Winter in Japan – Thinking about the wonderful country of Japan normally conjures up the images of beautiful torii gates against the sunset, adorable Harajuku desserts held up against the crowds on Takeshita Street, and cherry blossoms blooming in thousands across expansive parks. When traveling, it’s natural to want to wander around in a foreign country with the warmth of the sun on your back, and not have to worry about sub-arctic temperatures freezing your fingers and toes off.
However, as much as there’s ‘doom and gloom’ when people think about winter in any country, and no less Japan where it’s blanketed in snow the entire time, it’s actually one of the best times to visit this beautiful country!
Don’t believe us? Imagine walking through the city of lights as snowflakes softly fall down and hit your nose. Imagine waking up, warm and cozy in a ryokan in the middle of the mountains and seeing a beautiful snowy landscape right outside your window. Just try to resist the 41-degree temperature onsens when it’s -1 outside and you’ve come back from a full day of exploring the gorgeous snowscape around Japan.
Avoiding the infamous sweltering humidity that is summer in Japan is probably one of the best pieces of advice that we can give you, so without further ado, have a quick read of why Winter in Japan is the best idea!
Winter in Japan – Less Tourists
We’ve all been there – building a jam-packed Japan itinerary, full of wonderful attractions and destinations you’re so excited to see, thinking about all the amazing pictures you can take and the special moment when you can just bask in the beauty of it all. However, most of the time, hundreds and even thousands of other people will have the exact same idea as you, and you rock up only to be disappointed when it’s overcrowded and overrun with tourists.
Winter in Japan, whilst its not a ghost town, is somewhat milder in visitor numbers than other seasons. It may be because the low temperatures are a bit too much for some to handle, but that just means you can layer on a bit more, have a bit more fun with your winter travel fashion.
Think of the smaller lines to get into that lucrative restaurant you’ve been wanting to go to for ages, the moments of peace on top of mountains and inside the shrines you won’t be able to capture when crowds flood the place, the empty footpaths at night when you’re strolling through the street, leaving footprints in the snow without anyone interrupting – all this is probably not possible during the more popular spring, summer, and autumn season in Japan.
Winter in Japan – Winter Sports
Powder bunnies, rejoice, because Japan is one of, if not the, ultimate destination for snow sports. If you don’t already know, Japan is unofficially the powder capital of the world, and anyone who’s into winter sports should make their way to the epic mountains in Japan at least once in their lives to experience snow as soft as powder (literally!).
One of the best reasons to visit Japan in winter is because of the access you can get to many of the snow fields around the popular cities. There are literally hundreds of ski fields across the country, however, a few stand out as being superior due to their accessibility, number of chair lifts, quality of pow, and amount of snowfall during the winter season. They include:
One of the most popular ones for visitors in Japan due to its easy accessibility and enormous size, Hakuba is a good way to be introduced to the powder scene in Japan, but beware of its crowds during peak Winter season. The main ski resort is Happo One, which caters for families with children as well as all levels of skiers and snowboarders. Due to its popularity, there are plenty of accommodation options and hiring gear here has been made incredibly easy due to the streamlined process.
Access: From Narita Airport, catch an airport bus directly to Hakuba. This will take just under 6-hours of travel time, and will cost around 10,600 yen per person, one way. This is by far the easiest and cheapest option. From Tokyo, you can take a Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Nagano Station, and change for a bus from Nagano to Hakuba. This will take around 3-hours and cost roughly 10,000 yen per person.
If you decide to go to Nagano, you should definitely consider to stay in one of this Japanese traditional inns: Nagano Ryokan.
Being located in the northern island of Hokkaido means that Niseko enjoys some of the lengthiest snowfalls in all of Japan during winter. The powder is super soft, and the longs are run, and there are many, so you will have a grand time exploring the mountains. There are four ski resorts (together, they’re called Niseko United), and plenty of different types of lift passes that will either get you access to one, two, or all of the mountains. This snow resort in particular attracts many Australians and Canadians, as they hop on over during the Winter season to work at the snow fields and take advantage of the incredible snowfall.
Access: From Sapporo Airport, the easiest way to to get to Niseko would be by bus, and you can book a one-way or round-trip ticket through Niseko Bus for only 2,600 yen or 4,500 yen per person respectively.
There are around twenty or so resorts in Yuzawa, however, Gala Yuzawa is arguably one of the most popular ones. This one is located close enough to Tokyo that it can be done as a one-day trip if you’re feeling pressed for time (it’s literally around an hour away via Shinkansen). There’s a whooping 17-courses for you to participate in, ranging from completely beginner to advanced, so we recommend more than just a day trip (if you can fit it in!).
Gala Yuzawa is also located right next to Yuzawa Kogen and Ishiuchi Maruyama, two other popular resorts, and whilst you can purchase lift passes for each individual one, there is a special combination ticket for all three.
Access: Echigo Yuzawa is the name of the main station in Yuzawa. From Tokyo Station, you can catch the Joetsu Shinkansen to Echigo Yuzawa for just 66-minutes, and it will cost you just under 7,000 yen per person.
We admit it, half the time people come here just to see the famous Zao Snow Monsters, and why not! This phenomenon, also known as “ice trees” peaks during February when the massive trees throughout the resort take on unique shapes due to the heavy snowfall and the freezing temperatures. Boarding or skiing through a passageway of these monsters is an experience in itself!
Access: From Tokyo station, take the JR Yamagata Shinkansen to Yamagata station (this will take around 2.5 hours and cost roughly 11,000 yen per person). From there, you can transfer to a bus that will take you directly to the resort (This will take around 40-minutes and cost 1,000 per person one way).
The runs here are long and offer beautiful scenery along the way, the views at the top of the mountains are incredible, especially during sunset, and the powder is so, so, so soft, soft enough to fall in and never want to get back up again.
Access: From Sapporo Station, take a JR limited express train to Takikawa, and then transfer to a local train to Furano. The entire trip should take roughly 2-hours and cost 4,000 per person one way.
Due to the popularity of these ski fields, expect to rub shoulders with not only enthusiasts from around the country, but also globally, as powder chasers from around the world unite together under the same love of snow.
Winter in Japan – Amazing Snowscape Scenery
We can try again and again to describe what the scenery is like in Japan in Winter, but nothing can really prepare you for the winter wonderland that awaits you. Snow is generally not associated with traveling in Asian countries, but it absolutely is one of the main reasons why you should visit in winter. Unlike the harsh, slushy snow that falls in the minority of countries in the southern hemisphere, parts of North America, and most of Europe, the snowfall in Japan could actually be the inspiration for the saying ‘as soft as snow’. It’s silken in texture and could float down like petals or pelt down like hail, and still, it will feel pleasant against your skin either way.
Tokyo city rarely encounters moderate snowfall during winter, however, if you plan to head on a Shinkansen to neighbouring cities, to the Japan countryside, or even to the other side of the country, you’re bound to come across some gorgeous snowscapes during your journey.
Every time you’re transiting somewhere, make sure to look outside the winter. The wonderfully white scene will remain forever etched on your mind – metres of snowfall covering footpaths, roads, and roofs, people dressed in thick coats and warm headgear ambling along leaving deep footprints wherever they step, snowball fights amongst the local kids and snowmen that look endearingly round and fragile.
In summer, it’s all about tall towers and green rice fields, but in winter, a winter wonderland awaits.
Winter in Japan – Enjoy Outdoor Onsens
Onsens in Japan are legendary and yet they’re also highly accessible across the country. They are basically a natural hot spring bath situated in a volcanic area as well as the bathing facilities within traditional Japanese inns. It’s a major tick off the bucket list for visitors who want to experience something that is quintessentially Japanese. The gorgeous experience’s popularity has also been helped along recently by the boom in social media and the sharing of posts by many travellers in Japan of them resting in their own open air private onsen, gazing out from the top of a mountain to the snowscape surrounding them, with steam rising in the air to accentuate the enigma of the experience.
You can experience an onsen at any time of the year, but of course, the allure of sliding into a steaming hot onsen when its 0 degrees out is slightly more appealing than when it’s a sweltering 30 degrees outside. The traditional onsens are public, often split by gender, however, there are also private ones (kashikiri) that can be booked within certain establishments and/or hotels.
Below are a few popular onsen areas that might be worth your time to visit:
Ginzan Onsen Area, Yamagata
A secluded hot spring town located in the mountains of Yamagata, Ginzan Onsen is something straight out of a historic Japanese novel. The building structures have retained their ancient look, customs are upheld by the ryokans here, and, being built over a river with several wooden bridges build across, it is one of the most gorgeous towns you’ll ever come across. In winter, snow will cover almost all inches of the floor here, and yet you’ll still find guests draped in their yukatas wandering the streets to make the most of the beauty of the place. Most ryokans are booked out throughout the year, however, there are two public baths and a free foot bath that can be used.
Access: From Tokyo station, take the JR Yamagata Shinkansen to Oishida Station. From there, hop on a bus for Ginzan Onsen. The entire trip should take 240-minutes, and cost 12,710 yen per person one way.
Located north of Kobe city, Arima Onsen is one of the oldest onsen towns in all of Japan. Its history can be seen in the old structures, the cobblestones, and the onsens built from many years ago. It’s a quaint little town that, although is only an hour away from Kobe, feels like it’s a million miles away from civilisation. You can walk leisurely through the village and spend hours just taking in the beauty of it all, eating kobe beef croquettes and bathing in onsens to pass time.
Access: From Kobe Station, head to Sannomiya Station, and alight there for Tanigami station. From Tanigami, take the train to Arima-gushi, and transfer to the Arima Line to Arima Onsen station. The entire trip will take only 40-minutes, and cost 930 yen.
Beppu Hot Springs
Located in the Oita Prefecture in Kyushu, in western Japan, the Beppu Hot Springs is one of the most popular activities and attractions in Oita. There are multiple different types of hot springs you can take here, and there are also various types of baths you can try as well, such as the famous Shoningahama Seaside Sand Bath and the Hoyoland mud bath. For the traditional Japanese onsen experience on a day trip, check out Hyotan Onsen.
Access: From JR Shin-Osaka station, hop on the Nozomi Shinkansen or the Sakura Shinkansen and alight at Ogura station. From there, transfer to the Limited Express Sonic train and hop off at Beppu Station.
Winter in Japan – The Snow Monkeys
You’ve probably come across it before, pictures of the adorably hairy snow monkeys with the red faces, soaking in the hot springs on the mountains, completely oblivious to their surroundings and just taking in the moment. In some ways, they’re the symbol of winter in Japan, and you can witness them in their natural habitat in Nagano.
The Jigokudani Monkey Park allows visitors to experience seeing these wild monkeys bathing in the hot spring. There is only one pool here, in which the monkeys gather around. They live in large social groups, and can be very entertaining to watch, hence why this is such a popular attraction in Japan. People can spend hours snapping away at these cute animals and they won’t be phased.
This park is open all year round, but the park is best visited in winter, when snow surrounds the onsen. The monkeys are incredibly photogenic and some might even pose for you!
Winter in Japan – Illuminations
One thing that the Japanese are incredibly proud of is their illuminations (light displays) in winter. If you didn’t already know, every winter is every Japanese city’s chance to outdo their previous year’s show with an even more extravagant, jaw-dropping, inspiring, colourful light show. There are no bulbs too bright and no vision too hard for the committees that pull together these light shows – they are quite next level.
If you are visiting an area outside of the three main tourist areas (Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto), simply google ‘illuminations (city name)’, and you’ll most likely find that either within that city, or in the closest main city, there will be a massive light display for you to go to experience. The Japanese take these seriously, and you won’t be disappointed if you’re after a few hours of fun, great photo opportunities, and blending in with the locals (who all seem to enjoy these more and more, year on year).
Of course, Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto all maintain a superbly high level of quality lightshows throughout their city, with not only one but multiple illuminations lighting up different areas every night of their show. In Tokyo, for example, the entire Meguro River is lit up at night, making it a spectacular place for riverside photo opportunities; parts of Shinjuku station are strung with LED lights, making the commute slightly more bearable; Tokyo Midtown puts up a spectacular show for Christmas that highlights their entire complex; and we’ve barely even touched the list.
Illuminations in Japan are a wonderful attraction for all types of travellers: families with young kids, couples who are after a romantic date, groups of friends who are after a fun, relaxed night full of great photo opportunities – everybody!
We absolutely adore winter in Japan, we know you will too, if you just give it a chance. Despite it being during the holiday period where most people would prefer to escape to a tropical island, we can guarantee that experiencing the cold season here will make for an unforgettable trip, and the stunning photos you’ll end up with after this trip will just remind you again and again that you made the right choice.
For more information about the 3 other Japan Seasons, you can read these articles: