Winter can be really fun in Japan. You can find many tourist attractions such as ski and snowboard, festivals, illuminations, and gorgeous snowy sceneries. In this article, we introduce 7 best ways to enjoy Japan in winter!
1. Go skiing in Nagano or Hokkaido
Although both Nagano and Hokkaido offer a variety of sightseeing activities throughout the year, snow activities in winter such as ski and snowboard are the major attractions. In Nagano, there are as many as 80 ski resorts and Hokkaido is home to about 50 ski resorts, making them the top two prefectures with the greatest number of ski resorts in Japan.
Nagano hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998 and offers the majority of Japan’s highest mountain peaks and an abundance of snow. Nagano is also popular due to the accessibility from major tourist cities including Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.
Shiga Kogen in Nagano is one of the largest ski resorts in Japan offering 18 ski resorts with over 70 lifts. Located about 50 kilometer northeast of Nagano city, Shiga Kogen is known for the long groomed runs, good snow quality, and its ski resort opens for the longest in Nagano. Shiga Kogen is accessible to the Jigokudani Yaen Koen (otherwise known as the Snow Monkey Park) where you can observe wild monkeys chilling out in an outdoor onsen hot spring in the snow.
Another famous ski resort in Nagano is Hakuba Ski Resort which is located in Nagano’s Northern Alps. Hakuba was used for the Winter Olympics in 1998, and consists of 10 major ski resorts with 146 lifts and over 200 runs. Hakuba’s good quality power snow and superb views attract many people from all over Japan as well as around the world.
Hokkaido is Japan’s northernmost area and the largest prefecture in Japan. Because of its northern location, there is naturally heavy snow in winter, and the winter season is longer than other areas of the country.
One of the most popular ski resorts in Hokkaido is Furano Ski Resort, which is located in the heart of Hokkaido. It takes only 1.5 hours to reach by bus from Asahikawa Airport. Here, many international ski contests are held. There are 24 ski courses in total including long ski runs which go for 3,000 meters.
Other famous destinations for skiing and snowboarding in Hokkaido include Furano, Rusutsu, Tomamu, Sahoro, Kiroro and Sapporo Kokusai. Generally ski resorts in Hokkaido are not steep compared to many of the high profile ski resorts in other parts of Japan.
The best ski resorts in Japan
2. Visit Sapporo Snow Festival
Probably the most famous winter festival in Japan is Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido, which is held over a week in early February. Total of over 200 big and small sculptures made of ice and snow are displayed in three different areas in the city. You can find sculptures of animals, famous cartoon or anime characters, and even large constructions which replicate temples and castles.
At night, the sculptures are even more beautiful as they are lit up. There are some exciting events such as live music concerts and ice skating. You can take pictures sitting on an ice-made bench or play with an ice-made slide.
As many as three million people around the world visit this snow festival annually. There are plenty of venders for drinks and food to keep you warm.
*Sapporo Snow Festival has been cancelled this year in 2021
Read more about Sapporo Snow Festival
3. Illumination festivals
During winter, especially in December and January, many places throughout Japan sparkle with winter illuminations.
In Tokyo, the popular places for winter illuminations are shopping complexes and shopping streets such as Roppongi Midtown, Roppongi Hills, and Marunouchi district near Tokyo Station. You can also enjoy breathtaking art of lights in cities with convenient access from Tokyo such as Ashikaga Flower Park in Tochigi, Tokyo German Village in Chiba, and Tobu Zoo Saitama.
One of the places which offer the largest and most spectacular winter illuminations in Japan is in Nabana no Sato in Mie prefecture, about 30 minutes by train from Nagoya station. Nabana no Sato is a flower theme park where you can enjoy beautiful flowers all year round. For the winter illumination, there are six different areas in the park including Japan’s largest illumination on water, a tunnel of lights that stretches about 200 meters, and a sea of lights which surrounds the olive tree that is over 1,000 years of age.
Kobe, the capital of the Hyogo prefecture, is another city with beautiful winter decorations with lights. Kobe Illuminage is an event offering unique illumination experiences held in Kobe Fruit & Flower Park. You can have fun in the Illumination Maze, Illumination Gimmick Show, and Illumination Step. Illumination Heel which is illuminated monuments of high-heel shoes and Illumination Champagne Road are perfect places to take photos.
Read more about the best illuminations in Tokyo
4. Go temple hopping in snow
Some temples and shrines look even more beautiful in the snowy scenery. Even the very famous temples and shrines which you probably have visited before and probably have seen many times in the pictures can give somewhat different impressions when they are decorated by snow. When it snows, visiting several temples and shrines can be a great opportunity to take beautiful photos and feel even more tranquil.
Here, we recommend some beautiful places with snow in Kyoto.
Kifune Shrine is located in Kibune, which is about 30 minutes north of central Kyoto by train. The shrine is dedicated to the god of water, and consists of three separate locations; the main shrine, Yui no Yashiro, and Okunomiya. The shrine is famous for bright vermillion lanterns which are lined along the stone paths and stairs, and is absolutely gorgeous when it is covered in a blanket of white snow. The snow-covered landscape in Kifune Shrine has often appeared on postcards and posters in Japan.
Rokuon-ji, more commonly known as Kinkaku-ji or Golden Pavilion, is situated in the north part of Kyoto. Top two floors of the temple are completely covered in gold leaf. This golden temple, which is one of the most famous spots in Kyoto, looks even brighter with white snow. The reflection on the pond in front of the temple building is also stunning.
Kiyomizu-dera is another spot that is most visited in Kyoto. The temple sits on Mount Otowa and when you reach the summit, you will be greeted by the great red Niomon Gate and the three-storied pagoda. These pagodas and gates make this place a popular spot for taking pictures. The most distinctive feature of the temple is its wooden stage which offers an outstanding panoramic view of Kyoto. When it snows, you can see the snow-covered city of Kyoto.
The best places to visit in Kyoto
5. Visit the snow monkeys
You probably have seen the famous picture of monkeys chilling out in an outdoor onsen hot spring in the snow. These are called Japanese macaques, also called “snow monkeys,” and can be found in the Nagano Prefecture. The Japanese macaque is a monkey species native to northern Japan, and is the most northern-living non-human primate, surviving winter temperatures of below -15 °C. The Jigokudani Yaen Koen (otherwise known as the Snow Monkey Park) was established as a conservation area for the Japanese macaques in 1964. The Snow Monkey Park is a unique place where you can observe the daily lives of the wild monkeys including the unique behavior of bathing in an outdoor onsen hot spring.
Planning your visit to the snow monkeys in Nagano
6. Soak in open air onsen hot spring
Throughout Japan, you can find onsen resorts. Onsen is known to have several health and beauty benefits and a great way to warm up on cold days. Many Japanese people like to take an open air onsen in winter when it snows so that they can take advantage of a warm bath while enjoying snowy scenery.
In Japan, there are many famous onsen resorts where it usually snows a lot in winter. Kusatsu Onsen Resort, located in the Gunma prefecture, is one of the most popular tourist destinations especially with people in Tokyo due to convenient accessibility. In the middle of the town, you will find the Yubatake, where the bubbling hot spring cools down by a few degrees before being distributed to the baths in the town. Many traditional inns (ryokan) and shops can be found around the Yubatake, and you can enjoy walking around the area when the Yubatake is lit up in the evening.
Other popular onsen resorts where you can enjoy outdoor hot spring baths in snow include Osawa Onsen in Iwate prefecture, Ginzan Onsen in Yamagata prefecture, Manza Onsen in Gunma prefecture, and Shirahone Onsen in Nagano prefecture.
7. Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route
Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route is a mountain sightseeing route between Tateyama, Toyama and Omachi in the Nagano prefecture. Opened in 1971, it stretches over 37 kilometers with an altitude of over 3,000 meters.
The route is open from April until November and completely closed in winter. The magnificent scenery of Tateyama mountain range can be enjoyed in summer and autumn, but the Alpine Route is especially famous in spring when the tall snow walls are formed on both sides of the road. The walls can reach up to 18 meter high. Even in June, the walls are still over 10 meters high.
Day trip to Tateyama Alpine Route from Tokyo
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What did you think about our list of things to do in winter in Japan? When it is cold outside, you might want to stay inside where it’s warm and cozy, but there are various ways to enjoy Japan in winter, especially in the snow. After having fun with winter activities during the day, warm up and relax in onsen baths. This is the way to enjoy Japan in winter!
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