Top 5 Things to Experience in Fall and Winter in Japan

by Rachel Miyazaki

One of the best things about long-term volunteering in Japan is experiencing the changing of the seasons and all of the customs and traditions that follow. In the U.S., some of the most anticipated celebrations (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years) fall in the latter half of the year.  Though Halloween isn’t taken quite as “seriously” in Japan as in the U.S. and most Japanese have no idea what a turkey is, there are still great things to do, see, and eat in Japan during the holiday season!

Nengajo
Nengajo. Photo by Rachel Miyazaki

1. Kotatsu

Though most of Japan gets very chilly in the autumn and winter months, Japanese homes lack central heating and/or insulation.  Not to worry!  There is a traditional Japanese appliance to make up for it. The kotatsu is a coffee table with an electric heater attached to the underside. The heat is kept in by a thick, comforter-like blanket that is placed between the removable top of the table and the frame as the colder months approach. In traditional times, the heat came from burning charcoal beneath the ground; the modern electric heater provides better safety.

The kotatsu is perfect for those who are finicky when it comes to temperature.  If you're the type to sleep with one leg under the covers and one leg in the chilly night air or constantly battling your decision to put on or take off your layers in winter time, look no further than the kotatsu.  It's just the right amount of heat; keeping your feet and legs warm but your hands free to sip coffee over conversation or munch on snacks while watching the latest game shows.  It's also great to use when studying!  With the warmth of the heater and the comfort of the blanket, one can easily find themselves lulled to sleep right in the living room.

2. Chase the Autumn Leaves

In Japan, there are actual terms for the changing color of leaves: kouyou or momiji.  Equivalent to the spring tradition of hanami (cherry blossom viewing), people flock from all over the country to view these fiery red leaves.  There are prime viewing spots throughout Japan, depending on how far in the season you are; many can be found in Kyoto.  Why not spend your time in Japan chasing these crimson beauties?  Every year, there are reports that can be found online on the expected best viewing days of each spot.  On these days, the leaves will be their most vibrant, leaving you with a surreal feeling (imagine the red leaves fighting scene from Zhang Yimou’s Hero).  The color of these leaves almost serves as a natural reminder of the upcoming Christmas and New Years holidays in Japan, which decorations often have hints of similar, vivid red.

Cherry blossoms

3. Citron Hot Baths

Taking a hot soak in the tub with fruits may sound a bit strange, reminding one of a citrus roast bubbling away in the oven.  However, the aromatics and soothing qualities of taking a yuzu bath will leave you wondering why you hadn't thought of it before. During the winter solstice in Japan, it is common for people to scatter yuzu, an Asian citrus fruit, into their baths. The appearance is similar to the Western tradition of bobbing for apples, right before children dive in with their chompers. This custom, known as "yuzuyu" or "yuzuburo" is frequently found at public bathhouses as well.  Yuzu is used for the pleasant smell that is released when immerse in the hot water, as well as alleged skin softening, cold fighting, and blood circulating properties.

Who wouldn't want to soak in a sweet-smelling tub reminiscent of childhood ball pits?  Yuzu doesn't just delight your sense of smell; use the rind as seasoning in food, apply some yuzu jam on a pastry or in tea, or use its flavor in a fruity cocktail!

4. Christmas Eats: KFC & Christmas Cake

Forget holiday ham and fruitcake.  In Japan, it's all about the Colonel and Christmas cake!  Yes, you heard right. Due to an excellent marketing campaign, Kentucky Fried Chicken has increasingly become the go-to spot for couples and families alike to celebrate Christmas.  There are actually lines at KFC during this time of the year.  Out-of-the-door, waiting-in-the-cold lines.  Out of the fear of stores selling out, people will actually order their meals in advance. Like any American-based fast food restaurant in Japan, Japanese KFCs offer different menu items to attract the Japanese palate. Nevertheless, chicken still comes in that familiar bucket with Colonel Sanders grinning at you as you enjoy his holiday feast.

After you've been stuffed with chicken, what better way to finish off than with a Christmas cake?  Christmas cakes in Japan are very cute (of course) and less sugary than what one would find in the U.S.  The standard Christmas cake is reminiscent of an Instagram-worthy strawberry shortcake, usually decked with a tiny Santa figure or a chocolate placard wishing you a "Merry Christmas".  Because there is a rush for companies to sell their Christmas cakes before December 26th, it is common practice to slash prices drastically as the countdown nears.  This has led to a distasteful trend in Japan of deeming young, unmarried women "Christmas cakes", as women are expected to be married by the age of 25 and lose their value after this "expiration date".

Japanese temple

5. Loft

Japan, like the West, has customs of gift giving and card sending at the end of the year.  Giving oseibo (end of the year gifts) and sending nengajo (new years cards) to your relatives, teachers, co-workers, bosses, and others who have helped you the past year is a great practice in expressing your gratitude and thanks.  If you need some inspiration, look no further than Loft.  Loft is a Japanese chain store that sells almost anything you can think of.  For starters, there is a wide assortment of stationary (both Western and Japanese styles) along with cute stickers and seals to match.  There are all types of goodies for your gift giving needs.  Calendars for bosses, office supplies for co-workers, toys for younger relatives, cell phone accessories for older relatives, and housewares for parents are only some examples of the expansive, quirky, and cute variety of items Loft sells.

Being surrounded by all of the irresistibly nifty merchandise, you might end up leaving with some finds for yourself as well (treat yourself to some travel or winter accessories!).  Loft stores can be found throughout Japan.  During the Christmas season, they also have a stock of Christmas trees, wreaths, and Santa outfits.  Of course, as in all Japanese stores regardless of season, they will nicely wrap all of your items, which makes packaging a breeze!