Whether it’s the cherry blossoms of spring or the baking summer heat, Japan is well known for its seasons. However, the one that doesn’t immediately spring to mind is winter. Winter in Japan is an incredible time to visit thanks to its natural beauty, extreme sports and snow monkeys. And yes – the little rascals are as cute as they sound!
Sure, December to February can be uncomfortable as the temperatures drop below 10ºC and snowstorms make travelling challenging in the north. But layer up and get ready to enjoy an illuminated wonderland that’s home to world-class skiing, quirky festivals and seasonal gourmet treats.
Are you thinking about exploring Japan during the most wonderful time of the year? Great! Below, you’ll find a list of ten unique things to see and do during winter in Japan.
1. Winter sports
For adrenaline junkies, there aren’t many destinations that trump Japan in the winter. It’s not just the fact that there are more than 600 winter sports locations to cater to your needs, or that the season lasts past March in some regions. It’s that you’re sure to have a legendary time!
Thanks to the terrain (Japan is 70% mountainous) and the weather that blows over from Siberia, the powdered snow slopes here are among the world’s best. It’s one of the reasons Japan hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics! Regions such as Northern Tohoku and Central Hokkaido are packed during the season, but the snow is high-quality, so thrill-seekers find it’s worth dealing with the crowds. If you want more freedom, Otaru is a hidden gem. In this seaside town, the sea breeze and cold temperatures keep the snow dry and perfect for boarding and skiing. The Otarunai Backpackers Hostel is an excellent base.
2. Snow festivals
If you’ve never heard of Yuki Matsuri, it’s time you did some research. Held annually in Sapporo every winter, it’s a festival of snow and ice that stretches 1.5km. All the usual winter activities are on offer here, plus you can expect to discover some lesser known gems. For those of you who’ve done enough ice skating, tobogganing or snowball fights to last a lifetime, the 20-metre tall ice sculptures competing in the International Snow Sculpture Contest won’t fail to impress – particularly the jaw-dropping replica of the Pyramids in Egypt.
The 2020 festival runs from January 31st to February 11th, and the illuminations are switched on at sunset and turned off at 10pm. Prior booking is essential as two million visitors are expected.
3. Yokote Kamakura Festival
Winter in Japan is festival season, and the Kamakura Festival in Yokote is a major highlight. Every February, the city located in the Akita Prefecture transforms into a magical sight in a tradition that dates back 400 years.
Snow houses, known as Kamakura, are built in areas around the city to represent a refuge for spirits. Don’t worry though, the welcome is a lot less spooky than it sounds, as locals offer rice cakes and sweet sake in their candle-lit igloos that stand three metres high. Make sure you’re there by 6pm on February 15th or February 16th, 2020, as the show ends at 9 pm sharp. Clearly spirits have places to be!
4. Kusatsu hot springs
Kusatsu, Gunma 📸:@kaedekbys
Okay, being naked around total strangers in freezing temperatures isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s hard to say no when you stumble upon Kusatsu, a town in Japan known for its onsen (Japanese hot spring). Situated 1,200m above sea level, this area is blessed with an influx of natural hot spring water, perfect for toasting in!
Legend has it that the high quality of the water is said to cure every illness other than lovesickness. With prices starting from 500 yen (£4) for a night in a traditional Japanese inn/guesthouse known as a ryokan, it’s worth a try to ease a bout of winter flu!
5. Yudanaka’s snow monkeys
Jigokudani Monkey Park, Yudanaka 📸:@tore_f
Like Kusatsu, Yudanaka is a small town where travellers head in search of onsen. Unlike Kusatsu though, Yudanaka plays host to charismatic snow monkeys that chill in hot springs and are known to fling the odd snowball or two. You’ll have to hike one hour from the town to the monkey park, but it’s well worth it to see a cute macaque using a hot spring as a bathtub!
Macaques frequent Jigokudani in Nagano Prefecture all year round, but the snow makes it a transcendent experience and one of the most incredible experiences in Japan in the winter.
Blue Cave, Tokyo 📸:@shima_giraffe
When thinking of winter in Japan, its ornate light shows usually come to mind. Taking place across the country, the spectacular displays illuminate everything from trees and streets to ‘German’ villages and domes.
My favourite is Caretta Shiodome in Tokyo, which this year is home to Disney’s Aladdin and over 250,000 LED lights. Elsewhere, Nabana No Sato in Kuwana City is the biggest light display in Japan with over 8 million illuminations. The majority of Japanese light shows are free, starting as early as October and ending as late as April. Tickets for Nabana No Sato cost 2,000 Yen (£15), but half of this entry fee is given back to you in vouchers that you can use to buy food and drink. Winning!
7. Sumo wrestling
Sports fans unite! The grand tournament of sumo kicks off the New Year in style from January 12th to the 26th.
Japan’s national sport is not only entertaining but also drives from ancient rituals. It was originally a ritual during religious Shinto ceremonies and dates back 2000 years! Some of these traditions are still observed within modern Sumo wrestling, including purification of the ring with salt. Professional Sumo wrestlers are also deeply respected in the public sphere and it is strictly a male-only sport.
Go see a match for a day of Japanese history and culture. Can you think of a more interesting way to get over the January blues?
8. Cherry blossoms
Watching sakura trees bloom is a top-rated activity on any traveller’s bucket list, so it would be a massive shame to miss out. Just because you’re visiting Japan in winter doesn’t mean you have to – as long as you’re willing to travel to the southern islands!
Okinawa always gets the first sightings of sakura, with last year’s average first bloom being as early as January and the full bloom the first week of Feb. So if you’re looking to pink-wash your Instagram feed before spring has fully sprung, you know where to head!
9. Shirakawago Village
Shirakawago Ogimachi Village, 📸:@tsuda
This UNESCO World Heritage site is a popular attraction with travellers all year round, but there’s something magical about exploring this traditional village in the Japanese mountains during winter.
Dazzling lights shine throughout the village and illuminate every corner, and snow adorns the ‘praying hands’ of the gassho zukuri farmhouse roofs, making this alpine destination a unique experience for everyone who visits.
10. Food and drink
When the temperature plummets, you’ll need gastronomic delights that warm your soul. Thankfully, winter in Japan is packed with delicious treats. Seafood-wise Hokkaido is a hotspot, with crab a popular choice among locals and tourists alike. Soup curry is another speciality of Japan’s northernmost main islands in the winter.
Non-fish-lovers shouldn’t fret, because winter in Japan is when two hearty nabe dishes (Japanese hotpot) make an appearance. The most common is oden, which is cooked in a single pot with a mixture of ingredients and served steaming hot, making it an ideal heart warmer. Nabe is best enjoyed in izakaya pubs along with warm sake.
What to pack for winter in Japan
Japan in the winter is very cold – average temperatures don’t go over 6.6°C – so warm clothes are a must. A big coat, thick jumpers, long trousers and boots are necessities, and women should also bring tights along for the ride. Gloves, a scarf and a hat will all come in handy too. A great tip is to wear easily removable layers, as bars and restaurants are heated and get toasty very quickly!
Another factor is the dry weather. The humidity is low, which means lip balms and moisturisers are useful if you suffer from dry skin. A refillable water bottle is a good idea to stay hydrated.
January is ‘flu’ season, and you’ll see a lot of locals wearing face masks. If you’re a germaphobe and don’t want to ruin your trip, you might want to pack one just in case.
Are you preparing to see Japan in the winter? Then you need to check out all of our hostels in Japan! Have you already braved the Japanese winter and think something is missing from our list? Let us know in the comments. Sayōnara!
About the author
Matthew Goodwin is a traveller with the “knack” for landing on his feet and new airport Tarmac on a semi-regular basis. Follow my adventures and my musings on Instagram and LinkedIn (@gooders248/Matthew Goodwin)