People who know me well also know that I yearn for the winter months in the way many people pine for hot summer days. And it turns out I’m not as much of an enigma as fellow Aussies would have me believe.
Most people who join our winter cuisine and culture tours (check out our wonderful 10 day ZENBU FUYU tour ) actually share my cool weather cravings – and those who come along, initially doubtful of the temperatures, soon see sense in Japan a la mode and end up solid converts – ready for their next winter adventure!
Here’s a little of what you can expect during winter in Japan:
1. PEACE & QUIET
Yes, it’s true. Although Japanese tourism has peaked in the last few years, and just keeps growing stronger, there is a special moment in each year when there are less folk around – and that, dear travellers, is winter (that’s December to February for those of us residing in the southern hemisphere) or at least part of it.
Fewer folk equal shorter or non-existent queues to venues, easier access to hard to get into restaurants, more (and cheaper ) hotel rooms available, a quieter time in temples and gardens where ideally you should be able to just sit and take it all in… no jostling to look at a view or an artwork in a gallery, less time waiting to make purchases and simply space to breathe.
Over New Year things things slow right down for about a week to 10 days while some family run businesses including restaurants and shops will take a break for travelling to spend time with family members in other parts of Japan – often younger folk travelling to their elders who may live in the countryside or at least on the outer rim of larger cities. Which means that things tend to be a bit quieter in the cities making it the perfect time to just hang out and enjoy the place. Sure dining/shopping options are slightly more limited than normal but there’s still plenty to do, see, eat etc etc. Try staying in a refurbed Machiya or apartment with kitchenette during this time and enjoy playing with local ingredients.
Obviously if you are a skier you are already au fait with the best powder skiing in the world… Yes, Japan’s ski fields are crammed with ski bunnies from around the globe during winter but it’s not THAT kind of snow that I refer to.
Sure – you should feel free to risk breaking your neck if that’s your thing but it’s not really mine (having broken it once already… long story).
It’s the memory of the first time you noticed little white flakes drifting past your face and gradually start to dust your shoulders.You stuck your tongue out, remember? and waited for one to land. You held out your pointer finger, fleshy pad upwards, and as a single flake landed you quickly brought it close – examining it’s icy lace pattern before it evaporated and you did it again. And again.
It’s that silent squeak of freshly fallen snow compacting under your footprints. The way heavier snowfall muffles all other sound – making the world a little more peaceful for a time. It’s the way the stark snow contrasts with the dark wood of Zen temples, traditional shophouses and rustic, slatted homes, against the vermillion of shinto temple gates and irregularly shaped grey stepping stones inside an ethereal garden.
3. SEASONAL STYLE.
The Japanese swap around the colours and styles of many items in their homes or businesses so they suitably represent, or help to beautify, each season.
In winter there’s often a stark white, grey, black shadowy, atmospheric background outdoors to play against and inside darker homes need visual warmth so Kimono colour and style, ceramics, lighting, lacquerware, traditional sweets, flowers/ ikebana, decor items including wall hangings, scrolls, vases, sumi-e paintings and calligraphy works etc are all given much consideration and applied with intention to honour each season and make it sing.
4. THE FOOD
Most Japanese and other smart folk know that winter in Japan offers some of the most incredible foods – particularly seafood which grows fatty in the cold waters – turning certain fish breeds into ‘wagyu of the sea’. Shellfish and crustaceans are at their prime from pristine waters in particular areas and winter root vegetables are at their sweet peak.
Nabe (hotpots) named for the vessel they are cooked in – much like we use the word casserole, soups (mmm tonjiru), slow simmers and noodle dishes feature rich, simmered local pork, beef, chicken, seasonal vegetables and sometimes, the most sublime eggs. Did you know Japan has some of the tastiest eggs in the world?
My top Japanese winter dishes?? why thank you for asking…
In no particular order – here’s (just) 18 of my favourite foods (couldn’t stop at 10..) to enjoy in the Japanese winter :
*Yaki goma doufu -or grilled sesame tofu – a warm, savoury custard- like dish seared on the edges and served with perhaps a drizzle of soy or some freshly grated wasabi or ginger. You have to try it to understand the joy.
*Ankake Soba/udon – freshly made soba or udon noodles in a thickened dashi, lightly seasoned with soy, mirin and a little ginger and loads of freshly chopped green/spring onions/shallots/scallions or whatever you call them in your neck of the woods.. simple, warming and nutritious.
*Ramen noodles in either rich Tonkotsu (thick, very slowly cooked pale pork stock, with pork fat) or a lighter shoyu (soy) or shio (salt) ramen with chicken stock
– a side dish of handmade gyoza (dumplings) with vinegar dipping sauce and a jug of beer are mandatory,
*Nama yuba – freshly made soy milk is simmered at the table, until a skin forms on top – it is then lifted off and dipped into soy before eating – it is creamy, nutty, salty and like nothing you’ve ever tried.
*Kani / Crab – any dish be it hotpot, chawan mushi, warm sushi rice, noodles etc topped with sweet winter crab
*Kare-udon – home-made fat, chewy udon noodles in a thick curry sauce topped with tempura burdock or other winter vegetables
*Okayu or Zosui – slow cooked rice soup with any number of additional inclusions – the combination of snapper and yuzu (fragrant Japanese citrus) is a favourite – I like it nice and thick where the rice is broken down like congee. Sprinkle a little shichimi over the top for a fragrant, spicy kick.
*Ochazuke – hot dashi or tea poured over rice with a variety of topping options from salmon flakes to seaweed and tiny rice crackers
*Buta kakuni – slow simmered pork belly in a sweetened sake, mirin, soy and dashi broth until you can slide a butter knife through it – with a bit of spicy karashi mustard
*Korokke – croquettes – either creamy fresh corn or beef and potato
*Tamagokakegohan or TKG for short – this it the most simple dish – a bowl of hot rice with a raw, lightly beaten very high quality egg, and a special sweetish soy sauce – you can add other toppings like furikake (a mix of small pieces of seaweed, sesame, sometimes dried plum or onion etc for sprinkling)
*Tori Sukiyaki – so… you probably know beef sukiyaki but in Kyoto they do a chicken version and it is very, very good.
*Yuzu – that stunning aromatic Japanese citrus features in many things both savoury and sweet and you can’t help but fall in love with it – on the winter solstice people bath in yuzu filled baths to ward off colds and flu!
*Tonkatsu – perfectly cooked until juicy, golden-fried pork sirloin (preferably) served with cabbage, soup, rice and pickles. And a special savoury sweet dipping sauce.
*Oyakodon – ‘mother and child’ donburi or rice-bowl – chicken simmered with onion and seasoned broth with egg, poured over hot rice in a deep bowl – completely nurturing.
*Ebiimo is a specific type of slightly curved and striped yam/potato ( ebi means prawn – iimo means potato) with the most delicious creamy flavour – it is only available in winter but readily available in Kyoto – some of the best I’ve eaten are cooked in dashi until tender then coated in spiced katakuriko or potato starch and deepfried. Best chips ever!
*Yakiniku – well this, like many of the above dishes, is actually great at any time of the year but sitting in a cosy room around a sizzling tabletop hotplate and cooking a selection of prime and secondary beef cuts at your leisure ( some marinated with zippy ingredients, some plain and simply showcasing the quality of the beef , some with dipping sauces) along side some obligatory veges, a bowl of garlic rice and plenty or shochu – is the perfect antidote to a cold night.
And of course there is the exquisite Kaiseki ryori – formal, mulit-coursed Japanese cuisine that changes dramatically with the seasons. Each dish tells a relevant story, folktale or fascinating tidbit about the particular season and the traditions and celebrations surrounding it.
Only the best quality ingredients are used – Japanese seafood is most sweet and bountiful in winter and it’s also the time to make the most of other delicacies like decadently rich meats – from wagyu to wild boar. New season sake is mandatory of course.
5. THE BOOZE
Aw c’mon – everyone knows that alcohol is a much required winter staple – it helps warm your core. It’s medicinal. Winter in Japan is the perfect for warm mellow sake, smooth Japanese whiskey, a yuzu or plum liqueur hot toddy…, black sugar shochu…
And the bar in our hotel in Kyoto – the fabulous Kyoto Hyatt Regency -makes a mean martini – any way you like it plus some excellent cocktails using Kyoto’s own whiskey and gin !
Pass the Kyo-negroni please… Craft beer has become a bit of a thing in Japan these days too – you’ll find a cute little specialist brewery or beer only bar in just about every big city suburb these days!
Homemade plum wine made in summer needs about 6 months to reach full depth of flavour and guess when that ends up being.. yep … hello plummy winter !
Amazake is a warm sweet, thickened rice drink consumed around the New Year – it’s very low in alcohol but is warming to the core.
And winter is the time when most artisan sake is bottled. Fresh, spritzy, organic ‘namazake’ is what you want to look out for at this time – there’s nothing quite like good quality namazake and you can easily find it around New Year in sake making areas of Japan. I’m getting thirsty…
6. TEA TIME
We all know about Japan’s amazing tea culture but you’re probably instantly thinking ‘green tea’ ? Which of course is lovely in all its forms – however in winter I particularly like to drink Houjicha, roasted green tea and smokey Kyoto style Bancha – Houjicha roasted so deep it tastes smoked – and thick, bright green Koicha (matcha that makes you go zoooooom)
Matcha latte’s are a modern addition to things and I don’t mind them at all, in fact I really love a creamy hot matcha with a bit of white chocolate melted in – Green hot chocky is the way to go! Please don’t judge me… have you tried matcha flavoured sweets by the way? These are from the bakery at the hotel we use in Kyoto for our Zenbu Cuisine and Culture Tours. Very dangerous.
Winter is a great time to experience traditional tea ceremony – there are lots of great places in Kyoto but we love Camellia Tea House in Kyoto for a brief but very enjoyable overview experience when you are short on time. They have opened a new venue which includes garden views – imagine enjoying a private tea ceremony as it snows outside.
7. CAFE LIFE
In recent years Japan has become cool cafe central. There are so many gorgeous spots to keep warm in on a cold day – take a book, a laptop, your headphone and a magazine and just chill with a great coffee and some excellent patisserie… and the beautiful thing is – no-one will move you on. You can linger to your heart’s content.
And – in equally good news – the quality of Coffee has gone through the roof in the last 5 years or so – there’s some magic bean roasting going in Japan these days – particularly in Tokyo and Kyoto.
8. CRISP, CLEAN, COOL AIR
Winter temperatures make it far more pleasant for lots of walking around. There’s less huffing and puffing and perspiring as warmer months which means you don’t get as tired and can fit so much more in if you wish to and there are fewer changes of clothes and a far less frequent need, if at all, to visit the laundromat on holiday. You can basically wear the same outfit for days under a long jacket and no-one would ever know… not that I’d ever do that of course…. And if you are a woman of a certain age you will be blissfully enjoying the cooling effects of winter’s crisp air against your intermittent fire breathing skin. Kyoto is a city surrounded by mountains and bottomless lungfuls of Alpine air making it the perfect town and country escape in one!
9. PLUM BLOSSOMS
Before the cherry blossoms bloom in spring, the plum blossoms provide a rather impressive support act – although very few foreign tourists even visit Japan to see them.
A great place for viewing ‘ume’ blossoms on mass, in their full and glorious beauty, is at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in Kyoto – they have a special plum garden which only opens for a short time from mid February – here’s a link
10. WINTER ROMANCE
No, not what first springs to mind…. I’m talking about the softness of a mohair scarf against your chin, being snug as a bug in your favourite coat and boots, open fires, sipping warm sake, cosy meals. The light and shadows. Blue skies, cool air, snowcapped mountains… That’s romance.
Ok so perhaps a different kind of winter romance is on your agenda … soaking neck deep in a private, open-air hotspring bath overlooking a wild and whipping sea as your partner pours sake into your cedar cup – all the while snow flutters around you – melting as it hits the rising… if that sounds at all appealing then sure.. there’s that too…. 😉
11. WHITE CHRISTMAS
So the Japanese don’t really ‘do’ Christmas – even though you’ll see window displays, lit up trees and decorations strewn about – but it’s just another normal day in Nihon – which means everything is open as normal – so you can simply go to a lovely restaurant or buy food to cook with or go to a lovely cocktail bar… it’s the perfect way to have a small, very personal celebration – avoiding the sometimes harrowing home based festivities. The Japanese see Xmas eve as a bit of a slightly commercial date night opportunity, like Valentines day – so avoid going out that night and arrange a fabulous lunch on the 25th – there are often lovelly Xmas day menus available. More important for the Japanese is the celebration and festivities around New Year – a reflective occasion with particular ceremonies and rituals and foods and a time spent with family.
Australian Delicious Magazine asked me to write about Kyoto in winter for them a few years back – some things in this article are a little outdated but it gives you a little further insight into just how superb it is !
Still not convinced about winter in Japan? Then take a look at our itinerary for our 2019 ZENBU FUYU TOUR – we still have a few spots but bookings close VERY SOON! quick sticks.
Of course if you really don’t do winter – there’s always our spring tour – ZENBU HARU