find that your local grocery story will be closed all day!
5. Travel light
My last tip is a big one. Make sure you travel light during this season. Everyone in Japan will be lugging suit cases through crowded streets and stations. The stations are full of Japanese tourists and people from other countries. The lighter you pack, the better you'll be able to get around. Then you'll be able to actually enjoy your well deserved break instead of having to battle your way through crowds!