We were at the Senso-ji Temple in Tokyo and I was miserable. It was raining but not just a gentle summer rain, it was freezing rain and I was definitely not dressed for it. But then something surprising happened. The temperature dropped just a few more degrees and the freezing rain turned into snow and the scene went from miserable to magical just that quickly.
Visiting the city in the winter has some challenges, but also has some rewards, particularly visiting Tokyo in December when the city dresses up for a holiday that it doesn’t celebrate.
My experience with freezing rain is not a typical winter day in Tokyo which has a mild climate. The average highs are 53°F / 12°C and the average lows only 39°F / 3°C. The typical snowfall in Tokyo in December… is nothing. The city gets less than 2 inches of snow a year and most of that in February.
In the snowstorm I saw in February, Tokyo got an inch of snow and the city shut down. The trains that are above ground stopped running and the highways snarled. They just are not used to snow.
Jason Jenkins from AnEpicEducation.com writes:
With only 1% of the Japanese population professing to be Christians, you’d think that there would be little interest in the Christmas holiday. Visit Tokyo in December, however, and you’ll see a city in full holiday mode. There are numerous Christmas markets across the city, replete with carolers, German pastries and mulled wine.
Corinne Vail from Reflections Enroute writes:
Tokyo has a cure for the winter darkness, and it’s bright and beautiful. By December the city decorates with lights, and even Christmas trees, with a gusto. These illuminations have become events to take your dates, your kids, your elders for a night on the town. The light shows are often accompanied by music, Christmas market vendors, and have become something everyone looks forward to each and every year.
Businesses have invested time, money, and lots of energy into hiring technical wizards who match the lights to the music. At the Caretta Shiodome, the show begins again every 15 minutes highlighting the theme, which last December was Disney princess songs. The crowds ooh and awe, snapping away photos for their Instagram. There are full tours to take you around to the various illuminations so you don’t have to drive and try and find a parking spot, but taking the metro is quick and easy as well.
Illumination shows are advertised in all online magazines, and the tourist information center can recommend some favorites. Also, every hotel concierge will tell you which ones they prefer. Hang out in Tokyo this December to brighten your wintry spirits.
Jason Jenkins from AnEpicEducation.com writes:
Where Japan excels most in the Christmas spirit is in illuminations. All across the city, various neighborhoods, shopping malls, and urban centers have decked their halls with millions of LED lights. Sure, there are Christmas trees, ice-skating and the occasional Santa Claus here and there, but one of our family’s favorite things to do each December is to check out the Christmas illuminations.
Roppongi Hills usually has great lights, as does the riverside near Naka-Meguro, which in years past went electric blue. The Shiodome area near the Caretta Building usually goes all-out, with light shows every 15 minutes set to musical accompaniment. Our favorite, however, are the lights around Tokyo Dome City, next to the stadium. They’re a little less modern in years past, but bright enough for great nighttime pics, and then we can ride the carousel in the amusement area next door.
With MariCar you can dress up in costume and drive through the streets of Tokyo like you were in Super Mario Kart (except you can’t through banana peels and there is real traffic). If this sounds like a silly thing to do you are right. But it was also laugh out loud fun and the favorite activity that my family did. People wave at you like you are a celebrity. It is a 2-hour drive. Watch this (sped up) video for more info:
We did this in early December and it was not too cold to do, but I do have these suggestions:
- Drive on a Sunday. Traffic will be lighter and there will be more kids and tourists on the streets who will delight in seeing you and wave.
- Wear an extra layer like a sweatshirt below your costume to stay warm.
- Bring your smartphone as you will want to take photos when you are stopped safely at a traffic light. There is a pouch where you can store your phone.
- Wear gloves that let you operate a smartphone. Your hands will get cold.
- Consider wearing goggles. They will also help your costume hood stay on.
- Consider renting a Go Pro or bringing your own if you want to have videos of your drive. See my video for what you will get.
Mori Digital Art Museum
The Mori Digital Art Museum is fun at any time of year but it is definitely something to keep in mind if you have a day when you need an indoor activity, especially a weekday when the lines are shorter.
The museum is located on Odaiba, an island in Tokyo’s harbor. It is difficult to describe what the museum is because it is not like any art museum I have ever seen. If the museum has it a motto it is “please touch”. You walk through room-size art displays where you can interact with the art. You can stand in a digital waterfall and watch it redirect around you. If you step on the projection of a salamander on the ground you will squish it. You can even draw your own fish and then watch it come to life and swim along the walls.
Edo Tokyo Museum
If you have a day where the weather is not great for outdoor activities and you are a fan of history then I recommend a visit to the Ed Tokyo Museum next to Ryogoku station that shows what Tokyo was like in the time of the Shogunate and how it has changed over time. There are models of what the old palace looked like as well as recreations of the Nihonbashi Bridge, a kabuki theatre and the first western-style houses which were built in the heart of the city.
We took advantage of a free tour given by one of the docents and it was amazing. We got much more out of our visit following our knowledgable guide around the place.
I have found deals as much as 50% off hotel rooms in Tokyo in winter. They get more crowds in the summer and frankly I will take the December weather over the August weather. On our latest trip we have hotel rooms in December for around $115 for a double and in late November a 5 person room at a hostel for about $43 a person. That’s not cheap, but it is cheaper than a lot of major metropolitan cities.