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Things to Do in Japan in December

Article | December 21st, 2018 | Dayna Hannah

December in Japan might be chilly—bitingly so on some occasions—but you won’t feel the need to hole yourself up in your hotel room. This season offers so many unique things to do and see, you might be surprised at how time much you—and the locals—spend outside. From relaxing in hot springs to celebrating the holidays, there’s never a dull moment during this time of year!

Here are our top picks for things to do in Japan in December.


Dreary winters simply don’t exist in Japan. In the coldest months with the darkest nights, Japan celebrates the season by turning its cities and towns into delightful fantasy worlds. City workers, shop owners, and volunteers dress up their districts with thousands of strands of twinkling lights. Winter illumination displays typically start in November and end after New Year’s, but specific dates vary between regions and neighborhoods.

In Tokyo, Shibuya holds the “Blue Cave” display. Brilliant azures drip down from treetops and are reflected back up from a mirrored tarp on the road. The luminous glow encircles you as though you’re walking through a sparkling cavern. If you want to get out of the bustling city, head just a few hours north of Tokyo to Ashikaga Flower Park’s Flower Fantasy. Over four million LED bulbs bejewel the flower garden from October to February, including hanging lights that resemble seasonal flowers and lights that flash in sync with music.

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When Mt. Tokachi erupted in 1988, Hokkaido constructed a dam on Biei River to prevent the destructive effects of volcanic mudflow. As a result, several ponds sprung up nearby, but none so famous as the Blue Pond (Aoi Ike). The Blue Pond contains a mix of natural minerals that creates its marvelous hue, which contrasts with the small grove of ghostly Japanese larch and silver birch trees that jut from the water. The slightest breeze transforms the delicate color, and each season offers its own sights to behold.

In December, the pond completely freezes over and traps the sapphire iridescence. Snowflakes cling to the branches of the birches and spot the surface of the ice. The Blue Pond mirrors the sky and forest in perfect symmetry, casting the surrounding nature in a beryl world.

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Bathing in a natural hot spring isn’t just a typical Japanese experience; it’s the best way to relax after a long day on a tour! Many people might feel hesitant to try this since you must enter a public bath in the nude, but please don’t let this hold you back! Baths are usually separated by gender, and you can use a small towel to strategically cover yourself. These hot, natural spring waters offer so many benefits. They fill your pores with minerals that can reduce inflammation, and best of all, their warmth helps revive your weary soul—especially in December.

Nothing feels better than a dip in a piping hot bath after a spending the day out in the cold. Outdoor hot springs open all year round—even in the snowiest of months. In places like Jozankei, the waters gently envelop you in a warm hug. At last, you’ll be able to view the snow-capped mountains and white forests in comfort. It’s easy to stay too long and get over-heated, but if this happens, just reach over for a handful of fresh snow and plop it on your head!

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On December 2nd and 3rd, Chichibu City in Saitama holds the Yomatsuri Festival. Along with Kyoto’s famous Gion Festival and Takayama’s festivals in spring and autumn, the Chichibu Yomatsuri is celebrated as one of Japan’s top three float festivals. Street food and drink stalls line the streets near Chichibu Shrine for both days, but the main events take place on the 3rd.

From late afternoon to early evening, musicians playing flutes and drums accompany the procession of the ornate floats, which feature lanterns, tapestries, and gilded woodcarvings. After the procession ends, fireworks propel into central Chichibu’s sky for over two hours. If you’re traveling during winter, this is a rare opportunity to see one of Japan’s famous fireworks displays.

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In Japanese tradition, people stay up or wake up extremely early to see the first sunrise of the year. Prior to midnight, millions of people wait in front of shrines to pray and receive fortunes (omikuji). Those who can’t go at midnight have three days (January 1st-3rd) to complete this practice called hatsumode. During these days, you can see throngs of people lined up outside of major shrines. Meiji Jingu in Tokyo alone gets 3 million visitors every year!

One of the most popular sites to watch the sunrise near Tokyo is the Oarai Isosaki shrine in Ibaraki Prefecture. While the shrine is fairly famous, the main attraction is the torii gate nearby that sits on the reef in the nearby Pacific shore. On New Year’s Day, locals and residents of neighboring prefectures flock here to witness the sun light up the shimmering water.

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Need a little more winter fun in your life? Stay in Japan from December to January!


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