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Staying Positive: 6 Tips for Beating the Winter Blues in Japan

A long Japanese winter isn’t just about keeping warm — it’s about your mental health, too.

By 12 min read

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. Its 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.

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

As with any problem or issue, acceptance and acknowledgement of its existence is an important first step before you can move forward and do something about it.

2. Immerse yourself in new experiences

Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo at New Year time.

At the end of the day, I would hope that one of the reasons you came to Japan in the first place was to immerse yourself in a new culture and gain as many new and unique experiences as possible. The winter holidays — not just Christmas and New Year’s Eve, but shougatsu (the first month of the new year, especially the first three days), seijin no hi (Coming of Age Day), setsubun (part of the festival celebrating the coming of spring) and other traditional Japanese rites and rituals — provide an excellent opportunity for this.

Start by checking with your local city hall. I guarantee there will be at least some local events or festivals you can attend and take part in — even the winter illuminations that Westerners tend to associate with Christmas can — in Japan — continue until March! if you’re up north, I especially recommend the Sapporo Snow Festival that starts at the end of this month.

Over the years, I’ve developed a bit of a taste for amazake, a sweet fermented rice drink, usually non-alcoholic but similar in taste and consistency to sake. Many of the shrines in your area will serve it during the winter months, as well as some other local delicacies. So if you ever needed an excuse to stop by some of the temples close to you, this is it. It’s also customary in Japan to visit these places early in the new year to seek a blessing for the days ahead. This is something you can certainly do, too, and it needn’t cost you any money, either (unless you’d like to purchase some omamori, good luck charms, to help give you a leg up on the year).

If you’re feeling down or frantic, the calm of these spiritual sanctuaries and the human connectedness (as well as the connection to nature) found there can go a long way to settling your nerves and giving you a new perspective. Bonus: these spaces are non-denominational and welcoming to everyone.

3. Bond with coworkers and other teachers

Depending on where you’re from, the prospect of working through a three- to four-month long winter may be a grim one, especially if you’ve never done it before. Just remember: you’re certainly not the only teacher who has to go through this.

I found in my first year in Japan that hanging out with other teachers — both foreign and Japanese — at the end of a long shift lightened the mood immensely.

After a couple of drinks or impromptu office get-together and some food at the local bar, it wasn’t long before we hit the karaoke box and all the stresses of the working day inevitably melted away. I almost forgot about the sub-zero temperatures, too (until I stepped outside of course). There are few things in this world that will sober a man up faster than a quick gust of arctic air in the face!

What had started out as a fairly miserable day ended up being a really good laugh, and a treasured memory.

Socialize with your compadres. Make new friends with Japanese coworkers. Talk about how the season is affecting you and ask how others coped with it. Have some fun. It will not only help lighten your load — it can pay dividends for future relationships, too.

4. Connect to others on social media

It’s true that in the last couple of years, for a variety of reasons, social media seems to have become a toxic swamp of hate, manufactured anger and political illiteracy. However, it does still has its positive uses. One of the best is the ability to connect with other people who may be in a similar situation (and locale) as you and to find events on Facebook to attend or try out in your area — the more outside your comfort zone you can go, the better.

One of the best uses of social media is the ability to connect with other people who may be in a similar situation (and locale) as you…

If you’re unattached and feeling especially brave, why not try looking for a date with one of the various dating apps and websites available?

Tinder and Grindr, are gaining traction rapidly in Japan among those seeking a partner (or partners?), but apps such as MeetUp and Facebook also allow you to browse and attend local meetings and events without the implied expectation of romance — just relax and get to know a few new people.

From my own experiences, I’ve found that a more relaxed atmosphere and meeting in a larger group with some kind of shared interest is very fertile ground for making new connections and helping burgeoning relationships to grow.

On frigid, dark winter nights — especially if you’re single in Japan — it can seem like you’re the only one in the world without a significant other to share the lonely times. In truth, though, there are millions of others like you and many of them are a lot closer than you think.

Of course, social media and technology also offer us the opportunity to be more connected to our families back home — or wherever they may be — than ever before. The likes of Skype, Line, FaceTime, Google Hangouts and any number of messaging apps allow instantaneous connections and video calls with people all around the world.

So, even if they are thousands of miles away, one of the main benefits of social media and messaging technologies is that you can still gatecrash a family dinner or mate’s party! See? You’re not so alone as you thought you were.

5. Treat yourself

Ginzan Onsen in winter.

Yes, we all know that money is tight on an English teacher salary these days, especially after the holidays when plenty of shady companies will use the short festive season as an excuse to dock teachers’ January salaries. However, I still recommend splashing a bit of that hard-earned cash if you can. After all, you’ve worked diligently throughout the year, you deserve something to cheer you up and, heck, you’ve earned it.

So, whether it’s a night at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) or onsen (hot spring), a short trip outside of the city or maybe just ordering the latest video game you’d like to play, there’s no better time to be good to yourself than at the beginning of a new year

6. Talk to someone

Winter is a joyous time, whether you buy into the religious festivals that accompany it or not. However, it’s also a period when suicides in Japan and worldwide tend to peak. If you’re struggling at this time of year and you feel like it may be more than just a bout of the winter blues: reach out and talk to someone.

Tokyo Counseling Services keeps a database of English-speaking psychotherapists in the Tokyo area. You can contact the professionals there via the TCS website, by phone (03 5431-3096) or by email for more information. TCS is a purpose-designed counseling center with three counseling rooms available. They have a total of 20 counselors on staff with counseling available seven days a week, all year round. You can  follow @tokyocounseling on Twitter for regular updates about mental health and you may also want to check out their Facebook page.

The mental health non-profit TELL offers confidential support and advice to anyone who is struggling. You can call them everyday from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. on 03-5774-0992. Although based in Tokyo, TELL can connect you with support and local services all across Japan.

In addition to the lifeline, TELL has a counseling center that works on a sliding payment scale and is available in multiple languages (currently in Tokyo, for example, it offers English, Japanese, Spanish, Cantonese and Mandarin though other locations may differ). It also offers outreach programs in different areas of Japan, comprising lectures, events and community gatherings in support of mental health. These include parenting programs, regular pub quizzes, mindfulness nature hikes and more to help keep you grounded — and have some fun. More ways to get active and help beat the winter blues in Japan. All of these events updated on the TELL Facebook page.

… some of the most important non-clinical things you can do for your mental health this time of year include building support systems…

I know from experience just how hard it can be to take that first step and ask for help, but believe me — you will feel an almost immediate sense of relief when you do. Whatever you’re dealing with, knowing that it’s no longer a problem you have to face alone makes a huge difference.

It doesn’t matter if you’re in a large city or a more rural spot in Japan, you can always get help. to the website for International Mental Health Professionals Japan (IMHPJ). The IMHPJ page lists registered licensed therapists across Japan, as too often people can appear qualified when they are not. TELL also has a helpful database of thousands of resources across the country that people can access any time.

According to TELL Outreach Coordinator Selena Hoy, some of the most important non-clinical things you can do for your mental health this time of year include building support systems, as well as taking care of your physical health with proper diet and exercise.

I’m lucky. Although I now live in a rural area, I have a wonderful partner who is always close at hand, a small yet dependable network of friends and colleagues, and plenty of activities such as the gym, my local J.League team and numerous other distractions to keep me engaged.

A final and important piece of advice I can tell you today. If you feel overwhelmed and want to reach out — do it sooner rather than later. Says TELL Lifeline Director Vickie Skorji: “I think it’s also important for people to be aware that mental illness is as real as any other illness and getting support from a GP or counselor is as important and no different from getting support for a fever or an infection,” she says.

“The sooner we get help the quicker we get better. Too often people put off getting support until things have escalated. If any of your readers are having trouble sleeping, lost interest in things they once enjoyed, experiencing changes in their eating habits and are feeling hopeless or worthless for more than a couple of weeks, then getting support and assistance is recommended.”

This sentiment is echoed by Andrew Grimes, founder and director of Tokyo Counseling Services: “One thing that I have often heard from Japanese doctors is that non-Japanese often leave it six months longer than their Japanese counterparts to reach out for help and try to ‘tough it out.’ Reaching out sooner is the way to get better sooner rather than later and with less suffering in the long run.”

Please don’t hesitate. If you feel the need— there is always a service available for foreigners in Japan with someone qualified and ready to listen.

So… keep moving forward and keep seeking new challenges — the spring sakura and cherry blossom viewing will be here before you know it!

Editor Jeff W. Richards contributed to this article.

Stay safe and warm this winter everyone, and let’s have a great start to a new year filled with possibility and hope! All the best for a happy 2019 in Japan!

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