December-January in Japan
August 26, 2014 2:57 PM   Subscribe

We're going to Japan! From December 25-January 15th, to be precise, and are overwhelmed with the possibilities! Where should we go?

We are currently looking at staying roughly within this area of central Japan. A few days in Tokyo and a few days in Kyoto are a definite, but we're not sure where else we'd like to go. I've been to Japan once previously, and am struggling not to just repeat all of my previous destinations (Tokyo, Koyasan, Magome, Nagoya, Kyoto), as I'd like to see new stuff. We mmmmight head further south-and-west, for the right place.

We're planning on staying in Tokyo first and waiting until after the New Year to leave, on the assumption that more things will be open during the NY holidays in a giant city than in a smaller city or town. Also, we are not particularly athletically inclined, so strenuous hikes and skiing aren't appealing. (In fact, one of the major reasons we picked this trip was to eat our way through Japan, so any fantastic restaurants that we shouldn't miss would be appreciated.)

I have seen this previous AskMe.

So: given those circumstances, where should we go besides Tokyo and Kyoto?
posted by telophase to Travel & Transportation around Japan (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Nara, just a short hop from Kyoto, is lovely. Read about it. Simple side trip from Kyoto.
posted by JimN2TAW at 3:40 PM on August 26, 2014

I went to Shikoku over Christmas one year and it was pretty fun. In Kagawa you can have Sanuki Udon. In Kochi you can have katsuo (my fav fish). In Matsuyama you can have mikans(?) (I actually ended up having some chicken sashimi in Matsuyama. Not sure if it was a speciality but it wasn't something I had seen before). There are natural attractions like the tidepools at Naruto, the Shimato river or Iya valley. There is also a penis shrine in Uwajima.

That being said, you could probably pick one or two metropolitan areas and easily spend all your time there, after all there are only so many restaurants you can go to in a day.

I also note that you don't mention Osaka and Kobe as destinations you have previously visited. Lots of good food and things to do in both places and they will be open over New Years.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 4:00 PM on August 26, 2014

Spent a week between Takayama, Maze, and Kanazawa and it was the highlight of a month-long Japan trip.

Takayama is absolutely worth two or three days. Great food, architecture, plenty to do, relaxed. Loved it.

Close to Takayama is Shirakawa-go (and neighbouring villages) – we didn't do this but have friends who enjoyed staying a night in the old farmhouses and cooking in the irori.

Maze is a very small mountain village in the middle of nowhere, about an hour out from Takayama via an uphill local train. We learned about it from this article and everything about it and the Maruhachi ryokan was amazing. Completely rural with some very low-stakes local walks. A regional speciality is the sweet and delicious Ayu fish, which the Maruhachi ryokan incorporates into several of their dishes.

Kanazawa was my favourite non-Tokyo/Kyoto city. It's a bit dusty, a bit dicey, full of character. Lots of fun at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art and nearby park. We accidentally walked into a magician's bar one evening, where you pay a cover charge and order drinks while a magician named Rui does tricks for you.

I recommend renting a car in Kanazawa and travelling up the Noto Peninsula, which is known for its seafood and magnificent coastlines. We drove on Chirihama Beach (literally on it, the sand is hardened like a road) and it was magic. The beach takes a long time to recede into the water and you can walk what feels like 100 feet or more into the ocean before it covers your belly.

We're returning to Takayama soon and will be chilling out in nearby Gero for two nights. It's not a beauty but full of onsen. They also have an assemblage of gasshozukuri farmhouses (in the form of an open-air museum) for those who haven't made it to Shirakawa-go. I like small, specific museums and am excited to go to the Gero Museum of the Hot Springs.

I'm sure you know this already but if you want to eat as well as possible then search chowhound + wherever you are. It always works. Have fun.
posted by timshel at 4:09 PM on August 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Figure out your plans for Jan1-Jan3 or so. Its dead there those days. Like "no people in Shibuya Crossing" dead on New Years Day. We had to eat dinner at a 7-11 on 1/1 because we were staying in an AirBnB in Nakameguro.

I could do just Tokyo and Kyoto for 20 days, but I also loved Kanazawa. Nara is pretty cool. We did three days in Kyoto, are pretty fast at seeing sights and aren't temple fanatics by any stretch of the imagination and we all agreed we really didn't do it justice. Tokyo is awesome, but I don't think you'd leave thinking "oh we missed these sights" like you can with Kyoto.

The train ride from Nagano to Joetsu on the way to Kanazawa was amazing if huge snow drifts enthrall you.
posted by JPD at 4:40 PM on August 26, 2014

Also came here to mention things will be closed on New Years Day and afterwards. But I've been there then and as JPD indicates, the konbini c-stores will be open, so you won't starve. (And prepare to be amazed at how the foods are better which you'll find inside of them -- not just the junk food like at an American 7-11.)
posted by Rash at 5:09 PM on August 26, 2014

Tokyo will be a ghost town in the several days around New Years. Yes, the conbini will be open, but almost everything else will be closed up tight (except for the shrines on NYE).

Have you thought about taking the Shinkansen to Hiroshima for New Years? The Hiroshima Peace Museum there is amazing. The museum is closed 12/29-1/1, but there is an incredible celebration on Miyajima/Itsukushima on New Year's eve (a very short ferry ride from Hiroshima--but if you want to stay on the island, there are ryokans and cabins available. They fill up fast though, so book a.s.a.p.). I had an incredible time there, stayed in Hiroshima (walked around looking at the holiday light displays in the evening and did a self-guided kind of tour of the city by trolley) and on NYE took the ferry to the island for the Chinkasai Fire Festival. It's a huge fire-themed party with food stalls and entertainment. The shops were also open, and I did lots of browsing on the island itself. It is a beautiful place and I would return there in a heartbeat!
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 9:39 PM on August 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

That's the same time of year we went to Japan, though it was a few years ago. Literally the only thing that was closed that we wanted to do was one imperial palace site, and in our defense, the "Closed" sign was surrounded by confused Japanese tourists too. Other than that, I don't remember the closings being anywhere near as inconvenient as everyone said they would be.

We stayed in a business hotel in Kyoto on NYE to avoid surcharges, and then went to Fushimi Inari on New Year's Day. If I'd known how many people go there on New Year's Day, I wouldn't have gone, but it was awesome anyway.

Other than the places you've mentioned, we went to Kurashiki, which is just west of the area you're looking at. Lovely little place, and a good stopover between Osaka/Kyoto and Hiroshima.

If you happen to also be a fan of Alphonse Mucha and/or Yosano Akiko, there is a little museum for both of them just across from Sakai Station in the Osaka area. They have some original Mucha stuff, which was a thrill for me.

Also, if you didn't go to the Ghibli museum before, it's just a day trip from Tokyo. Book in advance!

Have fun!
posted by wintersweet at 9:49 PM on August 26, 2014

It's years since I've been to Japan so no specific recommendations, but I really enjoyed this book about food around Japan, so you might get some ideas for foods to try or destinations that are worth it just for the food: Sushi and Beyond.
posted by kadia_a at 11:25 PM on August 26, 2014

For the end of the year, I highly recommend being near a big city. On 31 December, people head to nearby temples, eat festival food, and make a huge line to make wishes for the coming year. Should you feel so inclined, join the people in line and do what they do (whether or not it varies regionally I don't know, but where I've done this, you throw a coin into the temple, clap your hands slowly a few times, then ring the long rope for a bell.) At a smaller town you will get a community feeling, and at a bigger city it's a fun, almost party, atmosphere.

Definitely be in a big city for 1 January. Get up early in the morning and stake out a place near/above a big department store like Seibu. Watch the normally orderly population trample each other to get into stores for the sales. At New Years every store prepares a "fukubukoro" or lucky bag. At different price ranges and different types of items, you get a grab bag of products at a good price. People bus in from the countryside to do this!

Also, skiing. You have enough time to go up to Hokkaido, but you can also go in Fukushima prefecture or Gunma.
posted by whatzit at 1:08 AM on August 27, 2014

If you've been before, you've probably seen a lot of places, but never at that particular time of year. It's good because December isn't good for general touristing (too cold) but great for seasonal events.

You should go to Kyoto for Coming of Age day (Seijin no Hi) on the 12th of January 2015. It's one of the best times to be in Kyoto. Millions of beautifully dressed up 20 year olds. If you can't go to Kyoto for that time, go to Tokyo, especially Meiji-jingu. Just be in a big city for that one day.

For temple visits, personally I would avoid Tokyo for the time around New Year, it's busy and not that interesting. Go to a smaller town or smaller towns around Tokyo. Narita is a great place to go to see New Year festivities. Or Nakayama or Shibamata. All are within 40 minutes of Tokyo. Hop on the Keisei from Nippori and get off at pretty much any small town, you'll find something great.

The fukubukuro sales are nice to see. If you want to actually buy one, you'll have to join the very long queue. I've been to the one in Nihonbashi, in the big department store, but Ginza is probably the best for that.

December 25 is the traditional day to go to dinner with your partner. You won't be able to get a dinner booking in most places. Go to some department stores to catch the end of the Christmas decorations, and go to Ginza for the Christmas tree outside Mikimoto and the lights (and the amazing Christmas cards in Ito-Ya). On the 26th it's all gone.

Since you want to do something new, winter is a great time to go to mountain hot springs, especially ones with outdoor baths. And see the snow monkeys in Jigokudani.
posted by nevan at 1:39 AM on August 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

My New Yearses were spent in Kobe and in Chichibu (Saitama). Kobe is awesome anytime, but for New Years you had everything in big city portions without being overwhelming. I love Kobe.
posted by whatzit at 2:01 AM on August 29, 2014

Thank you all! While we're still planning the rest of the trip out, the idea of drunk people setting each other on fire* is very appealing, so we've booked a room in Hiroshima and are planning to spend New Year's Eve on Miyajima for the fire festival.

* I have no idea if this will actually happen; I'm just extrapolating from my knowledge of human nature.
posted by telophase at 12:15 PM on September 26, 2014

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