Winter in Japan is like a fairytale with snow-covered slopes and while you won’t see flowering cherry blossoms, there are plenty of other winter treasures to discover in Japan’s four islands – Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku. Don’t worry, you’ll find plenty of things to do in Japan in winter.
If you’ve never been to Japan in winter, I’d recommend you seriously consider it. Even if you’ve never been to Japan and are planning your first trip, while winter may not be the first season that comes to mind there are many reasons to visit during winter in Japan.
- Winter in Japan
- Why winter in Japan is a great time to visit
- Best Months To Visit Japan
- Japan Snow Season – Ski Resorts
- Winter in Japan in The City
- Japan Winter Season Attractions
- 9- Kinosaki Hot Spring
- 10- Takeda Castle Ruins
- 11- Utsukushi-ga-hara Highlands
- 12 – Shirakawago
- 13- Shinhotaka Ropeway
- 14- Humma’s Hot Springs and Waterfalls
- 15- Jigokudani Monkey Park
- 16- First Tadami River Bridge
- 17- Drift ice cruising in Monbetsu
- 18- Onuma Quasi National Park
- 19- Ishizuchi Shrine (Ehime)
- 20- Visit Mount Tsunumi (Oita)
- Japan in February – Festivals
- Japan Winter Itinerary
Tip: Save money on travel around Japan and buy a multi-day JR Pass online before you arrive in the country. Although winter is our favourite season in Japan, here’s a Japan Itinerary to help you plan your trip any time of the year.
Winter in Japan
Why winter in Japan is a great time to visit
You’ve probably never thought of visiting Japan in December so here are five good reasons to plan a trip to Japan during the winter months.
Japan is beautiful in winter
Just about anywhere you go in Japan during winter, there are places to visit in Japan during winter where a white wintery landscape is straight out of a picture book.
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 so you’ll be able to avoid the crowds and tour at leisure.
The Japan snow seasons is fantastic
Visiting Japan in winter is an opportunity to learn to ski or snowboard and Japan has excellent winter resorts that are reasonably priced.
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 publicly in an onsen is no exception.
All hand-held showers are installed at knee-level. So are the mirrors.
Showering standing up, a thing I have been doing for a few decades now, is somehow out of place here.
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.
Best Months To Visit 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.
Japan Snow Season – Ski Resorts
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 skiing holiday.
Although Japan’s main cities have plenty of attractions to interest most people in winter, 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 skiing resorts for a Japan snow season vacation:
Located on the slopes of Mount Niseko-Annupuri, Niseko’s main ski 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 will introduce you to the joys of the Japan snow season.
One of the fun things to do in Japan in winter is learning to ski and fortunately, the instructors are cool, hip and superbly qualified.
They speak English well as they follow the snow trail on two hemispheres teaching year-round and will transform you into a Japan winter snow-bunny in no time.
Have kids? My, Oh, My… I have seen crocodiles of young kids (some as young as five years old) carving long curves on the dry snow of Hakuba’s 11 ski resorts.
They follow their ever-patient instructor as if attached to him by an invisible umbilical cord.
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.
Winter in Japan in The City
Winter is 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.
Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto offer plenty of indoor attractions. 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 in winter, 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 in winter and the best places to visit in Japan in winter are in the Tokyo underground, where you can explore fantastic eateries 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 loveliest winter 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 Feburary and participate in a tea ceremony during the Baika-sai festival.
6- Winter in Osaka
The good thing about Osaka is the weather in winter is not quite as cold as other cities, making winter in Osaka a good time to visit.
A great time to visit is during the Osaka’s 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 many other places in Osaka’s 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 in Japan 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 going over it.
Visiting Takayama is 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.
Takayama is a town for all seasons: two famous festivals take place here in autumn and spring with the magnificent floats on display year-round at the museum.
If you’re visiting Japan in winter, do put Takayama on your list and tick of these things to do in Takayama.
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 Season Attractions
9- Kinosaki Hot Spring
Kinosaki Hot Springs is a charming old-world onsen town located in the Hyogo prefecture on the Sea of Japan.
The hot springs were discovered in the 8th century and the bathhouses were built over the springs.
Try a soak in Goshono-yu (Imperial Palace Bath), which has multi-level outdoor pools facing a waterfall and steam sauna, or Satono-yu bathhouse, which has two kinds of baths (traditional and Romanesque), waterfalls, mist rooms and a range of sauna rooms.
10- Takeda Castle Ruins
On a misty morning, the ruins of Takeda Castle looks like it’s floating on clouds.
Known as the Castle in the Clouds or Japan’s Machu Picchu.
The mystical castle in Asago City was built in 1411, however, the buildings have crumbled but the foundations can be seen clearly.
11- Utsukushi-ga-hara Highlands
In central Nagano, non-skiers will love the view from the Utsukushi-ga-hara Highlands in Yatsugatake Chushin Kogen Quasi National Park in the Japan winter months.
The flat lava plateau sits 2000m and the 360-degree view of the Japanese Alps from Ogato is breathtaking.
It’s a pastoral scene in summer, with green pastures and grazing cows but in the Japan winter season, the snow-covered mountain tops look ethereal.
Other attractions include an open-air museum and the Utsukushi-ga-hara Art Museum and 400 impressive sculptures.
Utsukushi-ga-hara Highlands is in Nagano.
12 – Shirakawago
Winter in Japan is different, exotic, with a culture of its own and if you’re not a skier or snowboarder, one of the best places to visit in Japan in winter is Shirakawago.
If you are a skier or snowboarder then it makes sense to travel to Japan in winter as you can combine skiing with a fabulous discovery trip.
After all, you have come quite a long way and you’ll wish to get the most out of your airfare here.
Within easy reach, there are places that will blow your mind with quaintness and appeal.
UNESCO World Heritage Shirakawago is one of them.
It was then, only about 10 years ago, that Japan and the world ‘discovered’ Shirakawago with its thatched gingerbread houses and unique culture.
Today this World Heritage site has opened its doors to visitors.
Verdant and colourful in summer and clad in a thick coating of snow in winter, Shirakawago has some Minshuku (guest houses) where you can stay.
The Japan winter season in Shirakawago is a photographer’s paradise (bring your tripod to take some night pictures when the houses are all lit up for your enjoyment).
This tiny village existed in isolation for centuries until tunnelling technology opened up an easy way to get here without having to surmount the mighty mountain ranges that have kept Shirakawago undiscovered for a long time.
Thatched cottages with eaves that almost touch the ground called Gassho-zukuri because the high-pitched rooves look like hands folded in prayer are scattered around this sleepy hollow where the locals originally survived by farming silkworms up in their attics.
Today Shirakawago is a magnet for local tourism and a handful of international guests visiting Japan.
A few houses have opened their doors to travellers as guesthouses (minshuku).
Shirakawago winter looks like a few other places in Japan as it is almost unrecognisable under a heavy cover of snow.
It really looks like the postcard from an imaginary village where silk weaving elves create eerily beautiful scarves.
13- Shinhotaka Ropeway
Glide across the Hotake Mountain Range on the Shinhotaka Ropeway.
The range is home to Oku-Hotakedake, Japan’s third-highest mountain.
From the Shinhotaka Ropeway’s decker gondola cars, you’ll get a panoramic view of the Okuhida region’s mountains and valleys.
If you’re an active traveller, you might like to try snowshoeing in Shinhotaka, which is a guaranteed workout!
14- Humma’s Hot Springs and Waterfalls
One of the best things to do in Japan in winter is to visit a hot springs region.
Winter in Japan is a great time to warm up in the hot sprains of Gunma, a picturebook region packed with hot springs and ski resorts.
With over 200 onsens, Gunma is certainly an authentic place to go in winter for a Japanese hot spring experience.
Imagine spending winter in Japan experiencing the healing waters of the various onsens. Gunma’s four onsen regions are Kusatsu, Ikaho, Minakami and Shima.
Seeing a frozen waterfall in winter is a magnificent sight. The 25m Onsen waterfall in Kusatsu has multiple streams frozen on red rock.
This mountainous region is home to a number of ski resorts and ski hills, the highest is Kosatsu Kokusai Ski Resort.
15- Jigokudani Monkey Park
Seeing the snow monkeys warming up in the hot springs is one of the amazing things to see in winter in Japan.
At Jigokudani Monkey Park, there is white magic in the air and it’s cold.
The nearly 2km mountain path is mercifully flat but snowy and icy winding its way through a tall cedar forest.
Anticipation mounting, I cannot wait till we get to the hot springs where the much-loved snow monkeys of Japan soak in winter.
Big plops of snow falling from the cedars’ laden branches are about the only sound around.
Finally, the forest gives way and a sign of the times reads: “Airborne cameras not permitted to fly here”, so don’t bother to bring your quadcopter to Jigokudani Monkey Park.
When we finally arrive, there are about 30 snow monkeys about, big and small.
Some soak in the hot springs, some forage for food and one sits on the big casing of the video-cam that permanently surveys the site.
It is only while editing the photos that I discovered this was a mother with a baby at her breast mostly hidden from view and therefore protected from the cold.
The only chance to see snow monkeys bathing at Jigokudani Monkey Park is in winter.
They only do it to keep warm so they are unlikely to go in the hot springs when the weather warms up.
The valley where the snow monkeys hang out is very deep and the sunshine never gets to the bottom so be prepared for cold and slippery conditions on the approaching 2km trail.
Temperatures in winter are always below freezing reaching to a very cold -10 Celcius and there are no facilities for wheelchairs at Jigokudani Monkey Park.
These endearing snow monkeys are native to Japan and are nomadic, foraging wherever they like and moving around the forest freely.
Jigokudani Monkey Park has adopted a policy of feeding them with nutritious pellets in order to keep them coming to the site on a regular basis, however, feeding times are not regular and not announced.
These macaques live in groups and show strong loyalty to their family.
Females remain within their birth tribe while males break off to find partners among other tribes.
Females give birth at night only and mainly in spring.
These snow monkeys retire at sundown to sleep on tree branches or in the hollows of big tree roots; they huddle together while holding hands and legs.
Make sure you have plenty of memory in your camera, as you will shoot none stop for about two hours.
The expressions on the monkey’s faces are fascinating, especially while being groomed by others.
They look ecstatic or as in a trance.
The Jigokudani Monkey Park is not far from Hakuba ski fields but a bit complex to get to by public transport.
Your best bet is to go to the Nagano station and take a bus from there.
However, hotels can help organise a day-trip, as there are some combination excursions with some interesting inclusions such as a visit to the town of Obuse, where Hokusai spent his later years.
Jigokudani Monkey Park is in Joshinetsu Kogen National Park in Yamanouchi, Nagano Prefecture, Japan.
16- First Tadami River Bridge
For those who love trains, the 174m bridge crossing the Tadamigawa River is a fabulous experience and one of the most picturesque places to visit in Japan during winter.
A photograph of the bridge in winter is a picturesque sight and crossing the bridge on a train is an experience to remember.
The photographic viewpoint is a five-minute bus ride from Mishima and a scene straight out of Game of Thrones!
First Tadami River Bridge is in Fukushima.
17- Drift ice cruising in Monbetsu
A cruise on an ice breaker is an adventure of a lifetime as you ride onboard an icebreakers while it smashes through drift ice 60cm thick.
The thermometer can drop to -40C as a cold wind blows from Siberia, so rug up!
If you’re lucky you might even get a chance to spot marine life and wildlife, such as seals and eagles.
When: Visit Japan in January to experience this but the ice might hang around until March
18- Onuma Quasi National Park
In the southern part of Hokkaido, Onuma Quasi National Park is a picture book region with lakes, rivers and majestic Mount Komagatake.
Most visitors go in summer, for the hiking, fishing and cycling but those looking for Japan winter landscapes won’t be disappointed by the sight of Mount Komagatake, which is an active volcano, covered in snow.
It’s a fantastic place to enjoy winter in Japan in natural surroundings and activities include snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.
When: It’s a scenic spot to experience Japan in December.
19- Ishizuchi Shrine (Ehime)
Ishizuchi Shrine is spread out across Mount Ishizuchi, which is a holy mountain that dominates the landscape of western Japan.
Locals believe that Ishizuchi is a mystic mountain and the mountain itself is a god.
Wander past the torii gates along winding paths, stone steps, forests and ponds.
20- Visit Mount Tsunumi (Oita)
Take the ropeway to the top of Mount Tsunumi in Oita, where the views over Kyushu are amazing.
Japan in February – Festivals
Hokkaido island in Japan is the ultimate winter destination for those who aren’t skiers or snowboarders. Hokkaido is a wonderland of winter festivals, wildlife and activities.
21- Sapporo Snow Festival
Each year, more than two million visitors flock to see the jaw-dropping ice sculptures at the Sapporo Snow Festival.
If you only have time for one festival while visiting Japan in winter, this should be it!
Sapporo Snow Festival started in 1950, with six snow sculptures and has grown into a massive winter festival that attracts teams from all over the world.
The teams compete in this world-famous snow sculpture competition to see which team can create the best winter works of art.
The festival sculptures look like a fairyland lit up at night and it’s worth going to this festival just to see those.
Apart from ice sculptures, there are other fun winter activities at the festival, such as snow rafting, tubing, ice sliding and ice fishing.
When: 4 to 11 February 2020
22- Otaru Snow Light Path Festival
The city of Otaru lights up during the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival each winter. Walking the streets of Otaru, which are festooned with lights, candles and snow sculptures, is an enchanting thing to do in winter in Japan.
The best place to soak up the atmosphere is the Otaru Canal, where ball candles made out of fishing equipment float on the water.
Local food stalls sell sushi and Japanese sweets.
When: 8 to 16 February 2020. Otaru is a port 38km from Sapporo.
23- Sounkyo Ice Fall Festival
Drink at the ice bar, spend a quiet moment in the ice shrine and party at the Sounkyo Ice Fall Festival’s concerts and event.
The ice sculptures of Hokkaido’s famous buildings are impressive and there are a host of Japan winter activities such as ice climbing, snowshoe hiking and the Taisetsu Forest Garden has a host of adventurous winter activities.
Soumkyo is 200 km from Sapporo and it’s possible to visit both winter festivals during the same season.
When: Late February to late March at Sounkyo hot springs resort and Daisetsuzan National Park.
24- Explore Asahikawa
As soon as you arrive at Asahikawa Winter Festival you’ll soon see why winter in Asahikawa is the best season to visit.
Asahikawa is Hokkaido’s second-largest city and it’s a charming place to visit in Japan during the winter.
The city is well-known for its ramen and the Asahiyama Zoo is the to place to visit in Asahikawa for Arctic wildlife.
Asahikawa Winter Festival is at 4044 Tokiwakoen, Asahikawa, Hokkaido 070-0044, Japan.
When: 6 to 11 February 2020.
25- Yokagura Festival (Miyazaki)
The Yokagura Festival is a 33-part storytelling Shinto festival and a vibrant celebration in the Miyazaki Prefecture.
According to legend, the Shinto sun goddess became upset at her bother’s pranks and hid in a cave, depriving the world of light.
When: Mid November to end of January.
Japan Winter Itinerary
If you’re not a skier or snowboarder, mainly interested in exploring cities then five days in Japan in winter covering three cities would be enough but 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 in winter for its wonderful festivals.
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.
Day 2 – Hakone
Take a trip to Hakone, where you will get a view of one of the most famous landmarks in Japan, Mount Fuji. One of the best Japan winter attrctions are its hot springs, which Hakone is well-known for, and staying in a traditional Japanese ryokan here is another winter treat.
Day 3 – Osaka
Take the bullet train to Osaka and explore one of Japan’s most vibrant cities to visit in winter. Grab an Osaka 1 day pass, which will give you unlimited rides on the subway and disocver Osaka Castle, Shitennō-ji Temple and the Kita area.
Day 4 – Kyoto
Winter in Kyoto is straight out of a Japanese storybook as its gardens, shrines and temples are a magical white wintery 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.