Keyakizaka Illumination
Photo: Minchun Chen/Dreamstime Keyakizaka Illumination

Best things to do in Tokyo this winter 2020

What to see, eat, drink and do in the city during the most magical time of year between December and March

By Time Out Tokyo Editors
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When the days become shorter and teeth-grittingly cold, locals set up a kotatsu in their living rooms, a table with a heated duvet that is impossible to get out of once you’re settled in. If you happen to own one of these odd-looking centre-pieces in your living room, that is admittedly one good reason to stay in all day – but we’ll give you 15 reasons to go out.

Crisp chilly air, clear blue skies − winter in Tokyo is beautiful. Sure, you’d want to soak in an onsen all the time, but you’d be missing out. Mt Fuji is especially stunning this time of the year, the plum blossoms are in full bloom, and the city is bejewelled with millions of shimmering lights for the annual illumination displays, so bundle up in your warmest clothes and see Tokyo in all its icy splendour.

RECOMMENDED: Explore outside Tokyo for these snowy winter adventures

The best things to do in Tokyo this winter

Take a date to see the illuminations

Things to do

Illumination displays are one of the main attractions of winter in Tokyo and the stringing of lights across the trees along the main thoroughfare in Omotesando or Roppongi Hills is practically the official sign that the winter season has arrived. An outing to see illumination displays is a popular date idea because the spectacle of all those dazzling lights in gold or majestic blue is just so romantic at night (and frankly, all the better for your wallet as these public displays are free). Even if you’ve decided not to give in to the pressures of cuffing season this year, these displays are worth a quick detour when you’re making your way around the city.

Lace up your skates

Things to do Ice skating

You don’t have to be a world class figure skater to go for a glide around the rink. A number of outdoor skating facilities have popped up around Tokyo, where people of all ages gleefully take to the ice to practice some impressive tricks, or learn to skate a little more smoothly than last year. Whether you’re a seasoned skater or prefer to stay close to the sidelines as you make your way around the rink, these outdoor skating spots are sure to add some flair to the holiday season. 

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Upgrade your hot cocoa

Restaurants Cafés

Speaking of which, no winter to-do list would be complete without a mug of proper hot chocolate. If you prefer marshmallows in your hot chocolate, head to Dandelion where you can help yourself to as many as you like. Not a fan of marshmallows? We’ve compiled a list of the best hot chocolates in the city, from foamy beverages topped with cream to thick concoctions that resemble melted chocolate – there are enough choices here to try a different cup every week of the season.

Club party with confetti - generic
Photo: Tomas Simkus/Dreamstime

Countdown to 2020

Things to do

New Year’s Day in Japan is a relatively quiet affair for families to spend time together and eat osechi. The same can’t be said for New Year’s Eve, where every nightlife venue in the city pulls out all the stops for an epic countdown celebration. This upcoming New Year’s countdown will mark the beginning of a new decade, and considering the significance that 2020 has, bearing in mind the fast-approaching Olympics, this New Year’s Eve is bound to be monumental. Here’s a list of places to be where you’re guaranteed to start the New Year off with a bang.

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Make a visit to the shrine

Things to do

The first shrine visit of the New Year is called hatsumode, and every year, millions make their way to the city’s most revered shrines to ask for good fortune in the first week of January. Most of these shrines open their gates on New Year’s eve where people patiently wait in their warmest clothes to pray and pick up an omikuji (a sacred fortune written on a narrow strip of paper) for good luck. 

Have a soak in an onsen

Health and beauty Spas

Having a long, hot onsen bath is a favourite local pastime and with the weather finally cooling, it’s a good time to ease your tired body with a trip to the hot springs. Most bathhouses will have a number of different baths, indoor as well as outdoor, with different kinds of minerals in the water to soften your skin. While there are many famous areas around Japan known for natural volcanic hot springs, there’s still plenty of options within the city that are easily accessible and open all hours of the night.

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Seat yourself by a fireplace

Restaurants

A crackling fire adds a wonderful atmospheric touch to winter and we know just the right places to head to give you some extra warmth. From old-fashioned hearths with chopped wood to open flames on sleek modern firepits, these scenic cafés and restaurants are the ideal places to spend an evening.

Sip on hot sake

One of the best things about sake is how accommodating it is to the changing seasons. It’s a beverage that can be enjoyed at a wide range of temperatures from freezing to piping hot. Made from fermented rice, sake pairs brilliantly with food, and most self-respecting sake bars offer a menu of delightfully moreish snacks (otsumami) to compliment the flavours of the beverage. Click here to learn more about hot sake, or here for a list of specialist bars to enjoy it.

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Get cosy in a kotatsu

Restaurants

Some people have never known the warmth of sitting in a kotatsu on a cold winter day and that’s a terrible shame. These heated tables aren’t always the most practical things to own if you have limited storage space, but that doesn’t mean you should deny yourself the pleasure of spending an afternoon eating snacks and sipping tea in a kotasu when it’s chilly out. Here are a few cafes and restaurants that set up kotatsu in winter so diners can have a meal under a blanket – what a dream.

Eat some oden

Restaurants

This popular homestyle dish is sold in most convenience stores during winter but these oden speciality restaurants take the stew to a new level. Oden consists of a wide assortment of ingredients, from daikon radish to fish cakes and beef tendon to mochi-filled tofu ‘money bags’. The idea is that you only order the ingredients you like, which come served in a bowl of broth for you to add on condiments such as shichimi (Japanese chili seasoning).

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Throw beans for Setsubun

Things to do

Setsubun is held every year on February 3, the day before the first day of spring in Japan. The festival involves the tradition of tossing soybeans at members of the family wearing demon masks to drive out bad luck and bring good fortune to the house. Thousands have gathered at Sensoji temple for the festival since the Edo period, to chant ‘Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!’(Demons out! Good luck in!) as a form of spiritual spring cleaning. On this day, it is also customary to eat giant makizushi rolls called ‘ehomaki’. The rolls are eaten facing the year's ‘lucky direction’, so look for a stand selling the lucky snacks to complete your day of spiritual cleansing after the festival.

Admire winter blossoms

Things to do

When these bright pink blossoms start blooming, it's easy to confuse them for the famous cherry blossoms that draw a staggering number of visitors every year. The preceding ume blossoms however, are beautiful in their own right, and their arrival signify a fast-approaching spring. Plum blossoms begin blooming in February, and are thankfully longer lasting than sakura.

More winter fun

Planetariums in Tokyo

Things to do

Want to visit the outer reaches of space but still be back in time for hotpot? Then head to one of these planetariums within Tokyo

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Shirakawago Winter Light-Up
Photo: Supparuj Taechatanont/Dreamstime

Winter getaways from Tokyo

Travel

Embrace the cold and head out to these snowy adventures near Tokyo – all perfect as a weekend or short overnight trip

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