Japanese Winter Traditions


Introduction 

While winter Japan is cold that doesn't mean you can't have fun! Don't fret if you missed the cherry blossoms bloom, or didn't have the chance to experience the first day of a Japanese summer because you'll get to enjoy plenty of experiences that are unique to the Japanese winter. 

Whether you want to learn more about Japanese history and religion, or simply want to enjoy some good steamy street food here are a few ideas to get you started on your Japanese winter journey!

Festivals and Celebrations

Winter is one of the prime times for festivals to occur in Japan. There are a bounty of snow festivals, winter solstice celebrations and New Years celebrations that happen all across Japan that you can partake in!

1. Sapporo Yuki Matsuri - The Snow Festival


The city of Sapporo in Hokkaido hosts one of the most impressive snow festivals in February. Every year sculptors create magnificent pieces out of snow and ice, creating a winter wonderland! While the sculptures are beautiful during the day you'll be blown away by the magnificent lights the illuminates them at night.

The festival attracts over 2 million people a year so it may be a bit crowded but it's definitely worth it if you want to take some amazing photos. The date of the festival varies a little each year, so be sure to be on your toes to find out when it happens.
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2. Dondo Yaki

Dondo Yaki occurs in mid January all around Japan at local Shrines. The festival involves burning unwanted lucky items from the previous year as it's considered bad luck to simply throw it away. Lucky items include Daruma Dolls, lucky cat dolls, omamori etc.
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Along with lucky items being burned Japanese street food such as mochi and dango are roasted over the fire used to destroy the lucky items. This is believed to promote health in the new year. During this time people also buy new good luck charms for the new year. 

3. Oniyo Fire Festival 

This festival is held at the Daizenji Tamataregu Shrine in Fukuoka on January 7th. The festival is meant to drive away evil spirits from the six neighboring towns. A "devil fire" is lit on January 1st and is kept guarded at the Shrine for seven days. On the night of January 7th the fire is transferred to six giant torches and carried around the Shrine by men wearing loincloths.
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Spectators watch as the men walk around the shrine in the hopes that an ember will fall on them. It is said that if an ember or ash falls on you, you are blessed with good luck. This is an amazing festival if you want to learn more about Japanese culture while getting nice and toasty by the fire.

Relax and Destress...and Eat!

There are a couple things that Japanese people do in the winter to relax and unwind. While some of these activities can be enjoyed anytime of the year, some of them can be enhanced during the winter such as watching a beautiful snowfall while soaking in an onsen. 

There are also some dishes that Japanese people eat during the winter to stay warm and of course you can't completely destress without eating something tasty!

1. Onsen! 

One of the best ways to relax and heat up in Japan is soaking in an onsen. As you probably know, a lot of Japanese homes don't contain central heating, so the Japanese have to come up with new ways of warming up that won't crank up the electric bill.

One of the best things about onsens in the winter are the breathtaking winter views. If you get the chance to relax in an outdoor onsen you won't regret it. You'll be surrounded by a beautiful landscape covered in a blanket of snow.

The Yunishigawa Onsen located in the small hot spring town in the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture is a popular winter onsen destination. The onsen faces the riverside lined with snow covered trees. The area receives a fair amount of snowfall each winter, creating scenery that's fitting for a postcard. Visitors can also enjoy the illuminated snow houses (kamakura) that are built every year and attend the Yunishigawa Kamakura Festival held from January 20th to March 5th.
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2. Yuzu Bath

Yuzu's are a citrus fruit that is grown in Japan. This fruit is similar to lemon, but has tastes a bit different.

Yuzu baths are very popular in the winter, especially during the Winter Solstice. During the Winter Solstice Japanese people put slices of yuzu in a bag and place them into hot bathwater. Yuzu baths are believed to prevent sickness during the winter and purify the body. Yuzu baths also have a beautiful smell and provide good skin protection.
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Travelers can participate in this tradition by either buying yuzu and taking them back home to bathe with, or go to an onsen and ask if you can put some yuzu in with you as you soak.

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3. Hot Pot Dishes

Hot pot dishes are very popular in Japan during the winter months. Hot pot dishes consist of a variety of ingredients like daikon radish, tofu, eggs, konnyaku, kombu seaweed, various fish products and anything else you like slowly cooked in a soup stock. The ingredients that are included in a hot pot vary depending on what type it is, but they all usually contain a mix of vegetables, meat and fish.
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This is a very traditional Japanese winter food and will warm you up even on the coldest winter days. You can find these dish at any local restaurant during winter, so be sure to stop by and warm up after enjoying the winter festivals!

4. Mochi and Zenzai

This is a very popular dish during winter, especially during the New Year. Mochi is a sweet sticky rice cake and if you're lucky you can get a fresh hot batch from a street vendor when it gets closer to New Year's day. Be careful not to bite off more than you can handle, every year hundreds of Japanese people chock on mochi and end up in the hospital.

Zenzai is a type of mochi that is put in a hot soup made of azuki beans (sweet red beans). The soup will fuse with the flavor of the mochi and create a nice hot treat for you to enjoy after a cold day.
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New Years and Valentines Day 

The two main holidays that are celebrated during the winter is Valentines day and New Years. Christmas isn't celebrated that much in Japan since the Japanese aren't very religious, you could say that Japanese New Years is more comparable to Christmas in America. 

1. New Years

This is probably the most famous and important Japanese holiday. The country shuts down from December 30th to January 3rd to celebrate New Years with a variety of parades and celebration. Because Japanese New Year is such a big topic I'll go over a couple of major traditions that tourists can partake in.

The New Year symbolizes new beginnings and the shedding of the past. Many Japanese people celebrate by traveling to their local Shinto Shrines where they make small offerings (five yen coins are often offered for good luck) and wish for good fortune and health for the following year.

Spend Some Time at the Shrine...or Temple
At the Shrine people will also buy good luck charms or "omamori" to carry around with them. Different omamori offer different forms of luck such as finance, finding the love of your life and ward off evil spirits. During this time people also drop off their old omamori to be burned since it's bad luck to throw them out.
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You can also buy omikuji, this is a type of fortune telling paper that will tell you how your year will be regarding health, romance and finance. If you find that the fortune you received isn't that great you can tie it up at the temple, this is to prevent the bad fortune that has been bestowed upon you. You can purchase and discard lucky items from January 1st - 7th.
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On December 31st you can visit a Buddhist temple and partake in joya no kane. This is when the temple bell is rang 108 times, this symbolizes the 108 earthly temptations and is meant to rid them from a person. After the ceremony visitors are given the opportunity to ring the bell themselves, this is said to bring good fortune. 
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During December 31st and January 1st there are a variety of festivals/parades going on around the temple/shrine that celebrate the shedding of old worries and embracing the New Year.

Watch the First Sunrise of the New Year
A popular tradition in Japan is to watch the first sunrise of the new year. Be sure to set your alarm because this sunrise isn't ordinary, it is said that gazing upon the first sunrise while making a wish will bring good luck in the new year. 

2. Valentines Day

This a fairly new holiday that's been introduced in Japan. Valentines day usually consists of women giving chocolate candy to the special person they may have fallen for and other people they care about in their life. In recent years companies such as Kit Kat come out with special limited time flavors for the occasion. 

If you're in Japan around this time try snagging some macha flavored Kit Kats, or even special sake flavored ones! Other then special candy, there isn't much difference between America and Japan on Valentines day. 

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Conclusion

There are plenty of fun things for tourists to do during the winter in Japan, so don't be shy to visit! Whether you're looking for some good food, relaxation, or a fun time you can surely find it here even in the winter. 

Resources:
1. https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3882.html
2. https://yakult.com.mt/japanese-winter-traditions/
3. https://www.japan-talk.com/jt/new/japan-in-winter
4. http://www.candle-night.org/en/candle-story/the-winter-solsticepractices-i.html
5. http://jpninfo.com/39465
7. https://en.rocketnews24.com/2016/12/29/w-t-f-japan-top-5-japanese-winter-foods%E3%80%90well-fed-top-five%E3%80%91/

Donna Rhae