This month’s J-Festa is all about “Winter in Japan“. Since the announcement of the theme, I’ve been trying to decide what to write about. I lived in the Chubu region of Japan, so I haven’t experienced harsh winters. It snowed a couple of times, but it was light snow that didn’t last long. It was hard to settle on one topic for this month’s post, so in the end I decided to write a personal “top five”. So here goes…
Top 5 things I love about Winter in Japan
Nabe (なべ) is probably the number one winter dish in Japan. Usually translated as “hot-pot”, nabe can consist of just about anything you want to throw in the pot. Nabe is often eaten as a family meal or by small groups of people. It’s common to sit around a table or kotatsu (see below) and share the cooking, which is done on a small portable stove. When the food is ready, everyone helps themselves. To use up the broth at the end, rice is sometimes added. I really enjoyed eating nabe with friends, as it creates a very relaxed atmosphere, and the food is warm and comforting.
A kotatsu (炬燵) is a low heated table, covered by a heavy blanket, with a table top on top. Although this item of furniture dates back to the 14th century, it’s still a very common household item. Houses in Japan don’t often have radiators, so this is a good way to keep warm on those chilly winter nights. Families or groups of friends can sit around the kotatsu while watching TV, chatting, or sharing their dinner. As with the nabe I mentioned above, the kotatsu can create a very cozy, comfortable atmosphere. If I ever design my dream home, it will certainly feature a kotatsu!
A yutanpo (湯たんぽ) is basically a Japanese hot water bottle. However, I can honestly say that my yutanpo was one of the best gifts I ever received in Japan, and I would be lost without it. Why is a yutanpo any better than an English hot water bottle? Well, you can fill it with boiling water directly from the kettle, and it stays warm for ages! Even if you sleep for ten hours, you won’t wake up next to a limp, cold rubber bottle. This hard plastic hot water bottle just seems to retain the heat for hours. In fact, even after 24 hours the bottle is still not cold to the touch. Some people are put off by the hard case, but you can get soft, squashy covers for them, and I have never slept badly with a yutanpo in my bed.
4. Hot drinks in vending machines
Look at the picture above. See how the drinks in the top two rows have blue labels beneath them, and the ones in the bottom row have red labels? That’s because the ones in the bottom row are hot. Yes, vending machines in Japan sell hot cans and bottles of coffee, milk tea, green tea, and other drinks throughout the winter months. It came as a huge surprise to me the first time I discovered this, and I thought it was one of the best things ever! Imagine being a tourist in Japan in winter, not having much money, and really wanting something warm to drink (and hold). For around ￥150 you can find just what you need! I’ll admit, the drinks don’t quite match up to Starbucks, but they do hit the spot.
5. Oshogatsu (New Year)
One of my all-time favourite things about winter in Japan is Oshogatsu (お正月), or New Year. New Year in Japan is the biggest festival, and it’s thought of as a time to clean up and prepare for the coming year. Lots of work goes into the preparation for December 31st: houses are cleaned, food is bought and prepared, shrines are decorated, and much more. Then, on New Year’s Eve, families typically gather at home or go to shrines and temples together. In a complete contrast to the way we usually celebrate New Year in England, New Year in Japan is about families and about starting the year with prayers and wishes (not hangovers and regrets). People tend to visit their local shrine on the first few days of January for hatsumode (初詣), which is when they get rid of their old good luck charms, buy new ones, and make wishes for the year. Shrines get very crowded at this time of year, but it’s still something worth experiencing if you visit Japan. There is usually a festival atmosphere, with street stalls selling food. As with all Japanese festivals, food plays a major part in New Year celebrations. The photo above is of osechi (お節料理), which is prepared before New Year so that cooking doesn’t have to be done over the New Year period. In a way, it’s like British people eating up their Christmas leftovers, except the food is freshly prepared and packaged beautifully. Some families make their own osechi, but many people buy expensive pre-prepared boxes from department stores and supermarkets.
If you’re considering visiting Japan in the winter, I’d recommend it as much as any other time of year. Of course, where you go and when you go will make a big difference to your experience in Japan, but even if you don’t like snow and cold temperatures, there will be a part of Japan that is suitable for you. For more information, why not visit the JNTO website.
Don’t forget to check out the other J-Festa entries this month and, if you also have a blog about Japan, why not join in!