Forget the Springtime Cherry Blossoms, Here Are Seven Reasons to Visit Japan in Winter
Head to the Japanese Alps for skiing and snowboarding, bathe in natural onsens and stay in some magical mountain villages.
December 14, 2022
Travellers are already obsessed with Japan's wild natural landscapes and hyper-organised cities bursting with a delightfully diverse culture. You've also got ancient temples, onsen baths and picturesque towns scattered about the islands. But cover all of this in snow, and see it become something far more magical. And, yes, cold. But magical, nonetheless.
In the colder months, Japan comes alive with a range of activities like skiing, snowboarding and a vibrant selection of seasonal festivals. There is a rich winter culture in Japan that is seemingly underrated — read on to see why we are obsessed with Japan when it's doused in snow.
WINTER WONDERLAND VILLAGES
Head to remote mountain villages to find Japan's own version of hygge. The steep pitched roofs of alpine homes are covered in snow and surrounded by frosted trees. Deep blankets of white consume the streets and cover frozen lakes, too. Yep, it's a lot of snow.
The two most famous villages to visit — Shirakawa-go and Gokayama — are both UNESCO World Heritage sites. You'll want longer than a day trip to experience them, so stay in one of the farmhouses that have been converted into small family-run bed and breakfasts to experience rural Japanese culture authentically. Take your time exploring these winter oases, getting to know the people who call them home.
SKIING AND SNOWBOARDING
With all the snow and countless mountain ranges, it's no surprise that Japan is one of the world's biggest skiing and snowboarding destinations. There are over 500 ski resorts here, and they've even hosted two Winter Olympics. If you're into winter sports, then heading to Japan in winter is a no-brainer.
On the main island, visit Hakuba Valley to find a series of connected resorts. The northern island is also incredibly popular for its very reliable snowfall. Rusutsu, Niseko and Furano are some of the most popular in this region. But, if we're being honest, just about any ski spot in Japan will be spectacular.
Editor's tip: book the ultimate Japan ski tour (including lift passes, transfers and all your accommodation for seven nights) around the Hakuba Valley here.
There's no need to run all the way to Iceland to soak in hot natural springs. Japan, a collection of volcanic islands, is full of this naturally heated water that bubbles up to the surface. It's great for your skin and your soul. And, yeah, you can visit these all year round — but nothing beats a winter onsen. Just think: vistas of Japan's snow-covered countryside while you soak your troubles away. It's an experience like no other.
And, when you're searching for onsens, be sure to check out the other nature parks nearby. See snow monkeys bathing in hot springs at the Jigokudani Monkey Park, feed foxes at Zao Fox Village and watch cranes dance in the fields within the Kushiro Marsh.
SEASONAL FOOD AND DRINK
While you're soaking in onsens, hanging out at ski resorts and wandering rugged-up around the country's towns and cities, few things will heat you up like a shot of sake. It's like a delicious instant heat pack for your insides. And hot sake is popular for that very reason. Head to an izakaya or two during your stay and drink a few tipples.
We all know the cuisine in Japan is next level, and there are dishes that are traditionally made for winter. First off, there's oden. It's a one-pot dish of various savoury goodies simmered in a soy sauce and dashi kelp broth. You can get this anywhere, even convenience stores. Nabe is also a must-try. It's a classic hot-pot dish that's similar to Korean and Chinese hot pots — just with quintessential Japanese flavours. Get cosy around these brothy bowls on a cold winter evening with your mates.
We all know that Japan uniquely blends its traditional customs with its modern culture and technology. And we believe the best way to experience this phenomenon is by hitting up some local festivals. The spring cherry blossom festival is the best known, but Japan has its own winter celebrations that rival those throughout other times of the year.
Christmas and New Year's Eve are big in Japan, but are very family oriented. If you're visiting with mates, or don't know any locals, we recommend you hit up Japan during the Sapporo Snow Festival from February 4–11. The city of Sapporo is taken over by snow and ice sculptures, with live music, street food and carnivals rides too. Be sure to check out the nearby Otaru Snow Light Path Festival and Tokyo's Winter Illuminations as well.
When you have mates visiting from overseas, it's not abnormal to take them to an AFL or NRL match. The same can be said for sumo wrestling in Japan. Not only is the sport so much fun to watch, it's also one of the best places to do some people watching. A wide cross-section of Japanese people will attend these games, having a big day of drinking, eating and cheering on the athletes.
Winter is one of the best times to do some athletic spectating here, too. There are a few big tournaments in January and February, with Tokyo being the best place to see them. Just make sure you plan ahead and book tickets early. Make a proper day of it: tickets usually give you access to the arena for the entire day, so take your time learning all the intricacies of the sport with a few drinks in hand.
A lot of people come to Japan for the shopping. It's a thing. The city is full of unique fashion stores and all the best tech companies selling the latest devices. But you'd be a fool to come to Japan for shopping any other time than the start of the year — as bargains abound in the major cities.
It's also when you'll find fukubukuro (literally 'lucky bag'). These Japanese New Year treats are put together by store owners, and hold a bunch of mystery items that are usually worth a lot more than the price you pay for the bag. It's a lucky dip and hugely popular — people go nuts for them. While visiting Japan in winter, be sure to nab a couple and see what you find.
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Top images: Japan National Tourism Organisation
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