The Best Winter Activities in Tokyo on a Budget
It may not have the world-class skiing of Hokkaido, or the picturesque snowcapped onsen of Nagano, but Tokyo is in no short supply of budget-friendly activities for any winter wanderer. The temperature is dropping, but my favorite Tokyo winter pastimes will keep your spirits high and your wallet cozy. Let’s dive in.
1. Tokyo Metro Underground Mysteries
Now in its fourth year, Tokyo Metro Underground Mysteries is a city-wide scavenger hunt that challenges players to uncover clues scattered throughout Tokyo in order to solve its complex puzzles. Not only is it an entertaining way to spend the day, but it’s a great excuse to explore parts of the city you may not otherwise have thought to visit. Come prepared for a full day, however. Working with a friend, the mystery took us nearly seven hours to complete (dinner and frustration breaks included).
Puzzle kits cost ¥2,160 including the necessary 24-hour metro pass. English language versions can be purchased every weekend at Shinjuku or Ueno station, now through January 31st.
Sure, it’s devoid of the familiar religious undertones, and the traditional dinner is not what you’d expect, but Japanese and Western mentalities seem to agree on at least one thing; Christmas lights are awesome. Not one to be outdone in the world of shiny things and electronics, Tokyo takes its Christmas light displays, dubbed “Illuminations”, to the next level each year. Rather than simply decorating individual streets, entire neighborhoods are adorned in lights, each representing a unique theme.
Photography credit to Kakidai on Wikimedia Commons
My favorite illumination is the Tokyo Midtown Starlight Garden (as seen in the photo above). This year, the color of the lights changes each day of the week to represent a different planet in our solar system. The best part of all? It’s completely free. Be sure to bring your camera to capture these dazzling displays!
3. Eat Like the Locals
When most people think of Japanese food, their minds will instinctively jump to sushi. While not wrong, Japanese cuisine understands that the best way to beat back the winter chill is with a hot meal. A favorite amongst locals is nabe; a traditional hot pot dish with hearty vegetables and meats in a savory broth, typically cooked right at the table.
After eating, and once only the broth remains, udon noodles are added to the pot to soak up all of the rich, delicious flavors. Because as we all know, the only thing better than eating one gigantic meal is eating another immediately after.
One type of nabe, known as chankonabe, is particularly loved by sumo wrestlers and is their meal of choice when packing on the pounds during training. This calorie-rich meal is essentially the all-you-can-eat buffet of soup. You will undoubtedly find many different versions in restaurants throughout the city, as there is no one true recipe for this dish. In a nutshell, take whatever sounds tasty to you, throw it in the pot, and ta-da; you have chankonabe!
4. Soak in the Local Onsen
There is perhaps no better way to spend a dreary winter afternoon than by soaking in the warm embrace of an onsen. While you may not be treated to the scenic views of their countryside counterparts, Tokyo onsen are still a welcome oasis amidst a frozen concrete jungle. For those looking for a bit of extra pampering as well, many onsen offer spa services such as massages and skincare treatments as well.
Photo credit to Oedo-Onsen
A word of caution to my fellow tattooed travelers, however. Many onsen will deny entry to people with tattoos, as they are still quite synonymous with gang culture in Japan. Policies vary at each establishment, but some may allow you to enter as long as the tattoos are covered with. These waterproof tattoo covers or athletic tape have worked for me in the past.
To be on the safe side, always call ahead or check the onsen’s website ahead of time. If you’d rather not take the chance, Jakotsuyu Onsen is one of the few in Tokyo that has no rules against tattoos.
Tokyo is a fantastic city to visit any time of year, and winter is no exception. If you have your own winter activity suggestions you’d like to share with the other readers, email me and I’ll add them to the list!