This article originally featured in the December 2019 issue of Connect.

Hazel Reilly (Tottori)

There are any number of reasons why you might feel low as the winter approaches. It can be a combination of things; such as getting to grips with the job, learning how to navigate a new life, social scene and identity. It doesn’t help that many international residents come from warmer (and better insulated) countries and the sheer cold can come as a nasty surprise. For first-year JETs, there is the additional brunt of culture shock sinking in, which can be overwhelming. The dip often coincides with the colder weather and test season, meaning more downtime at work and more time to dwell on everything.

There’s no reason to feel helpless as there’s plenty you can do to improve your situation. Here’s a list of hints and tips to keep your mental health in good shape throughout the winter.

Get Enough Sunlight

Many people find that getting enough natural sunlight is important for maintaining good mental health. The easiest way to do this is just to get out and go for a walk or a jog when it’s sunny outside. If that’s not possible, one other solution is to buy a light therapy lamp. These basically shine a super bright light that helps to ward off SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Some people find it helpful to turn it on for 30 minutes in the morning (when the darkness can be particularly gloomy) to help them get ready for the day.

There are many available but perhaps the easiest place to buy them is through Amazon. (1) They generally cost between 4000 and 7000 yen and can be used throughout the year.

Keep Connected

Photo: Sugarman Joe on Unsplash

Even when it’s cold and miserable outside, don’t use the weather as an excuse to become a hermit. Stay connected to others. Organize a night in with movies and popcorn, or go to the gym together. Is there anywhere in particular you want to visit? Buy that train ticket with your friend and trek out to see it. Just giving yourself the opportunity to let go and have some fun is so important to warding off the winter blues.

At the same time, be careful about too many late nights involving alcohol. Don’t feel bad about saying no if you feel overwhelmed with everything on your plate. Find the balance that works for you between staying in and getting out there.

Lean In

It’s no secret that it’s winter when culture shock begins to hit hardest. This is when it’s most tempting to immerse yourself in everything from your home country (and that’s OK, to an extent, it’s all about balance) and swear off everything about Japan. “Why did I even come here?” you might wail to yourself. But this is when you need to do the exact opposite and take the chance to immerse yourself in your adopted culture. Lean in to everything Japanese. Find out where all the events are taking place. Is there a Japanese class you can attend at your local international exchange foundation? Organize a study session with some friends. Is there anything about Japanese traditional culture that you’re curious about? Why not try your hand at cooking your favourite new recipe? Ask around. You never know who might have a tea ceremony teacher or be a veritable master of calligraphy and willing to teach you.


At a time when loneliness becomes a problem for many people, it can be helpful to do something for others. This is when volunteering can be a great idea. Ashinaga (2) works with orphaned children and offers volunteering opportunities all year. Also, For Empowering Women (FEW) (3) has a directory of different volunteering opportunities that range from writing, editing and translating to teaching and fundraising. Hands On Tokyo (4) also lists opportunities for those with a range of skills. So, if you’re a bit down and disconnected, why not try putting your time and skills to good use?

Take Care of Yourself

Resist the temptation to turn to the nearest conbini for fami-chiki and Strong Zero. (or indulge moderately and responsibly). Eat enough vegetables. As I said before, lay off the booze. Hit the gym or try to fit in an early evening walk. It’ll do wonders for your sense of wellbeing. Get enough rest and give yourself the chance to unwind in the evening. Learn to say no if you find that your schedule is too full and take time to look after your mental health if you feel yourself becoming frazzled. I find it particularly nice to light some incense and run a warm bath before going to bed. Maybe you would benefit getting absorbed in a great podcast. Many people also swear by journaling.

Reach Out to Someone

There is absolutely nothing shameful about reaching out to others or talking to a professional if you’re struggling with difficult feelings. I repeat. There is nothing shameful whatsoever with talking to others about your feelings, if you feel like you can’t cope on your own. Who is there?

If you’re a JET, you can talk to the AJET Peer Support Group (PSG). (5)This helpline is available at at 050-5534-5566 (you can also voice call via Skype at AJETPSG). This line is open every night of the year, from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m..

If you’re not a JET, there’s the TELL lifeline and the TELL chat service. (6) The lifeline is available at 03-5774-0992 from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. If you need to talk to somebody at the weekend, there is a chat service that operates from 10:.30 p.m. to -2 a.m. every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night.

Reach Out to a Professional 

If you think talking to someone, face to face, might help, then you could try reaching out to a professional counselor. TELL (who I’ve mentioned above) operates a counseling service that is available through Skype. For inquiries, contact the help desk at 03-4550-1146.

For non-TELL related counseling, please use the database provided by International Mental Health Professionals Japan. (7)This has a list of vetted, licensed professional counselors who you can trust.

Remember to Have Fun


Hazel Reilly is a second -year ALT, living in Tottori prefecture who loves crafting, watercolours and discovering new places on her bike. Can often be seen at local festivals, sporting a colourful yukata.

Featured Photo: Alec Douglas on Unsplash