The end of the calendar year sees such seasonal highlights as wide-spread winter illuminations, the start of the ski season and often the first snowfall. Weather ranges from autumnal cool to proper winter cold. Japan's oshogatsu holiday season comes at the end of the month with Christmas being more of a token event. Crisp, clear winter skies make mountain vistas pop against azure backgrounds with everything seeming that little bit extra special at year's end.
Winter weather conditions vary greatly throughout Japan. As you might expect, southerly locations like Kyushu are warmer throughout the year than Hokkaido . Mountainous areas begin to get snow in late autumn and the thermometer may dip below zero in colder places like Nagano and Niigata . Sunny days in Tokyo can feel warm, but Kyoto gets surprisingly cold.
Originally a Western import, Christmas is celebrated in Japan, but is much different than the family-oriented holiday in English speaking countries. Decorations are everywhere but few presents are exchanged. Christmas turkey is unheard of, with a Yuletide trip to KFC being the preferred practice. Couples go out for romantic dinners rather than spending time with family and Christmas cake is unrecognizable. Glitzy urban areas in the capital like Ginza and the Marunouchi area around Tokyo Station are prime spots for fancy dinners and festive lights.
New Year's Eve and the first few days of the new year are the more important holiday for Japanese. While most visitors don't get to experience it in a family setting, you can visit shrines to see the new year in like a local. Many hold events and prepare warm sake, toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles), and pork soup for visitors.
As with fireworks, Japan excels at making lavish light displays in the wintertime. Many start in mid-November and continue through the winter adding a certain frisson to chilly city nights.
You'll find major displays all over Tokyo and, if you have time, you can even take the Yamanote Line around the city to see a few of them. A short walk from Shimbashi Station, the Shiodome Light Display runs from November 16 to February. The Midtown Christmas event near Roppongi Station has a shorter run from November 15 to December 25.
Other big events around Japan include: the Sagamiko Illumillion in Kanagawa ; the Sendai Pageant of Starlight (12/8 to 12/31); The Ashikaga Flower Fantasy in Tochigi ; the Nabana no Sato Winter Illumination in Mie and the Osaka Hikari Renaissance (12/14 to 12/25). Special mention also goes to the Kobe Luminaire whose impressive display commemorates the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 (12/8 to 12/17).
While heavy snowfalls generally don't arrive until the end of the month, most popular ski resorts are up and running by mid-December. When snowfall is scarce early in the season, resorts use artificial snow to compensate. Hokkaido's big resorts may open as early as the end of November.
Hakuba and Shiga Kogen in Nagano are both popular spots for a ski holiday as are Echigo-Yuzawa and Myoko in Niigata . Zao Onsen and Appi Kogen are good choices farther north. Be sure to research opening dates online when planning a trip as they vary from year to year.
Many of Japan's ski resorts double as hot spring resorts, or at least have a selection of onsen bathing spots nearby. Worth a visit for the baths in their own right, they offer pleasurable post-ski relaxation or a viable alternative to skiing and snowboarding.
One surefire way to beat the winter chills is a trip to Ramen Expo in Osaka . Held on four weekends through the month, the event charges no admission fee and has some 40 noodle vendors to choose from. Over in Kobe , the Nankinmachi Lantern Festival in Chinatown runs from early to late December with plentiful colors and flavors drawing crowds.
One of the more unusual and distinctive festivals is the Namahage Festival held on New Year's Eve in Oga City, Akita Prefecture . Performers dressed as namahage (demonic boogeymen of Japanese folklore) dance and glower to the delight of crowds. More traditional New Year's Eve celebrations and parties can be found at bars and clubs in the big cities.