Winter Depression in Hokkaido (and how to survive it)


Winter depression is a real thing and something to be taken seriously. There is even a scientific name for this, and it is known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).  As a Southeast Asian foreigner living in Japan, I often experience this in the coldest season, especially that I am an individual who is not naturally-born in this kind of environment.

I do know a lot of friends and acquaintances, both local and foreign, who are suffering from winter depression. Even those who were born in Hokkaido aren't immune to this phenomenon!

Hokkaido, being in the northernmost part of the country, has also the longest winter, beginning in late November and lasts as long as April. That's almost half of the year, to be honest!  Snowfall starts like a dash of powdered sugar falling from the skies at least once a week, until a dozen days later, you wake up and bam! Everything is suddenly white--just like that. At first it looks exciting because the Christmas season is just a few days apart (that'll mean sparkling lights in the cities, gift-giving, Christmas shopping, and all the jazz you can think of). The thing is, however, we're talking about winter in Japan.

Christmas has no special meaning in Japan

I bet if you have been to Japan at least once especially in the winter time, you'd witness a lot of breathtaking illuminations in the big cities. Shopping malls are glittered with so many Christmas decorations, boutiques scatter in the corners; and colorful, creative trinkets will rob off your wallet. The thing is however, the Yuletide is only a means of business in Japan. Since it is not a Christian society, most Japanese people are only after the presents, shopping spree, and the infamous Christmas cake. There are no parties, no family gatherings, no Simbang Gabi (Midnight Mass celebrated in the Philippines), and no embracing of the Nativity. In fact, they know Santa Claus more than Jesus! 😆

For a Filipino like me who takes Christmas very seriously, I instantly felt sad that this important tradition is not well-recognized by the country. It feels so lonely and empty because I believe in the spirit of Christmas and its value to family gatherings. And if you're single, you'll feel so left out in a crowd of cheesy lovers strolling around the bustling snowy streets, because this holiday is mostly spent by couples! 

But wait, there's more---did I mention earlier that it only belongs to big cities? That's because the old folks in the countryside don't even bat an eye to this world-famous tradition. So if you happen to reside in the smallest town with the fewest residents, expect no Christmas lights, no presents, no parties, Christmas cakes. People would be sleeping on the eve of December 24th and working the next day!

It's almost an all-work-and-no-play

Perhaps in some countries, if the snowfall gets heavy causing sudden traffic and danger to children and employees, a short delay at work or suspension of classes will be cautiously observed. Not in Japan, though! Work and school is a grave lifestyle here, and not a snowstorm can cause them to stop or delay their business (unless if the case is already a deadly scenario). But seriously--when was the last time school was suspended in Hokkaido during a snowstorm? Probably 1 out of 10!

Working as an ALT for nearly 8 years now, I can recall many of my experiences driving in the middle of the snowstorm, hoping to arrive school on time and alive, LOL. Waking up each day is a pain in the a** because it's so da** cold (which I will discuss later), and shoveling the car takes as long as 15 minutes because of the thickness of the snow that covered it and taking the time to heat it up.  There are some days that I wish they'd cancel classes because it's a whiteout outside and it's scary to drive in the 'whiteness' without seeing anything out there. It's like Silent Hill times 10. But what the heck--I have to work no matter what.

The cold bothers me, anyway

The coldest winter in Hokkaido is experienced in late January to mid March which starts from 0ºC (30ºF) up to -30ºC (-22ºF). If you live in Russia, Greenland, Iceland, or the coldest parts of North America, this is  nothing new to you. But if you live in the tropical islands like I did, just imagine yourself camping in your freezer for months.

At least the heating system in Hokkaido is quite excellent, but what if an earthquake occurs? How about avalanches? What if your car suddenly stops in the middle of a snowstorm or a cold, lonely road?

Winter deaths are quite common in Hokkaido too, especially for those who takes very little precaution in their lives. If we don't wear the proper attire, we can freeze to death or get a frostbite, or asthma attack. If we don't clear our roofs from the piling snow cornice, it would suddenly drop and bury us alive. If we forget to close our pipes at home when we go away for a long time, our faucets will be frozen and damaged. If we don't guard our heaters, it can cause fires.

And winter is too loooong in Hokkaido. Most weather days are cloudy, stormy, or just really freezing. Sunny days are almost a blink of an eye. It can be really fun to go out and about on a sunny day, though! But the gloomy days can really cause us a lot. We cannot go out freely, we depend on heating systems, we wear thick, uncomfortable clothing, and everyday after work, the extreme temperature drains a lot of energy and body heat. There's lack of vitamin D from the sun and it makes us often down for no reason. Hence, the depression.

So, what can we do to survive? 

Some people go on a long holiday in the warmer areas or countries to get away from the cold; but oftentimes our work and lifestyle will make it impossible, especially if it's half a year long. Here are some things that I do to save my sanity and appreciate winter while waiting for the warmer seasons:

Enjoy winter sports

It's a great chance to experience skiing and snowboarding in this time of the year. Doing these kinds of winter sports warms up our bodies and helps us drop some calories. And why not win some friends? Other recreation can include ice fishing, snow trekking, and winter camping (with preventive measures).

Pen Pal Writing and journal writing

If winter sports is not your thing and can be troublesome for your budget, an indoor hobby like pen pal writing or journaling would do. Personally, this is one of my favorite pastimes because I enjoy making crafts and writing letters. Plus living in a foreign country can be really isolating, so writing to people around the world can be worth the thrill. You can find them in Facebook groups such as
Worldwide Snail Mail Pen Pals and, or other websites you can find on Google. 

Discover a new hobby

There are many ways and ideas to find a new hobby such as baking or cooking, exercise to build up your body, learn a foreign language, write Japanese Calligraphy, and the list goes on. When I moved to Japan several years ago, I started baking and cooking Filipino and international recipes that I found on YouTube.  100-yen shops are all over the place even in the quietest rural areas, and there are tons of DIY items waiting for you there. And nowadays, free apps like Duolingo and plenty of websites and YouTube channels offer Japanese lessons for free. This can advance your level to learning the local language in Japan, and can help increase your chance to know more of the locals, and even find a better job. 

Surviving winter depression in Japan (especially in Hokkaido) is going to be a lifetime challenge, but as long as you stay positive and creative, you can go a long way.

If you are living in Hokkaido, I would love to hear from your experiences! And if you're planning to move here or pay a visit, I hope this gave you enough information and inspiration. Thanks for reading! 


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