This article originally featured in the January 2020 issue of Connect.

Community Editor: Clare Braganza (Fukushima)

Winter. Love it or hate it, the season conjures up images of frozen trees, steaming mugs of hot chocolate, and the rattle of my poor car as I struggle to de-ice it before work. This is what I expect of my first winter in Japan, with an added dollop of snow and homes lacking central heating. The icy weather inevitably forces us indoors and tempts us to cancel our weekend plans. I would spend my first Christmas in Japan hibernating, except that my boyfriend is about to hop on a plane, fly across northern Europe and Russia, and join me in snowy Fukushima. Commence a scramble of Google searches about nearby ski slopes, onsen, and ice rinks, and I’ve found a few winter date ideas to keep us busy. Even if you don’t have a partner, try these with your friends! We all need a bit of love and warmth in these freezing months.

Hit the Slopes

Number one on my list is taking advantage of Japan’s range of ski slopes. Fukushima in particular has world-renowned powder snow, with resorts that offer gear rental, ski schools, and a variety of ski passes. If you or your partner have never skied or snowboarded before, enroll in a ski school. Even if your instructor doesn’t speak English, skiing is a physical sport and much can be taught through actions and the odd key word. More popular resorts, like Zao in Yamagata or the slopes of Hokkaido, do offer English-speaking instructors. I’ve decided to teach my boyfriend on the baby slopes, which will probably end with him sprawled in the snow as I look on, laughing—how all couple outings should go. Returning to Yamagata, I highly recommend seeing Zao’s snow monsters, or juhyo. Formed from snow-covered trees frozen stiff by the wind, these peak around mid-February. You can always reach the snow monsters via a gondola if you’d prefer not to send yourself hurtling down a slope.

Then Hit the Onsen

What’s better than gliding down a mountain in good company? The onsen afterwards! Perfect for aching muscles and numb fingers. Most onsen nowadays are gender segregated, so I decided to treat us with a night at a ryokan with our own private onsen. A traditional breakfast and dinner made from local ingredients are normally included—the perfect opportunity to try a type of Japanese cuisine that is often too expensive to make at home or find in Sukiya. The onsen we chose is in Higashiyama, just outside the samurai castle town of Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima-ken. From mid-December onwards, candles are lit throughout the snow-covered onsen town, illuminating the ryokan like the setting of a Ghibli film. If you want a magical winter experience, a night here would not disappoint.

Fulfilling the Cliché

In the West, Christmas is a time for family and New Year is the time for friends. Japan celebrates these holidays in the opposite way. Christmas here is for couples and cosy dates with friends, so I’ve decided to take my boyfriend on the most clichéd romantic outing: an evening under the winter illuminations. Sendai in Miyagi-ken is currently lit up with brilliant lights, and also hosts an ice rink and many shops not found in my small-town placement (the Pokemon store and Shonen Jump Shop are even next to each other!) Combine them all, plus a hearty dinner of steaming ramen or soup, and you have the perfect date night with friends and partners alike. My poor boyfriend has also never ice-skated before, so he has to settle with me and my roller-blading skills as his instructor. How a 5-foot-5-inch woman will hold up a 6-foot-2-inch man with his arms windmilling everywhere has yet to be seen. Either way, it should make for another memorable outing.

Greeting the New Year

January, unfortunately, means a return to normal working life. But before that, we get to celebrate the New Year. In England, we stay up with glasses of prosecco, join hands to sing “Auld Lang Syne” when the clock strikes midnight, then wake the next morning with a hangover. In Japan, people don’t stay up late—they get up early. At dawn on New Year’s Day, they visit their local shrine. This could not be more different from my usual celebrations, but I’ve decided to embrace it. There are many beautiful shrines in my local area, as I’m sure there are around yours. We plan to join the neighbourhood as they pray for good health and watch the first sunrise of 2020.

I hope this has inspired you to spend time with the important people in your life this winter. Whether with family, friends or partners, I can think of nothing better than enjoying this season with them. The cold days won’t last forever. As Percy Bysshe Shelley said in “Ode to the West Wind,” “O, wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

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Clare is a first-year JET who is about to spend her first Christmas away from home. Although she’ll miss the mince pies and Yorkshire puddings of an English Christmas, she’s looking forward to seeing actual snow and building lots of snowmen. When not editing CONNECT’s Community section, she can be found reading, writing, and updating a blog you’ll find here.