Beginning with the New Year holidays, January is one of the colder months on the calendar. A spike in travel during the holiday season can make it difficult to book tickets and accomodations early in the month. It is, however, a good time to experience many aspects of Japanese culture with shrine visits and other events open to the public. It's also a great time for winter sports and relaxing hot spring stays.
Despite it being a family oriented-holiday by nature, there are ways you can enjoy Japanese New Year as a visitor. Hatsumode is the practice of visiting shrines at the very beginning of the year. Even if your interest is purely secular, the festive atmosphere and food stalls make such events worth a look.
One shrine with an especially colorful New Year celebration is Itsukushima-jinja in Miyajima , Hiroshima . From January 1 through 5, traditional dance performances are held attracting large crowds. For the full New Year experience, you can travel to the island on December 31 to take in the Chinkasai Fire Festival then stay up to catch the first sunrise on the following day.
Among the significant “firsts” of the New Year, hatsuuri (or “first sale”) commands special prominence in big cities. Scores of people line up in front of department stores and other shops with the hope of snagging a major deal on a desired product. One of the more unique practices is that of the fukubukuro, an opaque bag packed with several random items for a total value well beyond their individual prices.
From either January 1 or 2, stores open their doors to eager shoppers at major Tokyo nerve centers like Ginza, Shibuya , Harajuku , and Aoyama. Ginza offers upscale fare while Shibuya caters to a younger crowd. Check individual store opening schedules to stand a chance of snagging one of the best bargains.
Following hot on the heels of New Year, Japan celebrates Coming of Age Day at city halls and public spaces around the country on the second Monday of the month. As with other family-oriented holidays, it's not something you can participate in directly, but you may spot groups of exotically coiffured twenty year old women moving between social engagements in expensive kimono. And there are some places where the event takes on a more public dimension.
Held on January 14 every year, the Omato Taikai archery tournament at Kyoto's Sanjusangendo honors the centuries old tradition of firing arrows, the length of the temple's main hall. More than 2000 practitioners of kyudo—many of them 20 year old women—gather at the hall clad in a wide array of colorful kimono. Whether or not you're familiar with the art, the dedication and pageantry on display makes for quite a spectacle.
January is peak ski season with great winter sport options from beginning to end. Where early December may suffer from limited snowfall and late February may already be warming up in some places, January generally has the driest and highest quality snow.
If winter sports are a priority, consider staying at a major resort location in Hokkaido , Nagano , or Niigata . Hokkaido benefits from a long season, with high quality powder and a wide range of off piste skiing to choose from. Those based in Tokyo may wish to explore the resorts more conveniently located in the Northern Japan Alps and Myoko range .