Many travelers plan their visit to Japan to coincide with the flowering of the cherry blossom in springtime. Yes, the season is beautiful and the flowers impressive, but they’re missing out big time because winter in Japan is even more spectacular.
The Japanese enjoy their snowfall to the max and hold annual ice and snow festival the likes of which you won’t see anywhere else in the world. The festivals are one of the best things to do in Japan in the winter and attract millions of visitors to view the displays of elaborate sculptures and illuminations.
Onsen, bathing outdoors in natural hot springs, is a popular year-round activity in Japan, but doing it during the winter months when the pools are surrounded by snow and ice adds another incredible dimension to the experience. Japan also has amazing winter sports resorts for skiing and snowboarding, and they’re all in unbelievably stunning landscapes.
Do you need any more reasons to start planning a trip to Japan in winter?
Winter Months in Japan
The Japanese winter is a relatively brief one starting around the beginning of December and running through to the end of February or at the latest, mid-March. But, as with many countries, the further north you travel then the winters begin to get longer and harsher.
In some parts of northern Japan and in the more mountainous regions, winter can extend from November right through to May with the coldest temperatures being experienced around mid-season in February.
Stay in southern Japan or in the Pacific Ocean coastal areas and because of the milder climate there, you might not see one snowflake fall all winter and the days can often be gray, damp and overcast.
Head west to the prefectures along the coastline of the Japanese Sea facing towards Russia and Korea and winter is a whole new story. Temperatures drop to below zero almost daily, and heavy snowfalls are frequent.
What is the Best Time to Visit Japan in Winter?
Japan is a country which receives over twenty million visitors annually and as with many places which attract travelers in vast quantities; it has its touristic high and low seasons.
January to March is one of the best times to visit Japan as it is considered to be the low season, there are fewer crowds and accommodation is generally more economical. Though it has to be said, forget the days leading up to and after New Year. The same as Oban in August and Golden Week in late April, New Year is one of the main celebratory periods and can be absolute chaos for transportation. Hotel reservations are also hard to come by as everything is booked well in advance and many businesses, shops, and restaurants close for the holidays.
Early December is also a good time to visit Japan as it’s the shoulder month between high and low season, the weather is cold, but clear and there are not so many visitors to contend with.
So once you’re there, what are the top ten places to visit in Japan in winter?
10. The Blue Pond, Biei, Hokkaido
The Blue Pond is a beautiful patch of sky-blue colored water hidden by dense forest near the town of Biei in the Japanese prefecture of Hokkaido. The lagoon-like pond was created when excavations were made to prevent mudslides from eruptions of Mount Tokachi reaching the town and the hollow left behind from the digs filled with water.
When man tampers with nature the end result can often be disastrous. For once, that’s not the case where the Blue Pond is concerned. What makes the pond special is it contains traces of chemicals which turn its waters a rainbow of different blue hues depending on the season.
The best time to see the Blue Pond is during the winter when it’s surrounded by snow and the blue of the water strikes a strong contrast with the pristine white. The pond is even more impressive after five at night when its illuminated with spotlights and the color of the water is reflected onto the snow.
Interesting Fact: The Blue Pond in winter was a featured wallpaper image for the Apple Inc release of the macbook Mountain Lion OS X.
Other Places to Visit in Biei in Winter
Biei is a quiet town and the area around the Blue Pond is not touristically developed, but there are still things to do there. In winter Biei is surrounded by very Instagrammable snow-covered landscapes, and volcanic Mount Tokachi is only half an hours drive from the town.
Just three minutes outside of Biei is the Biei Shirogane Onsen hot springs and hotel where you can stay overnight to enjoy some therapeutic bathing in the spa’s thermal waters.
Close by the Shirogane Onsen, and one of the area’s main attractions, is the stunning Shirahige Waterfalls. The multi-cascade falls are a hundred feet high and look magical when lit with their wintertime illuminations.
9. Yuzawa Ski Resorts
The Yuzawa Ski Resorts are some of Japan’s top winter sports destination. Yuzawa, in the Japanese Alps, is world-renowned for its fabulous hot springs, snowboarding, and ski trails. Because of its geographical location, the town receives an excellent snowfall and has a prolonged winter season.
Yuzawa is just an eighty-minute train ride away from Tokyo which makes it easily accessible. Traveling on from Yuzawa to any of the resorts is not a problem either as there’s a good public transport network. There is even one resort, the Gala Yuzawa, which is conveniently connected to a Shinkansen station. If you’re staying in Tokyo and want to make a one-day skiing trip, you can.
Ski Resorts in Yuzawa
There are a total of twelve ski resorts in and around Yuzawa offering skiing and snow-related sports for all level of participant. If you just want to make some snowballs and play in the snow, well, you can do that in Yuzawa too.
Gala Yuzawa is the only ski resort worldwide with a Shinkansen station, so it’s the simplest resort to access. The cable car gondolas up to the Gala resort ski slopes also leave from the Shinkansen station where there is also equipment rental available.
The Naeba Ski Resort in Yuzawa is one of the biggest ski resorts in Japan. As well as having ski trails for novice, intermediate and advanced skiers and snowboarders, the resort offers snow-related activities for non-skiers in their Family Snowland. To just take in the beauty of the snow-clad scenery between Naeba and Kagura, go on a twenty-five-minute Dragondola cable car ride. The views are beyond awesome.
Yuzawa Hot Springs
Yuzawa first became a popular place in Japan to visit in winter because of its numerous hot springs some of which have histories dating back almost nine hundred years. There are five in Yuzawa town itself one of which, the Kaido no Yu, is outdoor and has breathtaking views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains from its pools.
8. Ginzan Onsen, Yamagata
Bathing in hot springs or onsen is an enjoyable way of relaxing in Japan. In winter, when there’s snow on the ground and a chill in the air, taking onsen outdoors becomes an even more pleasurable experience.
One of the most picturesque places to take a winter onsen in Japan is the town of Ginzan in the Yamagata prefecture. The small mountain town was founded over six hundred years ago and is full of historical, wooden-fronted ryokans, the traditional onsen inns, around the streets of its pedestrianized center and along the banks of the Ginzan River which intersects it.
There are two onsen public baths, Shiroganeyu and Omokageyu, right in the center of Ginzan plus a free of charge Warashiyu public foot spa if you don’t want to get fully immersed. Ginzan is such a beautifully tranquil town that after taking onsen many people choose to spend the night there and as the majority of ryokans don’t permit children, a peaceful night is guaranteed. Enjoy the natural spa treatment to the max by taking a room at a ryokan, like Ginzano, with a private onsen which has both indoor baths and outdoor baths as well as superb scenic views.
Interesting Fact: The famous Oscar-winning animation, Spirited Away, was inspired by the incredible scenery of Ginzan. The town was also used for location shoots in the NHK’s TV series, Oshin.
7. Fuji-Q Highland, Fujiyoshida
While you may think winter is not quite the right time to visit an amusement park or even Japan the right country to do it in, you’d be wrong. Fuji-Q Highland is a theme park at the base of Mount Fuji with some of the most thrilling adrenaline rides in the world. With its close proximity to Tokyo, the park draws the city’s thrill-seeking crowds and waiting times for rides can often be two to three hours long. Visit Fuji-Q in winter and your time spent queueing will be shortened to around sixty minutes.
The park has four mega, Guinness World Record holding, roller coasters which will force a scream from even the most stoic rider. They are the fastest, the highest and the steepest and totally unbelievable. Don’t miss getting on Dododonpa, Takabisha, Eejanaika, and Fujiyama; you’ll have the roller coaster rides of your life. If you’ve no head for heights but still want a thrill then head into the Labyrinth of Fear. The house of horrors is almost one kilometer long and full of one nightmarish room after another from which there is no quick escape.
Fuji-Q opens an ice-skating rink from late autumn onwards which has magnificent views of Mount Fuji and if you’ve never skated before, no worries, the park has designed special double-bladed skates with more stability to give novice skaters confidence on the ice. There are also delightful night time festive illuminations in the Gaspard et Lisa park in Fuji-Q’s free admission area by the main entrance.
NB: Fuji-Q Highland is open all year, but if the weather conditions are severe, some attractions may be closed for safety reasons. Notice of temporary closures of rides are posted on the theme park’s website, so if you’re planning on visiting Fuji-Q in winter check what’s open and what’s not on the park’s website here before you go.
Pro Tip: To travel from Tokyo to Fuji-Q, it’s more economical to purchase a combination ticket which includes the park entrance fee than buying the bus and park admission separately.
Pro Tip: To be one of the first at the gates in the morning, stay somewhere close by the park. The Onsen Hotel Highland Resort is a great choice but if you’re on a budget, take a look at the capsule hotel, the Cabin & Lounge Highland Station Inn, it’s a lot easier on the pocket.
6. Winter Travel Via JR Tadami Line
The JR Tadami Line is a rail service which runs for over eighty miles through the most spectacular parts of the Fukushima and Niigata prefectures. While the Japanese countryside in winter, when it’s blanketed with a thick covering of snow, is incredibly beautiful everywhere the views on this train ride will literally take your breath away.
The service connects the cities of Aizuwakamatsu and Uonuma traveling through mountain valleys covered with pine forests following the winding course of rivers spanned by awe-inspiring bridges. It’s a slow and ponderous journey which gives you time to sit back and admire the scenic vistas through the carriage window.
Top Sights on the Tadami Line
Break the journey at the small town of Mishima, famous for its handicrafts and soba, to visit the Tadami River Bridge Viewpoint. It’s one of the top sights on the Tadami Line and probably the most photogenic spot in all Japan. From the viewpoint, accessible from the Ozekaido Mishima Juku Roadside Station via a stepped pathway, there’s a panoramic view of the Tadami River Bridge. The lilac-colored, six-hundred-foot long iron suspension bridge spans the river, and when the conditions are right, its image is perfectly reflected in the waters below.
Don’t miss trying the naturally carbonated mineral water from the well in the town of Kaneyama. The water is so good, most visitors take a bottle with them and take some home. Read about more things to do on the Tadami Line in this informative and downloadable pamphlet.
5. Japan Winter Sales
Japan in winter is retail therapy heaven. No matter what area of Japan you visit or which city you find yourself in, there will be sales stickers on just about everything and some fantastic bargains to be had.
The Best Time For Winter Sales
Winter sales in Japan start in December when fashion retailers begin to prepare for the spring season by selling off all their winter stock. December is also a great month for getting discounted home appliances too. January sees prices on everything drop even lower and the first three days after New Year often turn into a shopping frenzy plus the ‘lucky bags’ go on sale.
Fukubukuro or Lucky Bags
Fukubukuro or Lucky Bags are sold during the first few days after New Year. While the value of the contents is guaranteed to be worth much more than the asking price, what’s actually inside the bag is unknown until it’s purchased and opened. You could spend ten thousand yen and find you’ve bought something worth thirty and if it’s something you actually wanted, well, you’d be very lucky.
The Best Places for Winter Shopping
Winter sales in Japan are widespread with most retailers participating though many don’t advertise the details of their price reductions on their websites. Japan Shop Now is a useful website for finding store listings and other shopping-related information, but the only way to find out which stores have sales on is to check them out when you’re there.
4. Jigokudani Monkey Park
Wild Japanese macaques inhabit the Jigokudani mountainsides of the Nagano prefecture roaming the extensive terrains freely. Part of their territory is a thermal spa in the Yokoyu River valley where they go to bathe during spells of extreme cold.
The monkey population in Jigokudani number in the hundreds, and although it’s not often you can get within touching distance of wild animals in their natural habitat, at the Jigokudani Monkey Park, it’s possible to do just that and while they’re in the water too. While the bathing macaques of Jigokudani are internet famous, the park doesn’t receive tremendous amounts of visitors as it is only reachable by walking a mile-long track through dense forest.
The Best Time to Visit Jigokudani Monkey Park
Winter when there is snow on the ground, around December through to March, is a good time to visit Jigokudani Monkey Park, but the best months are January and February as the temperatures drop to to around minus ten degrees Celsius which is when the macaques prefer to bathe. Winter, when the spa waters are steaming and the monkeys have a dusting of snow on their fur, is also the best time for taking amazing photos.
Places to Stay in Jigokudani Monkey Park
The ryokan, Korakukan, is located in the same valley as the Jigokudani Monkey Park and while it’s not the most economical option, it does have an outdoor onsen which the macaques often use. It also has private indoor baths with no monkeys if bathing with wild primates isn’t on your want-to-do list. Hotels and inns easier on your vacation budget can be found in the nearby towns of Yudanaka and Shibu.
Interesting Fact: The snow monkeys of Jigokudani were made famous in the 1992 film, Baraka, where they’re seen bathing in the onsen. You can see the opening scenes here.
3. Shirakawa-go Winter Villages
The Shirakawa-go region of Japan was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the mid-1990s to conserve the unique architecture of the houses. The Gassho-zukuri, or hands in prayer, farmhouses have steeply sloping roofs constructed without nails which enables them to cope structurally with the heavy winter snowfalls in the area.
Snowfalls begin around mid-December in Shirakawa-go turning it into a Japanese winter wonderland for the entire season, and the Gassho-zukuri farmhouses take on a snow-covered picture-perfect look. The most popular village to visit is Ogimachi which is the biggest and has several of the traditional farmhouses over two hundred years old.
Shirakawa-go Winter Illuminations
Shirakawa-go has several lighting-up events during the winter season, but from 2019 onward new regulations will be in place which require visitors to make a reservation to attend them. Places will be limited, so if you’re planning on going, register and make a prior reservation on the official website.
Alternative To Shirakawa-go
The villages of the Gokayama region, compared to Shirakawa-go, are relatively undeveloped touristically and still a little off the main track. Gokayama, Suganuma, and Ainokura are the best villages to visit in the Gokayama area.
2. Sapporo Snow Festival
The Sapporo Snow Festival is the largest and most spectacular snow festival in Japan. As well as taking over the streets of the city with ice and snow sculptures in forms as diverse as Mickey Mouse to Donald Trump, the festival occupies three major sites – the Odori, the Susukino and the Tsu Dome.
The week-long winter celebration in Sapporo, the capital of the Hokkaido prefecture, takes place during one week in February and attracts over two million visitors every year. Accommodation is at a premium and expensive, so if you’re planning on going make sure to book well in advance. Try arriving a few days before the festival starts and leaving after its finished and it could help save on airfares.
The Odori site hosts the most sculptures and the biggest – some are as large as buildings. You can get a great view of the Odori ice sculptures from the Sapporo TV Tower which is at the eastern end of Odori Park.
Susukino is an entertainment and red-light district where smaller ice sculptures are distributed between the karaoke bars and various other establishments.
The Tsu Dome is outside of Sapporo and offers visitors lots of snow-related activities for both adults and children.
Interesting Fact: The Sapporo Snow and Ice Festival began in the 1950s with just six snow statues built by students in Odori Park.
The Best Time to Visit Sapporo Festival
Visit the festival at the beginning of the week as the sculptures begin to lose shape and get dirty quite quickly. Avoid the first day if you can as its the most crowded. For some smashing fun, join in the ice sculpture destruction session on the final day of the festival. Get there early, as by midday all that’s left are mounds and mounds of melting crushed ice.
Other Winter Festivals In Japan
The Otaru Light Snow Path Festival usually takes place at the same time as Sapporo’s, and as it’s in a neighboring town, most visitors make the most of the opportunity and visit both festivals. If you can’t make it to Sapporo, try one of these other festivals instead. The Tokamachi Snow Festival or the Asahikawa Winter Festival. They’re all fantastic.
1. Winter Illuminations in Tokyo
There are winter illuminations all over Japan, with each district competing to be the one with the most impressive display, but the ones you shouldn’t miss are in the capital city, Tokyo. In the past, lighting up the city was done with LED lights, now it’s LED with digital choreography, projection mapping, and interaction that draws the crowds.
Tokyo positively glows during the festive season, but some areas of the city excel at illuminations more than others. The best winter illuminations in Tokyo are the Caretta Shiodome Illuminations, the Roppongi Hills Christmas Lights and the Tokyo Midtown Christmas Illuminations.
Caretta Shiodome Illuminations
The Caretta Shiodome Illuminations are undoubtedly the most impressive and longest running in the city. The yearly extravaganza begins in November and continues through to Mid-February. Two-thousand five hundred lights perform to music every fifteen minutes with an extra opening spectacular taking place at five every afternoon. There’s a lot to see, so find out where and what’s happening when on the illumination map and schedule.
Roppongi Hills Christmas Lights
The Roppongi Hills Christmas Lights draw mega crowds of over seven million people every year. There are five major illumination sites though the most popular are the illuminations on Keyakizaka Street where the trees are decked with almost a million multi-colored lights. It’s pure winter magic. While you’re there, don’t miss the German-style Christmas market in the Oyane Plaza. It’s Tokyo’s oldest and biggest Christmas market and has a fantastic festive atmosphere.
Tokyo Midtown Christmas Illuminations
Tokyo Midtown is an urban district nearby Roppongi Hills which literally goes all out on its winter illuminations. The Starlight Garden is a six and a half thousand square foot lawned square lit with countless lights representing the stars and planets of the universe and is the central focus of the Tokyo Midtown illuminations. It’s a romantic scenario made even more magical by the constant emissions from a gigantic bubble machine.
To ensure no-one misses any of the incredible lights, there’s a map to help you find your way around the Tokyo Midtown Christmas Illuminations. Tokyo Midtown also hosts a month-long Christmas Wine Festival in December showcasing over a hundred wines from all over the world.
The Best Time to Experience Winter Illuminations
Winter illuminations in Tokyo tend to begin around the end of November or the beginning of December though some start as early as October and can continue right through to Valentine’s Day in February or even until the start of spring. Lighting up time is mostly 5 pm to 11 pm daily.