Guide on How to Stay Warm and Survive Winter in Japan

Those who live in Japan know that summer and winter in Japan can be brutal. Japan has eight regions spanning quite a few lines of latitude. That means depending on what part of the country you’re in, the weather will vary a lot during any given season. Winter in Japan starts in December and goes until around mid-March. Temperatures can easily range from 25°F (-4°C) in the northern Hokkaido and Tohoku regions to 45°F (7°C) or higher in the southernmost Kyushu region. Tokyo has fairly mild winters with the coldest month, January, averaging just  41°F (5°C). Heavy snow is common in the north and in mountainous areas, while lighter snowfalls blanket the rest of Japan (but don’t expect to see hardly any in Okinawa).

All this said, where you live in Japan, or the area you choose to visit will determine what you need to be prepared for winter. This article will cover general advice for surviving winter in Japan no matter your area. Read on to learn more!

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Winter Apparel: What to Wear During Winter in Japan

First and foremost is definitely winter apparel. As soon as winter starts, you’ll see Japanese people break out their puffer coats before the temperature has truly dropped, but there are other elements — or layers — that are essential to keeping you warm during the winter in Japan.

1. Heat-tech and thermal clothing

Heat-tech and thermal clothing are also popular. The key to body warmth without a lot of bulk is layering with thermal clothing or heat tech. Uniqlo is one great place to find well-priced, good-quality thermals and coats. Department stores and supermarkets that have a clothing section are other options. You can judge how warm thermal clothing is by feeling different items to compare the thickness. There may also be a thickness grade or scale written on the packaging.  You’d be surprised how much warmth a thin heat-tech shirt and a pair of leggings can provide, and they don’t take up as much storage space as heavier clothing such as sweaters — a moment of appreciation for the compact, efficient products Japan continues to bless us with.

2. Winter Boots

You might also need winter boots to keep your feet warm or trek through the snow. If that’s the case, a store like ABC Mart or department stores sells winter shoes. If you live or visit northern areas of Japan, winter boots will be easier to find. You’ll also find spikes that you can put on the bottoms of your boots or shoes sold all around in areas of Japan like Hokkaido. That traction is essential to safely trek on icy pavements.

It’s worth mentioning, though, that foreigners often can’t find the sizes they need in the places mentioned above. If you have trouble, try Aoki—a store specializing in bigger sizes — or sites like Amazon and Shein (for women). Worst come to worst, you may have to order things from websites and clothing companies that service your home country and then have them shipped to you if possible. 

3. Kairo

Now let’s talk about a rather unsung hero saving us from the frigid cold of Japanese winter: pocket warmers (also known as hand warmers), or kairo in Japanese. 

Kairo is ubiquitous in Japan! Everyone uses them and you’ll find them everywhere, from variety stores to dollar stores to convenience stores. You can find ones that have adhesive so you can stick them between your main clothing and thermal wear (a popular area seems to be the lower back or lower abdomen according to some of my friends). There are also toe warmers you can stick in your shoes. Kairo really packs a punch for such small products, and they last a few hours. There are instances where they can actually get too hot, so be sure not to stick the adhesive ones directly on your skin. 

4. Moisturizer

Also, while we’re on the topic of skin, keeping it moisturized against the dry, winter air is an important way to protect yourself, too! Stock up on chapstick, hand cream and skin cream for the season!

surviving winter in japan apparel

5. Vocabulary for Winter Outfit in Japan

Now that we’ve covered a few unique winter clothes in Japan, let’s take a look at general apparel and accessories.

JapaneseRomajiTranslation
帽子boushihat
セーターseetaasweater
コートkootocoat
ブーツbuutsuboots
マフラーmafuramuffler
手袋tebukurogloves
靴下kutsushitasocks

We’ve summed up how to insulate your body, but what about your home or apartment?

How to Make Your Home or Apartment Winter-Proof in Japan

Japanese abodes are notorious for their poor insulation. If you live in a more recently constructed apartment or home, it may be a slight improvement over older buildings. But in general, buildings are cold in the winter and central heating is not widespread at all. 

That leaves us with space heaters, wall units, heated carpets, heated blankets and kotatsu. 

1. Using AC in Japan

Most rental properties come equipped with A/C wall units that double as heaters. If you’re shopping around for a place to live, be sure to check for this lest you have to purchase your own unit. These units can be costly if turned on all the time, but affordable when used in moderation. These wall units have a built-in timer that you can set for them to turn on and off. In general, the Japanese way is to use the wall unit at night and in the morning. You turn on the heat at night but set the unit to shut off while you’re asleep (you should be dressed in warm pajamas and sleeping under a duvet or heated blanket) and also set it to come on again before you wake up to warm the room. During the day, it’s common and more economical to use kerosene or electric space heaters, among other things.

2. Heater for Winter Japan

Kerosene space heaters—or sekiyu hiitaa in Japanese—can be purchased at certain home goods stores, electric appliance stores, online and even at secondhand stores. They’re budget-friendly because you purchase the kerosene at a gas station, so you have control over how much you spend on heating. The downside to this type of space heater is that it can be dangerous as the entire unit gets hot. Further, you can’t fall asleep with this machine running, and you have to remember to ventilate your house every few hours (opening a window will do) since the kerosene fumes are toxic. 

For those who feel less intrepid, there are space heaters that run strictly on electricity. They can be found in the same places that sell kerosene heaters. But if you don’t have an energy-efficient, electric heater, they could easily run up your light bill. Many have made the mistake of thinking that because an electric heater is small, its energy usage is also small. But that’s not always true. You could be left with a bill even higher than if you ran your wall unit all day and night, so be careful! If you don’t own a space heater, or you’re looking for an even cheaper heating option, heated carpets and kotatsu are the answer.

3. Using a Kotatsu in Japan

Heated carpets are self-explanatory and in general, don’t consume much energy. They’re mats that go under a carpet or rug, but you could try to use the heated carpet on its own if it’s all you have. Kotatsu is a convenient, quintessentially Japanese item. It’s a special wooden table that has a heater built underneath. The top of the table is not connected to the base. It can be moved so that a blanket specially made for safe use with the kotatsu can be placed between the base and the table top. Then you can sit on the floor, underneath the heated blanket of the kotatsu. Cool! Back in the day, the heating source was charcoal. But nowadays, kotatsu tables are electric. The upside of these tables is that they consume very little energy. The downside is that they don’t heat up the surrounding area, so you’ll only be warm as long as you’re under the blanket. 

Finally, you can somewhat insulate your home or apartment with supplies from hardware stores or even dollar stores. You can buy special tape or plastic to seal drafty windows or doors. There is also foam you can purchase to seal gaps underneath doors or between doors and their frames. This could help a lot by stopping whatever heat is produced from escaping and keeping cold air out. 

What Does Japan Offer During Winter?

If you don’t live in Japan, but you’re dreaming of coming, you may be wondering if it’s worth visiting in the winter. The answer is a resounding yes! If you live in Japan, don’t let the frigid, winter temperatures keep you indoors. Japan is a country that has beautiful experiences to offer in each four season. In fact, one of the best aspects of Japanese culture is its celebration of seasonality (check out our article on the best winter destinations in Japan).

Certain areas of Japan turn into picturesque, winter wonderlands when covered with snow. Notable destinations are Shirakawa-go in Gifu, Nikko, and Hokkaido. Near the start of every February, a renowned Snow Festival is held in Sapporo. It’s called Yuki Matsuri in Japanese, and it’s most famous for its grand ice sculpture contest. The festival was canceled the last few years due to COVID. It seems it will take place this year, but some sites state that the ice sculptor contest has been canceled. If you’re thinking of traveling to Sapporo for the festival, be sure to keep up with the latest updates.

Another wonderful place to visit during winter is Ginzan Onsen in Gifu, a famous onsen town that partially inspired scenes in the film Spirited Away. If it’s prohibitively expensive to stay in one of the ryokan, you could still enjoy one of the onsens as a visitor. Onsen in general are best enjoyed in the winter. A steamy bath in the chilly winter air is a sensational combination for the body. After your bath, you can warm your soul with the delicious food options most popular in the winter. 

Finally, and maybe most obviously, skiing in Japan is a popular activity to enjoy during winter. It’s even considered world-class for skiing! Being the furthest north, Hokkaido has some of the most well-known and frequented ski resorts. These include Niseko, Furano and Kiroro. These resorts offer activities from heli-skiing to cat skiing at all experience levels and the light, dry snow powder that avid skiers covet most. Aomori and Yamagata’s prefectures also have great resorts. If you’re looking for skiing that’s closer to Tokyo, Nagano has some famous ski resorts such as Hakuba, Shiga Kogen—Japan’s highest ski resort—and Nozawa Onsen! 

Check out: Best Onsen Destinations in Japan

Food to Eat During Winter in Japan

1. Chanko 

By far the most popular Japanese dish in winter is nabemono, Japanese hot pot, and there are a variety of nabe to tickle every fancy. Chanko nabe is a rich, high-calorie hotpot famously eaten by sumo wrestlers to gain and maintain weight. But of course, it can be enjoyed by anyone.

2. Shabu shabu

Shabu shabu is a lighter hotpot where you cook thin strips of meat and sliced vegetables in front of you in a broth of your choice. Then there’s my favorite—sukiyaki, a sweet and savory hotpot of beef strips, vegetables, and tofu. 

3. Oden

The last nabemono I’ll list is oden, a dish of ingredients like daikon, fishcakes and boiled eggs simmered in a light, dashi broth. You can even find this at convenience stores like 7-Eleven in the winter. I’m not from Japan, but nabemono is a comfort food for me. I think that’s a testament to how good it is. 

Nabemono can be enjoyed in restaurants or at home, while you’re sitting under your kotatsu. Not only is it a great way to warm yourself up, but hotpot is meant to be eaten with others, which makes it even more specials.

Other winter foods to enjoy include miso ramen, lamb hotpot (both dishes are from Hokkaido), and roasted sweet potato (yakiimo).

Conclusion

Winter in Japan can seem daunting, especially if you grew up in a warmer country. The varied geography of the Japanese islands also means there is a diverse range of temperatures in the winter. Figuring out what you need to best navigate this season in a foreign country can take a lot of trial and error, time and money.  But Japan has so much to offer residents and visitors alike during its coldest months! Seeing Sapporo and eating Shiroi Koibito at the height of winter, for example, is an unforgettable experience. So whether it’s how to outfit yourself or your home, or what activities can liven the frigid days and nights, hopefully, this article helps you survive and even indulge yourself in winter in Japan. 

Wish to learn more about living in Japan? Check out our blog articles for more tips! Winter is also a good time to study Japanese in Tokyo! Click the button below to check out our intensive short-term Japanese Course!

Check out a similar article: How to Beat the Summer Heat in Japan

When does winter start in Japan?

Winter in Japan starts in December and goes until around mid-March.

How cold does winter get in Japan?

Winter in Japan starts in December and goes until around mid-March. Temperatures can easily range from 25°F (-4°C) in the northern Hokkaido and Tohoku regions to 45°F (7°C) or higher in the southernmost Kyushu region. Tokyo has fairly mild winters with the coldest month, January, averaging just  41°F (5°C).

Is there snow in Japan?

Heavy snow is common in the north and in mountainous areas, while lighter snowfalls blanket the rest of Japan (but don’t expect to see hardly any in Okinawa).


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