Dear reader: This article contains links to products and services that I may be compensated for, at no extra cost to you.
This post was written by Robert Schrader of Japan Starts Here.
Most travelers dream of visiting Japan amid the sakura of spring or the blazing colors of autumn, yet where to go in Japan in winter is not a topic that comes up often. In addition to being one of Japan’s most beautiful seasons, however, winter is also one of the country’s most underrated, in no small part because of how light crowds are in much of the country.
Indeed, visiting Japan during the colder months isn’t just for skiers and snowboarders, even if the powder of the Japan snow season is so legendary it has its own name, Ja-Pow. Winter is the perfect time to explore major Japanese destinations like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, thanks not only to how few fellow tourists you’ll find, but because of warming winter food and the beautiful (if short-lived) light of days during this chilly time of year.
A trip to Japan in winter might also beckon you to dive deeper into secondary and tertiary destinations, which also feature heavily in the coming paragraphs. No matter what type of traveler you are, and whether or not you’ve ever thought of visiting Japan when it’s cold, this list will have you flirting with a ticket purchase.
Reasons to Visit Japan in Winter
Irrespective of the various opinions about where to go in Japan in winter I’m about to share, Japan’s most underrated—and overlooked—seasons is nonetheless one of the worthiest times to visit. In particular, due to the following reasons:
- The lighter crowds I mentioned earlier tend not only to mean lower prices on accommodation, but a more authentic experience throughout Japan. It’s not uncommon to be the only traveler at attractions in secondary cities, such as Nagano’s Zenko-ji temple or in Kanazawa’s Naga-machi Samurai district.
- Neither as fickle as the cherry blossoms nor as fleeting as the autumn colors, Japan’s snow is a longer lasting (but equally unique) seasonal frame for Japan’s timeless architecture, scenery and cityscapes.
Japan is absolutely gorgeous during the winter, so whether you’re a photography or simply a lover of beautiful, you’re in for a true feast for the eyes.
- Many destinations and experiences in Japan are only available in the winter, from ski slopes in Hokkaido and the Tohoku region, to snow and ice festivals throughout the country, to the bizarre “snow monster” phenomenon that affects trees high atop mountains in Akita, Yamagata and Aomori prefectures during the winter.
Of course, there are different merits for visiting Japan during each part of winter. For example, while spending Christmas or the New Year in Japan in January or December is charming and special, there will be much more snow, and more of a general feel of winter, in February and even early March.
The Best Japan Winter Destinations
Hokkaido in Winter
For many travelers, the idea of Japan in winter is synonymous with Hokkaido, the country’s northernmost island. In particular, the ski slopes of Niseko are famous the world over, attracting skiers and snowboarders from literally dozens of countries ever year. However, you needn’t be an avid skier to enjoy a winter trip to Hokkaido.
If you prefer to stick to major cities, there’s plenty to enjoy about the winter season in Japan in Hokkaido. Sapporo, the prefectural capital, puts on the Sapporo Snow Festival every January and February. In Otaru, a short train ride northwestward, icicles the size of people line a famous canal.
Apart from this, you can head south to Noboribetsu for a winter hike through volcanic terrain, or an onsen hot springs bath. Or, venture eastward to Shiretoko National Park, which is the farthest south on the planet you can find Arctic “drift ice.”
The Japanese Alps in Winter
Another great choice for where to go in Japan in winter is the Japanese Alps. Even if you choose not to ski the slopes of Nagano prefecture, which you might remind as the host of the 1998 Winter Olympic Games, the Alps offer plenty of scenery and sights for travelers who aren’t afraid of the cold.
Base yourself in the city center of Nagano, which is built around ancient Zenko-ji temple, or in Matsumoto, whose namesake castle in one of the oldest remaining such structures in Japan.
Many day trips from these cities are at their best during winter months in Japan. From Nagano you can venture to Jigokudani (“Hell Valley” in Japanese), where you’ll find an onsen filled with dozens of red-faced Japanese macaques.
From Matsumoto, meanwhile, you can venture onto the Nakasendo Way, which during ancient times was an important trading route between Kyoto and Edo, which is what Tokyo used to be called. Towns like Magome, Tsumago and Kiso-Fukushima retain architectural and cultural flourishes from this bygone era.
Kanazawa in Winter
If you’re traveling to Japan in the winter and want to stick to a major city, but not one that’s popular or well-known, Kanazawa is your best bet.
Sometimes known as the “Kyoto of the North” due to an abundance of historical Geisha districts, Kanazawa is also famous for its castle, as well as Kenroku-en, known to be one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan. Many Japanese people aspire to see Kenroku-en in all four seasons, and winter is a particularly gorgeous choice as your first.
There are other advantages to adding Kanazawa to your Japan winter itinerary. Skip breakfast in your hotel, for example, and sample fresh seafood inside Omicho Market. Wander through the Higashi-Chaya Geisha district or Naga-machi Samurai area after a fresh snow has fallen, or take day trips to Nata-dera temple or to Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage village whose Gassho farmhouses are among the most unique architectural treasures of Japan.
Kansai in Winter
When you think about where to go in Japan in winter, Kansai—the west-central region of Japan containing Kyoto and Osaka—is not usually on the list.
However, in addition to the fact that much of Kansai remains temperature during the winter months, this is also when you’ll encounter the fewest fellow tourists, whether you’re exploring ancient temples in Kyoto’s Higashiyama ward, or snacking on street food along Osaka’s Dotonbori pedestrian street.
Then again, winter travel in Kansai isn’t just about the Kyoto winter experience. You can experience (and even hike through) very wintry scenery, especially in Wakayama prefecture in the region’s south.
Ascend holy Mt. Koya in winter and sleep in a Shukubo temple stay as you explore mysterious Okuno-in cemetery, or enjoy a winter hike along the sacred Kumano Kodo pilgrimage for a chance to see the picturesque “Waterfall Temple” of Kumano Nachi Taisha blanketed in snow.
Tohoku in Winter
Another essential Japan winter destination is the Tohoku region, which occupies the northeastern portion of Honshu island, from Aomori prefecture in the north near Hokkaido, to Fukushima prefecture (yes, that Fukushima prefecture) in the south.
Don’t worry about nuclear radiation, however. The real hazard of visiting Tohoku in winter is wanting to stay longer than you can, whether you trek amid the “Snow Monsters” of Zao Onsen in Yamagata prefecture, bathe at Tsuru-no-yu onsen in Akita or hit the slopes of Niigata prefecture’s Yuzawa ski resort.
Unconcerned about where to ski in Japan? Consider, then, where to eat in Japan during the Tohoku winter. Picturesque Morioka city, which sits at the base of Mt. Iwate, is famous for Ja-Ja Men, thick udon noodles topped with miso and a fresh-cracked egg, which are sure to warm you after even the coldest day. Or, spend the morning at Furukawa Fisk Market in Aomori, where you can dine on delectable snow crab caught in the Tsugaru Strait between Honshu and Hokkaido.
Tokyo and Mt. Fuji in Winter
Tokyo might not be the first place you consider when you think of where to go in Japan in winter. However, the mild (almost always above freezing) and sunny weather of the capital during the colder months of the year makes this the perfect time to explore city-center attractions.
From historical Senso-ji temple, to serene Meiji Shrine, to the futuristic districts of Akihabara, Shibuya and Shinjuku, many places to visit in Japan in winter are especially stunning at night. Many day trips from Tokyo are also at their most stunning during winter, particularly high-elevation Nikko and its 17th-century Tosho-gu Shrine.
Another reason to spend winter in Tokyo (and its vicinity) is to see Mt. Fuji with its greatest snow cover. You can enjoy views of the mountain from the city itself, at observation decks like Bunkyo Civic Center or i-Link Tower in Ichikawa city, Chiba prefecture. Or you can venture to the Fuji Five Lakes region itself, taking in a reflection of Fuji in Lake Kawaguchi, or watching it rise majestically behind Chureito Pagoda in Fujiyoshida.
Shikoku in Winter
Shikoku doesn’t get much snowfall and rarely experiences temperatures below freezing, so if traditionally wintry conditions are what you’re looking for, January or February might not be the best month to visit Japan’s smallest major island.
If, however, you’re interested in visiting a land of cozy cities, wild temples, and dramatic natural scenery with few tourists even during the height of summer, Shikoku in winter is definitely for you.
With high temperatures around 10ºC common during the coldest months of the year, Shikoku is ground zero for winter hiking in Japan, whether you trek a portion of the 88-temple pilgrimage trail that circles that island, or in the scenic Iya Valley between the cities of Tokushima and Takamatsu.
Furthermore, Shikoku is home to several of Japan’s 12 remaining original castles, including Kochi Castle along the islands south coast. Matsuyama Castle, meanwhile, offers gorgeous views of the Seto Inland Sea (especially during colorful, long-lasting winter sunsets), and is just a short tram ride from Dogo Onsen, Japan’s oldest public bath house.
Tips for Traveling to Japan in Winter
Even if you’re already convinced that winter is the best time to travel to Japan, you’ll want to keep a few tips in mind when visiting Japan during the colder months:
- Layers are the key to staying warm, especially for active travelers and those who plan to stay in cities. If all else fails, a trip to UNIQLO upon arriving in Tokyo is a great opportunity to dress yourself for (travel) success.
- Hotels in Japan are very hot during winter, and the air is very dry. Travel with a bottle of good lotion (and bathe in naturally-fed onsen hot springs whenever possible) to avoid suffering from extremely dry skin.
- If you’re a creatively-minded traveler and plan to photograph yourself, friends or family members amid snowy scenes, be mindful of contrast. In particular, bright colors like red tend to pop best against snow. Additionally, if you shoot in manual mode, considering overexposing your photos slightly to accentuate the brightness of the scene.
- Allow Japanese food and drink to warm you whenever possible, whether that’s gyoza dumplings and takoyaki octopus fritters on the streets of Osaka, or fried yakisoba or hot sake inside an izakaya pub in Tokyo or up in the Japanese Alps.
- Be mindful of festivals and other special events, even if you don’t plan to attend them yourself. For example, if you’ll be in Japan in February and expect to visit Sapporo, know that the annual Sapporo Snow Festival will lead to higher prices and lower availability on hotels in the city.
Regardless of your decision about where to go in Japan in winter, or what you plan to do there, this underrated season is worth a few shivers.
From lighter crowds in mainstream destinations like Tokyo and the Kansai region, to ski slopes and other snow-related activities in Hokkaido, Tohoku and the Japanese Alps, to warming food and drink throughout the country, Japan’s winter season rewards those who take the polar plunge. Will you?
Robert Schrader loves Japan in all four seasons, but in recent years has become especially fond of winter, even though he is a terrible skier by his own admission. He created Japan Starts Here as a source of information—and inspiration—for any trip to Japan, during every time of year and to all destinations. Keep up with his upcoming Japanese adventures by following Japan Starts Here on Facebook or Instagram.
I never travel without a guidebook! Here are the best ones: