So you’ve finally landed in your dream city, Tokyo. And while everything is amazing and fun … it’s also really cold—cold enough that you don’t feel up to spending all day outside exploring the city. But don’t worry, you don’t have to; there are plenty of things to do in Tokyo that are perfect for the winter season. These are some of my favorites … seven of them, to be exact.
1. Get lost in the Edo Tokyo Museum
The Edo Tokyo Museum is by far my favorite museum in all of Japan. It’s an interactive museum that vividly illustrates the history of Tokyo—known as “Edo” up until 1869—with various models of towns, life-sized reproductions of dwellings, and hands-on exhibits. Admission is ¥600, and is good for a couple of hours of nice, educational fun.
2. Soak in an outdoor onsen or sento
Japan is known for its bathhouse culture and Tokyo is of course no exception. There are a number of onsen, hot springs that use natural water pumped from the earth; and
sento, bathhouses with regular water, occasionally with added minerals, in Tokyo. They range from tiny, local joints with two or three baths, to larger places with themes, saunas, indoor and outdoor baths, and places to relax. Prices usually range from ¥300 to ¥1,500. Options across Tokyo are endless, so if you’re staying at a hotel, ask your front desk for ones nearby.
Bather beware: times are changing, but most onsen and sento still do not allow people with tattoos inside. If you have a tattoo and want to go, you could either try concealing it with a Band-Aid … and if it’s too big to hide, try booking a private bath.
3. Stroll through Asakusa
Asakusa is one of my favorite places in Tokyo, regardless of the season. It’s famous for its temples and shrines, specifically the Sensoji Temple. You can also pick up neat souvenirs, do some shopping, and try old-style street food along the Nakamise-dori street—the long road leading to Sensoji. If you only get the chance to visit one temple in Tokyo, this is the one I recommend: it’s gorgeous during both the daytime and at night, when it’s lit up.
4. Spend the afternoon or night at a manga café
A manga café is a café—sort of—with hundreds of volumes of Japanese comics to read. You pay by the hour and are given a small booth with a reclining chair or a padded floor to lie down on, unlimited soft drinks, and access to an unbelievable variety of manga books. They’re fun to visit, and if you miss your train or need a cheap place to stay, they’re a popular place to spend the night. Basically, heaven for comic book fans.
5. Eat some warm and tasty nabe
You know how some places have culinary specialties that vary season by season? Well, Tokyo is one of those places, and its most famous winter food, nabe, is delicious.
Nabe is a type of Japanese hot pot served on the table in a portable stove, and it comes in all sorts of flavors, with different bases and ingredients. My top three recommendations for nabe are chanko, sukiyaki, and oden.
Chanko is a type of nabe with a dashi or chicken broth base, with large quantities of protein (chicken, fish, tofu, seafood, beef) and vegetables. Chanko is delicious, but be warned: it’s commonly eaten by sumo wrestlers as a weight-gain diet. You can find the dish in the Ryogoku neighborhood of Tokyo, which is also known as “Sumo Town.”
Sukiyaki is a type of nabe with a soy sauce, sugar, and mirin base. Thin slices of beef are slowly cooked alongside tofu and vegetables such as leek, mushrooms, and leafy greens, and is then dipped in a raw egg and eaten.
Oden is a type of nabe commonly sold at food stalls and convenience stores. It has a dashi broth with mustard and a number of common ingredients, such as boiled eggs, radish, konjac, fishcakes, pounded rice cakes, and tofu.
6. Experience an owl café
Owl cafés are one of the new, big attractions in Tokyo. They are cafés where you can pet and hold live owls while chatting with friends, sipping drinks, or munching on owl-themed café foods. It’s a real hoot. Prices, conditions, and species of owl vary depending on the café.
7. Get a view from Tokyo Tower or Skytree
Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree both offer excellent views of the Tokyo skyline. Tokyo Skytree is much taller, newer, and its admission is quite expensive (¥2,060); while Tokyo Tower is older, a bit smaller, and entry is cheaper (¥900). Whichever one you decide on, the thin, clear winter air offers an amazing view of the city.