Winter in Japan is like a fairytale with snow-covered slopes and although it is not the season to see flowering cherry blossoms, there are plenty of other treasures to discover while exploring Japan in winter.
Japan’s four islands – Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku – offer plenty of amazing sights perfect for exploring during the colder months.
If you’ve never been to Japan in winter, I’d recommend you seriously consider it.
If you’re planning your first trip to Japan, while winter may not be the first season that comes to mind there are many reasons to visit during winter in Japan.
Although winter is our favourite season in Japan if you’re planning on seeing a range of famous Japan landmarks, here’s a Japan Itinerary to help you plan your trip any time of the year.
- Winter in Japan
- What is Japan Like In The Winter?
- What Are The Winter Months In Japan?
- Is Winter A Good Time To Visit Japan?
- How Cold is Japan in Winter?
- Japan Winter Itinerary
Tip: Save money on travel around Japan and buy a multi-day JR Pass online before you arrive in the country.
Winter in Japan
What is Japan Like In The Winter?
You’ve probably never thought of visiting Japan in December or even in November, so here are some reasons to consider a trip to Japan during the colder months.
1- Japan is beautiful in winter
Just about anywhere you go in Japan during winter, you’ll see white wintery landscapes straight out of a picture book.
2- Japan is less crowded in winter
Aside from skiers, snowboarders and those who like winter sports, most visitors shun travelling to Japan in winter because it’s cold.
This means you’ll be able to avoid the crowds and tour at leisure.
3- The Japan snow season is fantastic
Visiting Japan in winter is an opportunity to learn to ski or snowboard and there are excellent winter resorts in the Japanese Alps that are reasonably priced.
There are many activities for non-skiers too.
4- Winter is the best season to soak in a Japanese Onsen
There’s no better time to warm the bones than winter in Japan while soaking in traditional Japanese hot springs.
In Japan there is a way of doing everything – they call it ‘the Japanese way’ – and bathing in hot springs publicly in an onsen is no exception.
5- Winter festivals in Japan are amazing
Winter in Japan is the time to rug up and be dazzled by the winter illuminations of a winter festival and there are many to choose from around Japan. One of the most famous is the Sapporo Snow Festival.
6- It’s the time of year to see the Snow Monkeys
Head to a monkey park and watch these adorable creatures do winter in Japanese.
7- Japanese food seems to taste better
When the weather is cold outside, there’s nothing like tucking into a bowl of piping hot noodles. Japanese food is tasty and the colder weather makes it the perfect time to fuel up.
What Are The Winter Months In Japan?
Japan winter months are from December to January and, in general, the weather in Japan in winter is usually sunny and the humidity is low.
- Japan in December is festive, with holiday decorations in the cities and ski resorts. Japan weather in December is cold and it’s important to dress in layers.
- Japan in January is a great time to go to catch some of the vibrant festivals.
- In Japan in February, you can expect the temperatures to be around 10ºC (42°F) and it’s a lot colder than this at night. Check the weather here.
Is Winter A Good Time To Visit Japan?
Yes, because Japan is a fantastic destination for skiers and snowboarders.
Japan’s snow season usually starts in mid-December and lasts until early April, which gives skiers and snowboarders a few months to choose from when planning a Japan holiday on the slopes.
Although Japan’s main cities have plenty of attractions to interest most visitors, Japan also has some of the best powder skiing in the world.
With more than 500 ski resorts in Japan, there’s plenty of choice for all budgets but the best snow is in northern Japan (Hokkaido and Tohoku) and along the coast (Niigata and Nagano).
Here are the best resorts for a Japan snow season vacation:
In the south of Hokkaido on the slopes of Mount Niseko-Annupuri, Niseko’s main resorts are Grand Hirafu, Niseko Village and Annupuri.
You can ski all three, which meet at the mountain top, with the Niseko All Mountain Pass.
Niseko is famous for its light powder snow, spectacular backcountry skiing off the groomed trails.
Niseko is in the Shiribeshi sub-prefecture in Hokkaido, Japan.
Bindings, boards, boots and baths.
Does this list give you a tingling and a craving for the best powder in the world?
If you have ever been skiing in Japan, you know already how wonderful a Japanese winter can be but if you haven’t, a trip to Hakuba in Nagano Prefecture in the south of the country will introduce you to the joys of the Japan snow season.
Learning to ski is fun and fortunately, the instructors are cool, hip, superbly qualified and they speak English well.
Many instructors follow the snow trail in both hemispheres teaching year-round and will transform you into a Japan winter snow-bunny in no time.
Winter in Japan is a great time to visit with kids too, with plenty of other activities such as ice skating, snowshoeing and sled rides.
Hakuba has accommodation and activities to suit all styles to choose from including Western-style hotels and Japanese ryokans.
There are a variety of runs, from black runs to wide open gentle slopes.
Would you ski or snowboard? Snowshoe in silent forests or ski-doo for an adrenaline rush?
As this mighty ring of mountains sits squarely on a steady supply of thermal waters, you will, no doubt, soak in the various onsen for their restorative waters and enjoy a long, soothing soak after a day out on the slopes.
Hakuba is in the Nagano Prefecture and can be accessed as a day trip from Tokyo.
3- Shiga Kogen
Shiga Kogen Ski Area has 19 ski resorts on the slopes of Mount Yokote (2305m) and Mount Oku Shiga Kogen that can be accessed with one lift ticket
During the Nagano Winter Olympics, the slalom and giant slalom events were hosted in Higashidateyama Resort.
Shiga Kogen is in Nagano Prefecture.
How Cold is Japan in Winter?
How cold it is depends on whether you’re visiting the north or the south of Japan. Below are some average temperatures in various places.
The coldest cities are:
It’s one of the best seasons to visit Japan’s largest cities and even though it’s cold, you will be spending time commuting from one place to the other, mainly underground or in well-heated train stations.
The cities have lots of indoor winter activities and if you’re not planning on hitting the slopes, here’s why you should consider visiting these cities in Japan during the winter.
4- Winter in Tokyo
- Tokyo in December: High:12ºC (54°F)/Low: 5ºC (41°F)
- Tokyo in January: High: 10ºC (50°F)/Low 2ºC~3ºC (35°F~37°F)
- Tokyo in February: High: 10ºC~11ºC (42°F~50°F)/Low 3ºC (37°F)
In Tokyo, all buildings are kept at a steamy temperature and I almost found them too hot.
Tokyo Central station is well signed posted and has a travellers’ help office with English-speaking experts who provide maps and explanations on how to get from A to B.
If you, like me, get lost despite expert help there is always a kind person who will show you how to get to where you are going.
There are some pretty crazy things to do in Tokyo Midtown during winter and the best places to visit in Japan in winter are in the Tokyo underground, where you can explore fantastic eateries for amazing food and crazy themed cafes.
From Cat Cafes to Owl Cafes, Ninja Restaurants to fine dining, electronic cities to manga districts, Tokyo is vibrant and full of life.
Tokyo also has one of the best festivals in Japan, the Setsubun Festival sends away winter by throwing beans to the devils while the Kamakura Festival is also very popular leading into spring.
5- Winter in Kyoto
Seeing Kyoto’s temples, pagodas and shrines covered in snow is a magical sight and the Golden Pavilion looks especially lovely in the snow.
Kyoto is also a city of festivals and winter is a great time to catch up on culture at the Toshiya Festival (January), when young women in kimonos compete in an archery competition, or the Setsubun Festival (February).
Visit Kitano Tenmangu Temple to see thousands of plum trees blooming in February and participate in a tea ceremony during the Baika-sai festival.
6- Winter in Osaka
The good thing about this city is the weather in winter is not quite as cold as other cities, making it a good time to visit.
A great time to visit is during the Festival of Lights, where 4 km of the Umeda central district is a festive affair from November to January.
Winter is also a great time to visit parks and other attractions, such as Namba Park, Tennoji Park and Osaka Castle, where Christmas 3D light shows light up the trees and buildings, just like in a fairytale.
7- Winter in Takayama
Another place to visit in Japan in winter is Takayama, also known as Little Kyoto because of its ancient sites and well-maintained Edo period buildings.
Takayama also has special local foods, such as sansai (mountain vegetables), wasakana (river fish) and Hida beef – a rival to Wagyu beef.
You’ll love the local soba noodles and there are quality sake breweries where you can keep warm on your Japan winter holiday.
Hōba miso is a local way of grilling beef or fish on a hōba leaf (from the native Magnolia obovata) or also on an oak leaf.
Takayama has the highest snowfalls and is one of the best cities to visit in Japan in winter for photography.
Picture red-lacquered bridges, framed by red-pines bonsai-ed to please the eye with kimono-clad women, making it a quintessential Japanese winter experience.
As Takayama has always been a salubrious area, the old quarter is dotted with the stunning-looking Kura houses.
A Kura house is a mud-brick, fire-resistant building among the all-wood and paper houses of old, where citizens would store their valuables to save them from the regularly occurring fires.
Today, these attractive storage houses are converted to boutiques, trendy cafes and sake tasting locales.
8- Winter in Gero
Gero practically exists as a place for ‘taking the waters’ as it sits on rich underground currents of thermal waters.
Be brave, undress and slip in the hot water pools but there are a few steps to follow prior to doing so.
It’s one of the best places to visit in Japan in winter to warm up.
The Suimeikan Ryokan has three onsens inside their luxury premises (six if you consider the three become six as they are gender-separate).
My favourites are always the open-air ones.
There is nothing like walking out naked to the outdoor pools (even better if it is snowing) and settling in for a relaxing long soak amongst rocks.
The rocks are artistically displayed among the greenery with backdrops of panoramic views that offer the perfect scenery to enjoy in Japan in winter.
Enjoy the scenery of snowed-covered landscapes, mountains and gushing rivers.
One of the best travel tips I can give you when visiting Japan is that soaking in an open-air onsen is a quintessential winter in Japan experience.
Japan Winter Itinerary
If you’re not a skier or snowboarder and are keen to explore cities, then a five-day Japan in winter itinerary covering three cities would be enough.
If you have more time, I would suggest getting out of the city and visiting other places in Honshu, Hokkaido and Shikoku.
Hokkaido is particularly great at this time of year for its wonderful Sapporo Snow Festival.
Day 1 – Tokyo
Arrive in Tokyo and get acclimatised by walking around the city to admire the winter lights.
Make it a point to go to Shibuya Crossing and keep in mind that the heating inside most buildings can get rather hot, so dress in layers.
Day 2 – Hakone
Take a trip to Hakone, where you will get a view of one of the most famous Japanese mountains, Mount Fuji.
One of the best Japan winter attractions is its hot springs, which Hakone is well-known for, and staying at a traditional Japanese ryokan here is another winter treat.
Day 3 – Osaka
Take the bullet train and explore one of Japan’s most vibrant cities to visit during winter. Grab an Osaka 1 day pass, which will give you unlimited rides on the subway and discover the city’s famous castle, Shitennō-ji Temple and the Kita area.
Day 4 – Kyoto
inter in Kyoto is straight out of a Japanese storybook as its gardens, shrines and temples are a magical white winter wonderland. Although Kyoto can easily be visited as a day trip from Osaka, staying overnight in the city is a lovely experience in winter.
Day 5 – Tokyo
Back in Tokyo, enjoy a winter’s view of the Tokyo Imperial Palace or warm up in one of Tokyo’s quirky cat, owl, maid, manga or robot cafés.
Japan video edited by InVideo.