Winter in Japan has plenty to offer visitors, from the snow monkeys of Nagano to ice sculptures in Hokkaido. Japan’s mountainous landscapes mean its snowy peaks are heaven for winter sports enthusiasts, whilst illumination events around the country are popular with families and couples. Read on to discover what to do in Japan in winter.
Have you been to Japan during the winter? What was your favorite activity? Let me know in the comments! Are you planning a trip to Japan soon? Check out my 4-day Tokyo itinerary, 5-day Tokyo itinerary, and 3-day Kyoto itinerary for first-time visitors.
Explore Hokkaido, Japan’s Winter Wonderland
Without a doubt, one of the best places to enjoy Japan in the winter is on the northernmost island of Hokkaido, which transforms into a stunning winter wonderland around December time as the snow starts to fall. The island offers something for everyone. If you’re looking for a city break, head to Sapporo and Hakodate to discover their Christmas markets and illuminations. The charming coastal city of Otaru is also a delight to experience during their annual festival in February, which sees thousands of candles light up the city and along the canal. Fans of winter sports can, go ice walking across Hokkaido’s famous partially frozen Lake Shikotsu, or head to the slopes of Niseko, whilst nature fans can enjoy smelt fishing, canoeing and snowshoe trekking through the Kushiro marshlands in a one-day winter tour.
Enjoy Japan’s Unique Winter Dishes
Much of Japan’s cuisine changes with the seasons and the arrival of winter marks the appearance of heart-warming dishes such as nabe, oden, and nikujaga. Nabe is a kind of Japanese hotpot usually filled with vegetables and meat or fish. Eating nabe is a fun social dining experience where groups of friends gather together to make the dish around a portable stove or meet in restaurants. If you’re in Tokyo, you have to try out a nabe party for yourself, with locals and visitors visitors from all over the world.
Oden can be purchased throughout Japan and is often sold in convenience stores during the winter, it consists of a light broth containing items to include fishcakes, daikon radish, and boiled eggs. Nikujaga is a filling dish often cooked at home and is a kind of beef and potato stew, perfect comfort food on a cold day.
Enhance your winter dining experience even further by getting cozy under a Japanese kotatsu, a low table with a built-in heater, covered by thick blankets that are impossible to leave once you’re under!
Visit Japan’s Snow Monkeys
One of Japan’s most popular tourist destinations during the winter is the Jigokudani monkey park in Nagano prefecture, famous for its wild monkeys that bathe in the natural hot springs, known as onsen in Japanese. The winter months are the best time to see the Japanese Macaques when the snow makes the park particularly photogenic. If you’re looking for a deeper dive into the world of these curious creatures then why not try a one-day tour in Nagano which also includes a visit to a local Buddhist temple, a restaurant for lunch, and even a sake tasting experience.
See Awesome Illuminations
Winter illuminations in Japan are a joy to behold, with many cities going all out with their seasonal light displays. In Tokyo, the electric blue lights around Shibuya is one of the city’s top illumination spots, whilst Kobe’s annual Luminarie light festival features a striking light show as a moving tribute to people who lost their lives in the 1995 earthquake. Other popular light festivals include the illuminations at Yomiuriland, a theme park in Tokyo whose attractions are decorated with millions of LED lights, and the lights at Nabana no Sato flower park near Nagoya, which features the famous “hikari” tunnel of lights that makes it one of Japan’s most popular sights in winter.
Warm-Up in a Japanese Onsen
Japan is home to thousands of natural hot springs, and you’ll find scenic hot spring towns throughout the country which make for a wonderful escape from the frosty temperatures. Examples of unique onsen experiences in Japan include Beppu in Kyushu, home to natural hot springs and sand baths, where visitors are buried up to their neck in warm sands, and Dogo Onsen in the city of Matsuyama, home to a beautiful three-story wooden bathhouse dating back to the 1800s. For a peek inside one of Japan’s oldest bathhouses try this unique Dogo onsen and beer drinking experience.
Go Crazy for Japan’s Lucky Bags
Every winter in early January, people line up to buy fukubukuro, Japanese lucky bags. The idea is that you go to your favorite stores and buy a mystery bag that contains items that are heavily discounted. The only catch is that you can’t see what is inside the bag, so there is an element of luck involved as to whether you will like what’s inside. These kinds of bags are extremely popular, with many selling out within minutes of going on sale. If you are visiting Japan during this time, it’s a fun shopping experience to try. Whilst clothing brands sell some of the most popular lucky bags, other companies such as Starbucks also sell bags featuring items such as coffee beans, drinks vouchers, and mugs.
Discover the Best Winter Festivals
You can catch some of the best festivals in Japan during the winter season, particularly in the northern prefectures. The most famous is the Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido which is held every February and attracts visitors from around the world to see its giant ice and snow sculptures. Other festivals of note during winter include the Yokote Kamakura Snow Festival in Akita featuring snow sculptures and candlelit igloos, and the snow monsters of Mount Zao in Tohoku.
Experience a Japanese New Year
New Year in Japan is different to western countries, it is a time for families to get together and visit the local temple, eat traditional food known as osechi, and stay up to watch the first sunrise of the year. It’s a time of reflection not partying, although you can still find western-style countdown parties in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka too. One of the best places to spend New Year’s Eve in Japan is around Narita in Chiba, close to Tokyo’s international airport. The small town is buzzing on New Year’s Eve with restaurants and bars, whilst food stalls line the streets surrounding the Naritasan Shinsho-ji temple.
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Try Some Winter Sports
Japan’s abundance of mountains makes it the ideal destination to try out some winter sports, and there are more than 500 ski resorts around the country to choose from. Japan’s ski season usually lasts from December to March although dates can vary depending on the weather conditions. Some of the most popular areas for winter sports include the resorts of Niseko, Rusutsu, Tomamu, and Furano in Hokkaido, and Hakuba Valley near Nagano which played host to the Winter Olympics in 1998. Just one hour on the bullet train from Tokyo you’ll also find Karuizawa, an upscale resort with skiing and ice skating. Experienced skiers looking for a taste of how it’s done in Northern Japan can enjoy a back country ski and snowboarding tour, or if skiing isn’t your thing then you can take a hiking tour of some of Niseko’s incredible mountains.
Visit the Snowy Farmhouses of Shirakawa-go
The UNESCO World Heritage site of Shirakawa-go in Gifu prefecture is one of Japan’s loveliest winter spots thanks to the region’s unique style of thatched farmhouses which have been preserved for hundreds of years. The building’s sloped roofs are designed to cope with heavy snowfall, making them a picturesque spot to visit for a day or stay overnight. Some of the villages in the area also hold winter illumination events where the houses are lit up at night.
You can take a trip to Shirakawa-go by bus from Nagano and enjoy the local food, culture and attractions, or better still, spend the night in luxury in the iconic folk village at the Hida Takayama Onsen.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan be sure to download my 101 insider travel tips for 2020 & 2021 below, based on my experiences of living in Japan for more than 3 years and interviews with local experts and tour guides.
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