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 plenty of things to do in Japan in winter.
First, here are five good reasons to plan a trip to Japan during the 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.
- Visiting Japan in winter is an opportunity to learn to ski or snowboard.
- There’s no better time to warm the bones than winter in Japan while soaking in a traditional Japanese onsen hot spring.
- 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.
Although winter is our favourite season in Japan, here’s a Japan Itinerary to help you plan your trip anytime of the year.
Japan in Winter – Honshu
by Maria Visconti
If you’re hankering for a white winter wonderland holiday, here are travel writer Maria Visconti’s seven best places to visit on Honshu Island in Japan in winter.
Bindings, boards, boots and baths.
Does this list give you a tingling and a craving for the best powder in the world?
Have you ever been skiing in Japan?
If you have, you know already how wonderful a Japanese winter can be but if you haven’t, a trip to Hakuba, Nagano will introduce you to the joys of a Japan winter trip.
What to do in Japan in winter?
Well, if you have never been skiing then one of the fun things to do in Japan in winter is learning to ski.
The instructors are fun, hip and superbly qualified.
They speak English well as they follow the snow trail on two hemispheres teaching year round.
They 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 seven 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 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?
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.
2- Utsukushi-ga-hara Highlands (Nagano)
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.
3 – Shirakawago (Gifu)
Now, there is more to Japan than skiing holidays, right?
Winter in Japan is different, exotic, with a culture of its own.
Travel to Japan in winter and 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.
This tiny village nestled in a sleepy hollow remained little known till the high mountains that ring it was tunnelled through.
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).
4 – Takayama (Gifu)
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.
5 – Gero (Gifu)
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 onsen 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 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.
Read my guide to onsen etiquette and learn how to enjoy yourself in a Japan onsen step-by-step.
Then follow me to the best onsen in Gero where undress and sink slowly into the hot waters while trying to catch snowflakes on my tongue.
6- Shinhotaka Ropeway (Gifu)
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!
Winter, in my view, is the best time to visit Tokyo.
It is cold but you will be spending time commuting from one place to the other, mainly underground or in well-heated train stations.
All buildings are kept at a steamy temperature and I almost found them too hot.
From Cat Cafes to Owl Cafes, Ninja Restaurants to fine dining, electronic cities to manga districts, Tokyo is vibrant and full of life.
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.
This is the beauty of Japan: its people.
There are some pretty crazy things to do in Tokyo Midtown in winter!
Head underground and explore fantastic eateries and crazy themed cafes.
A winter festival 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.
8- Hot springs and waterfalls (Gunma)
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.
9- 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.
10- First Tadami River Bridge (Fukushima)
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!
11- Kinosaki Hot Spring (Hyogo)
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.
12- Takeda Castle Ruins (Hyogo)
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.
Japan in winter – Hokkaido
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.
13- 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.
Now, teams travel to the festival from all over the world to compete in this world-famous snow sculpture competition.
The festival sculptures look like a fairyland lit up at night.
There are a host of fun winter activities at the festival, such as snow rafting, tubing, ice sliding and ice fishing.
When: 31 January to 11 February 2019.
14- 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 17 February 2019. Otaru is a port 38km from Sapporo.
15- 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.
When: Late February to late March at Sounkyo hot springs resort and Daisetsuzan National Park. Soumkyo is 200 km from Sapporo.
16- Explore Asahikawa in Winter
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.
When: 6 to 11 February 2019
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.
Winter in Japan – Shikoku
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.
Winter in Japan – Kyushu
20- Visit Mount Tsunumi (Oita)
Take the ropeway to the top of Mount Tsunumi in Oita, where the views over Kyushu are amazing.
21- 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.
Discover Japan in Winter
For more places to visit in Japan during winter see Japan National Tourism Organisation’s website.
When does Japan experience winter?
Japan winter months are from December to January. In general, 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.