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How to Plan a Japan Winter Trip

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If you’re considering a Japan winter trip, you’re in for a unique and enchanting experience. While Japan’s winter season typically spans from December to February, the duration and intensity of this season vary across the country. But is it worth visiting Japan in winter? Absolutely! This season unveils a whole new side of the country, where snow-covered landscapes, captivating festivals, and delightful winter traditions await. In this guide, we’ll explore the best places to go, top activities to enjoy, and recommended Japan winter itineraries that will make your journey memorable. Whether you’re a fan of winter sports, cultural explorations, or scenic wonders, Japan has something to offer everyone during the colder months. So, bundle up and prepare for an unforgettable winter adventure in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Recommended Itinerary

When is Winter in Japan & Winter Weather in Japan

The winter season in Japan typically spans from early to mid-December until the middle of March. However, the duration and intensity of winter can vary significantly based on geographical location. In central Japan, encompassing cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, temperatures usually range from around 25 to 45 °F (-4 to 7 °C). Moving northward, particularly in Hokkaido and the northern regions of Honshu, winter can be considerably colder, marked by substantial snowfall, especially on slopes facing the northwest. In contrast, the central-southern regions experience milder winters, with rainy conditions in the west and relatively dry and sunny weather in places like Tokyo. Snowfall becomes more prominent as you head further north, while southern Japan enjoys a relatively mild winter.

Is It Worth Visiting Japan in Winter

Japan is a beautiful country to visit in winter, and there are many reasons why it’s worth visiting during this season. Here are some of the reasons why you should consider visiting Japan in winter:

  • Escape the Crowds: Winter is the off-season for tourism in Japan, offering the perfect opportunity to explore renowned attractions minus the bustling crowds.
  • Dazzling Illuminations: Japan is renowned for its captivating winter illuminations. From the Tokyo Midtown Christmas Illumination to the enchanting Kobe Luminarie, these light displays add a touch of magic to the season.
  • Soothing Onsen: While hot springs, or onsen, are a year-round attraction, they take on a special charm in winter. Imagine soaking in the warm waters while snowflakes gently fall around you.
  • World-Class Skiing: Japan boasts some of the world’s finest ski resorts, including Niseko, Hakuba, and Shiga Kogen, making it a haven for winter sports enthusiasts.
  • Culinary Delights: Savor the comforting flavors of Japanese cuisine, from steaming hot pot (nabe) and hearty ramen to the delectable oden.
  • Winter Festivals: Embrace the magic of Japan’s winter festivals, including the renowned Sapporo Snow Festival and the captivating Otaru Snow Light Path Festival.
  • Picturesque Landscapes: Winter landscapes, especially in snow-covered regions like Hokkaido and Tohoku, showcase Japan’s natural beauty at its most breathtaking.
  • Budget-Friendly: Travel during the winter months often means lower prices for flights and accommodations, making it an economical choice for your Japan adventure.
Japan Sapporo Snow Festival
Sapporo Snow Festival

Where to Go in Japan in Winter

Hokkaido:

For snow sports enthusiasts, Hokkaido offers top-notch snow resorts like Niseko and Rusutsu, providing the perfect setting for skiing and snowboarding amid breathtaking mountain views. Don’t miss the Sapporo Snow Festival with its colossal snow sculptures and the mesmerizing Drift Ice phenomenon on the Okhotsk Sea.

The world-renowned Sapporo Snow Festival in Japan’s Hokkaido region captivates visitors each February with a week-long celebration of snow and ice. Divided into three main sites, the festival offers diverse attractions: Odori Park, in Sapporo’s center, features intricate snow sculptures and projection mapping shows; Susukino showcases enchanting ice sculptures, an Ice Sculpture Contest, and charming stops like the ‘Fureai Hiroba’ plaza; and Tsudome invites exploration with snow and ice slides and a vast snow maze, ensuring a memorable winter experience for all.

Kyoto:

If you seek cultural and historical richness, explore Kyoto, the former capital. Winter blankets its numerous temples and shrines in serene snowscapes. The iconic Kinkakuji, or Golden Pavilion, reflects gracefully in the pond. Experience traditional events like Hatsumode, the first temple visit of the year, and Setsubun, the bean-throwing festival to dispel evil spirits.

Ginzan Onsen:

For a romantic and soothing escape, Ginzan Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture beckons. Its nostalgic ambiance features wooden ryokans along the river, while lanterns illuminate the streets at night. Relax in outdoor baths amidst snow-covered scenery or venture to the frozen spectacle of Shirogane Falls. Enjoy a tranquil and enchanting winter retreat.

Japan Niseko Ski Resort
Japanese Food - Curry and Rice

Top Things to Do in Japan in Winter

Discover the best winter activities in Japan with these top picks:

1. Skiing and Snowboarding: Hit the renowned slopes of Hokkaido, Nagano, and other snowy regions. Japan’s powder snow and well-equipped ski resorts cater to all skill levels, with hot springs and local cuisine to unwind.

2. Snow Festivals: Immerse yourself in enchanting snow and ice sculptures, dazzling illuminations, and captivating performances at renowned events like the Sapporo Snow Festival, Asahikawa Winter Festival, Otaru Snow Light Path Festival, and Zao Snow Monster Festival.

3. Snow Monkeys in Hot Springs: Witness the rare spectacle of wild Japanese macaques bathing in hot springs amidst a snowy backdrop at the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano.

4. Charming Snow-Covered Villages: Explore traditional towns like Takayama in Gifu, Shirakawa-go in Gifu, and Ouchi-juku in Fukushima, where old-fashioned architecture and culture shine even brighter in the winter.

5. Early Cherry Blossoms: Enjoy an early glimpse of cherry blossoms in Kawazu, Shizuoka, with over 8,000 cherry trees in full bloom from early February to early March. Don’t miss the Kawazu Cherry Blossom Festival.

6. Japanese New Year Traditions: Immerse in the richness of Japanese culture during the New Year, with visits to shrines or temples, festive dishes, fireworks, and shopping for lucky items.

7. Winter Culinary Delights: Savor comforting winter foods like nabe (hot pot), oden, zoni, yudofu, and ramen, alongside seasonal delicacies such as crab, fugu (pufferfish), oysters, and strawberries.

8. Ice Skating: Embrace the festive atmosphere while ice skating at various rinks across Japan, including Tokyo Midtown Ice Rink, Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse Ice Rink, Osaka Castle Ice Rink, and Canal City Hakata Ice Rink. It’s a delightful activity for families and couples.

9. Unique Winter Experiences: Try your hand at ice fishing at the Wakasagi Fishing Festival in Hokkaido, witness the mesmerizing drift ice at the Abashiri Drift Ice Sightseeing Festival, or attend the Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival in Nara to watch a mountain burn.

10. Scenic Train Rides: Enjoy picturesque train journeys with stunning views of snowy landscapes on routes like the JR Tadami Line in Fukushima, the JR Gono Line in Aomori, or the Resort Shirakami Train in Akita. Relish the cozy train interiors and local specialties served on board.

Japan Abashiri Icebreaker
Abashiri Ice Breaker

Recommended Japan Winter Itineraries

For First-time Visitors

If you are a first-time visitor to Japan and want to see the highlights of the country in winter, you can follow this 9-day itinerary that covers Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima.  This itinerary offers a splendid blend of Japan’s modern and traditional facets, along with the serene countryside. Delight in an onsen experience in Hakone, encounter Nagano’s snow monkeys and visit Kyoto and Hiroshima’s iconic landmarks.

Here is a sample itinerary at a glance:

  • Day 1: Arrive in Tokyo and explore the city
  • Day 2: Tokyo sightseeing, including the Imperial Palace, Meiji Shrine, Tokyo Skytree, and more
  • Day 3: Tokyo to Hakone, enjoy the onsen and the views of Mount Fuji
  • Day 4: Hakone to Nagano, see the snow monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park
  • Day 5: Nagano to Kyoto, visit the historic and cultural capital of Japan
  • Day 6: Kyoto sightseeing, including Kinkakuji, Kiyomizudera, Fushimi Inari, and more
  • Day 7: Kyoto to Osaka, enjoy the food and nightlife of Japan’s second-largest city
  • Day 8: Osaka to Hiroshima, visit the Peace Memorial Park and Museum, and take a ferry to Miyajima Island
  • Day 9: Hiroshima to Tokyo, depart from Japan or extend your stay

For Ski or Snowboard Enthusiasts

Discover the diversity and beauty of winter in Japan during this 14-day trip, spanning Sapporo, Otaru, Tokyo, Nagano, Takayama, Shirakawa-go, Kyoto, and Nara. Ski in Hokkaido, explore Sapporo’s chocolate factory and ice festival, visit Tokyo’s bustling fish market and anime district, meet Nagano’s snow monkeys, admire Takayama and Shirakawa-go’s historic townhouses and thatched-roof farmhouses, immerse in Kyoto’s geisha and tea culture, savor sake in Fushimi, and feed deer in Nara. Marvel at Japan’s iconic landmarks, including Tokyo Tower, the Golden Pavilion, the Thousand Torii Gates, and the Great Buddha Temple.

Here is a sample itinerary at a glance for your 14-day trip:

  • Day 1: Arrive in Sapporo and check in to your hotel
  • Day 2: Ski at Sapporo Bankei, a ski resort with night skiing and city views
  • Day 3: Visit the Ishiya Chocolate Factory, where you can learn about the history and production of the famous Shiroi Koibito cookies. Enjoy the Sapporo Ice Festival, where you can see amazing ice sculptures and snow slides
  • Day 4: Transfer to Otaru, a charming port town with a nostalgic atmosphere. Stroll along the Otaru Canal, and visit the Otaru Glass Museum.
  • Day 5: Fly to Tokyo, the capital and largest city of Japan.
  • Day 6: Visit the Tsukiji Market, the largest fish market in the world. Then, head to the Tokyo Tower, a symbol of Tokyo that offers panoramic views of the city. In the afternoon, watch a sumo match at the Ryogoku Kokugikan.
  • Day 7: Experience the otaku culture of Tokyo at Akihabara. You can also visit the Tokyo Anime Center, where you can see exhibitions and events related to anime.
  • Day 8: Transfer to Nagano, a city known for hosting the 1998 Winter Olympics. Visit the Jigokudani Monkey Park, where you can see wild Japanese macaques soaking in hot springs.
  • Day 9: Transfer to Takayama, a historic town that preserves the atmosphere of old Japan. Explore the Sanmachi Suji district.
  • Day 10: Take a day trip to Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that features gassho-zukuri farmhouses, which have steep thatched roofs designed to withstand heavy snowfall.
  • Day 11: Transfer to Kyoto, the former capital and cultural heart of Japan. Visit some of the iconic sites of Kyoto, such as Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion), Kiyomizudera (the Pure Water Temple), and Fushimi Inari (the Thousand Torii Gates)
  • Day 12: Experience the geisha culture of Kyoto at Gion. You can also join a tea ceremony, where you can learn about the etiquette and history of this Japanese art form
  • Day 13: Enjoy some sake tasting at Fushimi. You can also visit some of the sake museums and learn about the brewing process and history of sake. In the afternoon, take a day trip to Nara. You can feed the friendly deer that roam around Nara Park, and visit some of the ancient temples and shrines.
  • Day 14: Depart from Kansai International Airport in Osaka or extend your stay

For people looking for a more off-the-beaten-path winter adventure

Embark on a unique 2-week winter adventure in Japan, venturing off the well-trodden path to discover lesser-known but equally enchanting destinations. Begin your journey in Tokyo, then head to Tohoku, the culturally rich and historically significant northeastern region of Japan. Explore places like Sendai, Yamagata, Aomori, and Akita, immersing yourself in local festivals, traditions, and flavors. Experience the breathtaking landscapes of Lake Towada, Oirase Gorge, Shirakami Sanchi, and the captivating Hirosaki Castle.

  • Day 1: Arrive in Tokyo and check in to your hotel
  • Day 2: Tokyo sightseeing, including the Imperial Palace, Meiji Shrine, Tokyo Skytree, and more
  • Day 3: Tokyo to Sendai. Visit the Zuihoden Mausoleum, the resting place of the feudal lord Date Masamune, and enjoy the local specialty of gyutan (grilled beef tongue)
  • Day 4: Day trip to Yamagata, a prefecture famous for its hot springs and snow festivals. Visit the Yamadera Temple, and the Ginzan Onsen
  • Day 5: Day trip to Matsushima, one of Japan’s three most scenic views. Take a cruise around the bay, and visit the Zuiganji Temple.
  • Day 6: Sendai to Aomori, the northernmost prefecture of Honshu. Visit the Nebuta Museum Wa Rasse, where you can see the colorful floats used in the Nebuta Festival, and the A-Factory, where you can sample local cider and apple products
  • Day 7: Day trip to Lake Towada and Oirase Gorge. Enjoy the winter scenery and take a walk along the Oirase Stream Trail
  • Day 8: Aomori to Akita. Visit the Namahage Museum, where you can learn about the Namahage ritual of masked ogres visiting houses on New Year’s Eve, and the Kakunodate Samurai District, where you can see well-preserved samurai residences
  • Day 9: Day trip to Nyuto Onsen. Relax in one of the seven hot spring inns, each with its own unique water quality and atmosphere
  • Day 10: Akita to Hirosaki. Visit the Hirosaki Castle and the Hirosaki Park.
  • Day 11: Day trip to Shirakami Sanchi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that covers a vast area of virgin beech forest. Hike one of the trails that lead to waterfalls, lakes, and viewpoints
  • Day 12: Hirosaki to Tokyo via bullet train
  • Day 13: Tokyo free day or optional day trip to Nikko or Kamakura
  • Day 14: Depart from Tokyo or extend your stay
Japan Kushiro Shitsugen National Park
Red-crowned cranes in Kushiro Shitsugen National Park

Essential Tips for Winter Travel in Japan

  • When driving in Japan during winter, ensure your vehicle is equipped with studless tires, snow chains, jumper cables, and emergency blankets. Stick to well-maintained main roads and highways, and drive only in daylight, avoiding solitary journeys when possible.
  • Visiting a temple or shrine on New Year’s Day? Expect large crowds and long queues. Follow hatsumode etiquette: purify yourself at the fountain, offer a coin, bow twice, clap twice, make a wish, and bow once more. Avoid ringing the bell more than once, as it’s considered impolite.
  • If opting for an Airbnb stay, be mindful of regulations. Provide passport information to your host, respect house rules and neighbors, and ensure your host operates with the necessary license. Unsure? Consider a hotel or traditional ryokan.
  • Winter sports enthusiast? Dress appropriately with goggles, gloves, helmets, and boots. Check weather and snow conditions, adhere to resort staff instructions, and avoid off-piste or restricted areas, as they may pose risks.
  • To savor Japan’s winter festivals, like the Sapporo Snow Festival or Shirakawa-go Light-up, book tickets and accommodations well ahead due to high demand. Stay warm, don comfy shoes for walking in the cold, and capture the stunning sights with your camera or smartphone.

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