Decembering in Japan for Non-Skier
October 10, 2018 3:50 PM   Subscribe

I am going to have the opportunity to travel to Japan for 17 days this December (flying back to the states on Christmas Day). I know next to nothing about Japan and am feeling really overwhelmed with figuring out an itinerary. Going to plan for at least 7 days in Tokyo, but what are some other places that would be lovely to check out in winter for someone who doesn't ski or snowboard?

I have the Rough Guide to Japan and the green Michelin guide, but I'm finding it really overwhelming to plan an itinerary from these books. Most of the descriptions are very vague ("lovely temple complex" or "charming people") so I'm hoping that by listing out some of my interests some helpful MeFites can help provide some more detailed suggestions.

Currently thinking of something like: Tokyo > Kyoto > Osaka > Okinawa > Tokyo

- I'm definitely interested in checking out parts of Japan that will be warmer in winter rather than going up north where it will be snowy, unless there is some super cool reason to do so.

- After seeing some of the cheap flights from Tokyo and Osaka to Okinawa I was pretty intrigued at checking out some beaches.

- I also like getting off the beaten track a bit, so when traveling in Europe I often try to save half the trip for some smaller towns or exploring places that aren't necessarily popular with tourists. Like, I'm the type of person who will skip Notre Dame in Paris in favor of going to Saint-Denis because it is less crowded, but just as cool.

- I prefer to have a "homebase" and take day trips from there. I'm not really into slogging to a different city or town every single day, so figure staying in each location for at least 2 or 3 days.

- I'm into nature, hiking and biking, as well as quiet rural places and cute little towns

- I'm also into kitschy sites and oddities that might be found on Atlas Obscura (local landmarks, weird art, funky museums)

- I'm really intrigued at going to some ryokans and onsens but my partner does have tattoos

- I'm into typical hipster stuff (craft beer, fancy coffee, cats, well-designed objects, indie music)

- I looooooove Muji and would be really interested in checking out any stores or shops that have a similar selection of reasonably priced, nifty, practical objects

Is there an equivalent to the U.S. alternative weekly for event listings in Tokyo or around Japan? Any blogs or websites that would be helpful for trip planning?
posted by forkisbetter to Travel & Transportation around Japan (9 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Hello Sandwich has a Tokyo guide that is totally worth it, and you might check and see if Design Sponge has any city guides for Japan.

I prefer to aim low, but this is personal and YMMV - it sounds like a lot for 17 days, but do able. I'd pass on Osaka unless there's something specific you want to see, and instead go to Nikko ( historic village outside Tokyo) or go to Nagano and bathe with the snow monkeys in the outdoor onsen. There's also a really nice day walk between Magome and Tsumago, which should be fine to do that time of year.

Other than Muji, check out Loft and Tokyu Hands!

I'm sure there is some sort of expat English-language listings for most main cities.

I lived in Nagoya, feel free to PM me if you have any questions!
posted by jrobin276 at 5:38 PM on October 10, 2018

For shopping check out Loft, Inobun and Tokyu Hands - these are chains so you'd be able to visit them in multiple cities. In Kyoto you could also visit the OPA and Fuji-Daimaru department stores (really just walk around the Shijo-Kawaramachi area and you'll be fine for shopping).

I don't know what your cold-tolerance is like but it doesn't really get cold in the cities you mentioned in winter. Last time I went to Japan I visited Kanazawa and that was cold and I ended up getting an ultralight down jacket from Uniqlo, but I only needed it while I was in Kanazawa. Also, if you want to see snow then you can always just go to a mountainous area. In Kyoto for example there are temple complexes on mountains that are close to the city but will have snow on them while it is perfectly pleasant in the city itself.

For cute little towns you might enjoy a day trip to Nara. Many of the historical temples and shrines there are in a large park and you can even hike up some of the mountains if you like. If you're getting a rail pass then I would recommend spending a day or two in Hiroshima as well. You could probably spend the night at a Ryokan on Miyajima which is right there.

For what's on in the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe area you can check out Kansai Scene and for bigger events in Kyoto (important festivals and the like) you can check out the Kyoto Visitor's Guide.

Because of the quality of its historical sites and relatively small size you'll likely notice tourists more in Kyoto than elsewhere, but even there they'll cluster at the more famous ones (Kiyomizudera, Kinkakuji, Ginkakuji, Arashiyama, Ryoanji, and Fushimi Inari) leaving a whole lot of the rest fairly quiet.

In my mind the standard Japan tour junket would be to spend most of your time in Tokyo and do a couple of days in Kyoto so if you spend a decent chunk of time anywhere else you're already somewhat off the beaten path. Whether that's Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, Fukuoka or some other big city you'll easily have more things to do than time to do them in. One thing I would note is that outside of Tokyo and the biggest tourist attractions you'll likely have a hard time finding people who can speak English. All signs relating to transport will have English on them so you'll be able to get around and most restaurants will have pictorial or English menus but if you have specific questions you will be out of luck. Maybe things like Google Translate have made this easier to deal with now, I don't know, but if you are planning on spending a lot of time outside of Tokyo its something to keep in mind.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:44 PM on October 10, 2018

A day trip from Tokyo you might like is Takao. It's about an hour out of Tokyo, and well known for good hiking. There's a chairlift or cable car up to a temple on the mountain. There's a quirky Trick Art museum that's got some great selfie bait. And then take the bus from the train station to the most AMAZING restaurant Ukai Toriyama. It's a luxury dining experience in the most beautiful setting but surprisingly affordable. I make it a point to take people here, and they always say it's a highlight of the trip.
posted by Caravantea at 6:50 PM on October 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh, and definitely hit a hot spring somewhere! If you can find an outdoor one, when it's snowing??? Heaven!
posted by Caravantea at 6:51 PM on October 10, 2018

time out has an English version for tokyo
posted by brujita at 9:16 PM on October 10, 2018

If you do end up in Kansai, swing by Kobe for the Christmas illumination. And definitely work in a mountain onsen. Fujikawaguchiko is quiet in winter and lovely for an overnight trip from Tokyo, some fantastic art museums, great nature, and then you look up anywhere in town and there's this... thing looming over everything.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 10:10 PM on October 10, 2018

If I'm permitted to self-link, a website I work on called Where In Tokyo focuses on the artsy and creative sides of Tokyo - art galleries, architecture, quirky museums, jazz cafes - as well as anime and pop culture (and some cat cafes).

Craft Beer Bars Japan has an emphasis on accessible craft-beer bars with good food and atmosphere, mostly in the Tokyo area and Kansai.

As for design-oriented stores, I would heartily recommend the Kitte complex in Marunouchi, Tokyo, which has at least half a dozen design stores, including one that showcases past winners of the Good Design Award. Also in Tokyo, check out Koncent (Kuramae), and the better-than-it-sounds Souvenir From Tokyo (Nogizaka).
posted by Umami Dearest at 10:43 PM on October 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Japan-Guide has been around since the 1990s and is still a decent website for thinking about itineraries and where to go and what to do. The forums are pretty quiet (most of the people post on reddit's Japan Travel) but has some old and useful information.

You may want to watch Begin Japanology about stationery. If you search for it in youtube, you'll find similar videos.

Although you may not want to change your itinerary too much, Fukuoka is further south and a very nice place. I've heard Oita (home of many hot springs) is kind of tacky in a nice way.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 6:09 AM on October 11, 2018

For hipster stuff in Tokyo, check out Shimokitazawa and Koenji (lots of record shops, vintage stores, cafes). In Osaka, Nakazakicho near Umeda is really fun district with smaller shops.

For concert listings in Tokyo I use Tokyo Gig Guide and Tokyo Dross, but even those just list selected shows of the dozens going on each night. Smaller clubs only list their shows a month or less in advance, so you can't plan too far ahead for concerts. What I do is wait until a few weeks before my trip, check the concert calendars for a hundred spots in Tokyo listed on the Gig Guide pages and go to YouTube to listen to as many bands as I can; I usually find something amazing in a tiny club where they're shocked to see a Western tourist.
posted by Gortuk at 9:04 AM on October 11, 2018

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