Staying positive: 6 tips for beating the winter blues in Japan

By Liam Carrigan

Recently, I blogged about the key steps that ALTs and other Japan residents can take to keep their house warm and safe in the often harsh winters of central and northern Japan. However, one area that is equally vulnerable but far less discussed during the cold, dark months here is your mental health.

For starters, beginning a new year in Japan — away from your family and loved ones — can be a dark time that is not so different from the stages of culture shock you may have gone through when first arriving.

You may be one of those lucky few who found a lot of local friends soon after you arrived here or you may have happily ensconced yourself in the English teacher bubble. For many new teachers to Japan, however, it’s not that simple — especially if you also have to contend with the often unsociable hours and long commutes that can come with eikaiwa (English conversation school) work.

Your first Christmas here and the blue weeks of January’s post-Christmas hangover, are also times when culture shock can hit hard.

To paraphrase something I once heard in a brilliant scene from a not-so-brilliant movie: “To you, Christmas may be the most important day of your year, but to the Japanese, it was Tuesday.” (That film was "Street Fighter: The Movie," for those who may be wondering about the source of this ancient wisdom… )

This seeming indifference — that a beloved annual cultural holiday is just an ordinary working day for many teachers — can further conspire to darken your mood and set a negative tone for the winter months. However, it’s important to remember as we all return to work for the new year, that this isn’t an intentional slight from your colleagues. Rather, they simply weren’t raised to place as much stock in this holiday period as you were.

In spite of this cultural disparity, with a positive attitude and a bit of courage to step outside your comfort zone, the long Japanese winter can be every bit as enjoyable as anything you will find back home.

Here are five tips to beat the winter blues and make the most of the new opportunities that come after a first holiday season and the cold, wintry months in a new country.

1. It's OK to not be OK

Perhaps the most important thing you can do in the first instance is accept that you are unhappy. There’s no weakness in feeling sad or lonely. More than a third of us will suffer from some form of depression in our lifetime. It’s not a mark of shame to be hidden. Rather, when you overcome it, it makes you stronger. The fact that you endured and came out the other side intact is a badge of honor you should be proud to wear.

I certainly am.

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Two words: on sen.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Think of a London winter and be thankful the sun is out and up before 7.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

What winter blues? The air is crisp and bright, nabe and oden are delicious, there's another 3-day weekend next month and Spring Glorious Spring is just around the corner.

You can choose to be miserable, or you can choose to gather ye them rosebuds while ye may.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

People who suffer the so-called "winter blues" probably have other, more serious mental issues they need to deal with.

-3 ( +3 / -6 )

People who suffer the so-called "winter blues" probably have other, more serious mental issues they need to deal with.

Should read more before making that kind of conclusion.

Typically, the further one is from the equator, the more at risk they are for seasonal depression

The prevalence of seasonal depression is anywhere from 0-10 percent of the population, depending on the geographic region.

The reduced level of sunlight in the fall and winter months may affect an individual’s serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood. Lower levels of serotonin have been shown to be linked to depression. Brain scans have shown that people who had seasonal depression in the winter had higher levels of a serotonin transporter protein that removed serotonin than in individuals who did not have seasonal depression. 

Melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, has been linked to seasonal depression. This hormone, which can affect sleep patterns and mood, is produced at increased levels in the dark. Therefore, when the days are shorter and darker the production of this hormone increases. Melatonin can also affect an individual's circadian rhythm, or "biological clock", resulting in ‘internal clocks’ being out of sync with ‘external clocks’, or the usual sleep/wake rhythms. This can result in some of the symptoms associated with seasonal depression.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

The winter here is a nice vacation from my hometown in eastern Canada. However I could see it being rough for people coming from more tropical regions, or staying in northern Japan. The drafty houses here kind of frustrate me though.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I have mild SAD which only affects me around January-March, particularly February. The way I dealt with it is to exercise such as jogging and going to the gym.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

If you're in Japan suffering from winter blues, culture shock, a craving for authentic taco bell, then just go home. Seriously.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

It doesn't help that people live in the equivalent of rabbit hutches, with regards to insulation.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

What cleo said, except for the nabe and oden. Made my first batch of chili last weekend. Yummy! The dreaded summer humidity is a big downer for me.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

I can’t do the Pollyanna thing. Winter is utter crap.

My wife’s male university friend retired from a top bank at 40 and hasn’t experienced winter in the 5 years since. She tends to mention this in January.

This lifts my spirits no end.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

While it would be wrong to dismiss any mental problems anyone may have, Japan is at a low enough latitude to mean winter days are not that short compared to when most people are actually awake during summer. Winter in much of Japan is also quite sunny. The news has been saying it has not rained in Tokyo for weeks! That is a long way from the UK where you can go for seven to ten days without seeing the sun at all.

If you are here for life, build your own house and you'll be plenty warm. The Japan Sea side is also very snowy and worth visiting at this time, even if you don't do winter sports. Its snowy where I live, but before the snow came, I was still riding my road bike in low single figures Celsius. I don't find winter in Japan restrictive or depressing at all compared to northern Europe.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I don't find winter in Japan restrictive or depressing at all compared to northern Europe.

Winter in Northern Europe is awful. Winter in Japan is possibly less awful although the nights in the UK were milder than Tokyo when I was there over Christmas.

Both are still awful.

It’s like comparing a headache to a toothache.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Think of a London winter and be thankful the sun is out and up before 7.

No, think of a London winter and your home with insulation, double glazing and central heating.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

London Winter - the wind is screaming out loud like the witch asking for help. From 15:30 onwards, it's dark until 07:30

So stay at home and watch boring telly and YT? Boring, Go out to pub? But freeze to go back home, ok, Go out for shopping? Same shops everywhere, small tiny malls closed at 18:00.

Now Japan winter, get your feet under the table or on-sen, relax! Or go out for big shopping malls and better seatings. Or go out to Shinya Shokudo and have fun there.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Seriously,backpackingnepal, I'm in London now and do not recognise your description. Nice and warm though.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Actually heading to Hokkaido to ski and for Yuki Matsuri. One month of anticipation and a few days of fun pulls me through the winter blues.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I took a week out in Thailand this year in January-cures my winter blues....

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Winter in Japan is much sunnier and has many more clear days than my hometown growing up, so weather-wise it's an improvement for me. The only thing that makes me blue is the lack of "cozy" and not being able to heat my whole house efficiently.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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