Destinations Of Snowflakes, Onsens And Skis: Unlock A Dreamy Winter In Japan

Of Snowflakes, Onsens And Skis: Unlock A Dreamy Winter In Japan

Whether it is dining at a Kotatsu cafe, soaking in an onsen, or paragliding over white moutains, here are some ways to spend winter in Japan.


By Yashita Vashishth Published on Oct 30, 2023, 05:00 PM

Of Snowflakes, Onsens And Skis: Unlock A Dreamy Winter In Japan
Image credit: yoko_ken_chan/Shutterstock

While Japanese spring is synonymous with cherry blossoms, autumn is revered for its crispy golden fall foliage. These seasons are when most tourists visit the country with an action-packed itinerary. However, we bring you the secret sauce to discover Japan’s iconic sights and experiences, sans big crowds and long queues. Presenting the underrated (and unparalleled): winter in Japan!

Whether it is dining at a Kotatsu cafe, relaxing in a hot spring onsen, or paragliding over fleecy mountains, Japanese winter is an experience worth warming up to. Read on to discover the must-see, can-skip, and should-carry for this holiday.

Winter months in Japan

Over 70 percent of Japan is mountainous, leaving only 30 percent for habitation and tourism. Understandably, the country is on the crowded end of the spectrum. And while the balmy summers have tourists flocking to Japan in great numbers, the cooler months entice with a different tapestry altogether — colder, calmer, and less crowded. Winter in Japan typically arrives in early to mid-December and continues until mid-March. In central Japan, including cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, temperatures vary between 4 to 7 °C. Japan’s western and southern parts (including Kyushu, Okinawa, and Shikoku), witness relatively milder winters. However, as you head north and into mountainous regions, the temperature drops considerably, yielding thick blankets of snow.

Best winter destinations to explore in Japan

Shirakawa, Gifu

winter in japan
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In the mid-1990s, the Shirakawa-go region of Japan was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The area is home to the Gassho-zukuri (hands in prayer) style of farmhouses, the only surviving examples of this architecture in Japan. The facades of these homes resemble those from storybooks, with big sloping roofs constructed without nails, ideal to welcome the winter snow. While the thick blanket of snow transforms the region into a winter wonderland, the residents up the ante with a light-up event that can be toured on buses, or seen from the observation deck at the Ogimachi Castle Ruins. The village is dotted with souvenir shops, cafes, shrines, and guesthouses where tourists can book a stay.

How to reach:
By air: The nearest airport is Fukushima Airport, Habakida, 494.6 km away.
By train: The nearest railway station is Tokyo Railway Station, 354 km away.

Book your stay at River Retreat Garaku via Booking.com

Book your stay at River Retreat Garaku via Agoda.com


winter in japan
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Nagano’s winter landscape ensures you frolic through the frosty weather, thanks to the layers (and then some more!) of snow. Here, you can partake in snowboarding and skiing, soak in a hot spring bath, down hot sakes by the crackling fire, indulge in snowmobiling, tubing, and much more. Home to over 80 ski resorts, the region offers lots of pro-adventure options to pick from – Hakuba Happo-one, Hakuba Cortina Snow Resort, Tsugaike Kogen Snow Resort, and Hakuba Iwatake Snow Field, to name a few.

Next, add the Kamakura Snow Village to your itinerary. Located in the city of Iiyama, this make-shift village (which is actually a restaurant), houses 15-20 igloos or snow huts. You can reserve the igloos to bundle up in a burrow and enjoy the snow while feasting on rice balls. As evening falls, the igloos glow in the warm light of the lanterns, staging a sight to behold. Bear in mind that this village only opens for a month between January and February. Additionally, head to Nozawa, a pedestrian-friendly hot spring town, which offers chic eateries, bars, and about 13 hot spring baths where you can steam away the stress and pamper all your senses. Elevate your trip to Nagano by attending local festivals like the Iiyama Snow Festival (mid-February, 2024), Nagano Lantern Festival (early to mid-February 2024), and Nozawa Fire Festival (January 15, 2024).

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How to reach:
By air: The nearest airport is Matsumoto (MMJ) Airport, 58.7 km away.
By train: Nagano Station is within the city.

Book your stay at The Hiramatsu Karuizawa Miyota via Booking.com

Book your stay at The Hiramatsu Karuizawa Miyota via Agoda.com


winter in japan
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Explore the myriad hues of winter at Tochigi — a melting pot of onsens, cultural festivals, snow-drenched escapades, and more. Start your day with skiing and snow-shoeing in the feet-high snow parks. Next, savour the epicurean delights of Japanese winter as you sample sano ramen noodles, curry udon, hayashi rice, and hot sake. Tochigi hosts numerous sake breweries, and we recommend making a sip-and-hop outing out of it. Or, you can put your hair down and unwind at one of the many hot spring onsens – Kinugawa Onsen, Shiobara Onsen-kyo, and Nasu Onsen, to name a few.

winter in japan
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Lastly, a trip to Tochigi is incomplete without the Kamakura Snow Festival (February 15 to February 16, 2024), hosted in the quaint hot spring town of Yunishigawa. During the festival, hundreds of little Kamakuras (snow huts) are built and lit up in the evenings, making it one of the most surreal light and snow festivals in the country.

How to reach:
By air: The nearest airport is Ibaraki (IBR) Airport, 64.6 km away.
By train: Tochigi Station is within the city.

Book your stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Nikko via Booking.com

The Ritz-Carlton, Nikko


winter in japan
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As most adrenaline junkies must already know, Hokkaido is world-famous for powder skiing. We recommend exploring the Niseko, Rusutsu, and Furano Ski Fields on this island. Other snow activities like sledding, snow tubing, and ice skating are also available at the amusement parks and ski resorts in Hokkaido. An unmissable attraction — the Blue Pond — is nestled in the little town of Bieie. This artificially created waterbody is a by-product of the Bieie River dam and is touted for its perennial electric blue colour. The pond is watered by the nearby Shirahige Falls. As the water flows down the cliff, it mixes with the aluminium of the rocks, resulting in a striking blue hue. Hokkaido also has bragging rights to the Sounkyo Hyobaku Festival. Commencing around late January, this festival features ice sculptures of various sizes and shapes, the most popular one being the ice castle. Another major festival that makes Hokkaido a must-visit is the Sapporo Snow Festival (February 04 to February 11, 2024).

Japan winter
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It is a snow universe of sorts where statues, stages, slides and sculptures are made of frigid snow. Susukino, Tsudome and Odori Park are the major sites of this snow festival. Moving on, for the artistically inclined, we recommend paying a visit to the iconic Otaru Music Box Museum. Here, learn about the oldest musical instruments in Hokkaido (dating back to the 19th century) like pianos, phonographs, and music boxes.

How to reach:
By air: Sapporo Okadama (OKD) Airport is the nearest airport.
By train: Sapporo Station is within the city.

Book your stay at Chalet Ivy Jozankei via Booking.com

Book your stay at Chalet Ivy Jozankei via Agoda.com


japan winter
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The city of Yamagata is most famous for its Ginzan Onsen — a hot spring town tucked in the mountains. Over 500 years ago, the region was a silver mine and provided materials during the Edo Period (1603-1868). Now, the town is known for its iconic ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) and hot spring baths. Blanketed by a fluffy coat of snow, the Ginzan Onsen is straight from the pages of a storybook. Behind it is a mesmerising 22-metre waterfall, and the entrances to some of the silver mines. In addition to hitting the onsens, you can partake in snowshoe trekking at Mount Zao and encounter the snow monsters (juhyo in Japanese). The monsters are in fact trees that have been blanketed by snow and rime, yielding a mammoth snow-beast-like sight. While the juhyos captivate during the day, they truly come alive at night when they are lit up. One must note that night trekking is not permitted on Mount Zao, so a ski lift is the best way to witness the phenomenon. On the second Saturday and Sunday of February, Yamagata hosts the annual Uesugi Snow Lantern Festival at Matsugasaki Park. The festival pays homage to the ancestors who built the foundations of peace. The venue is lined with about 300 snow lanterns and 1,000 snow lamps — creating an otherworldly atmosphere.

How to reach:
By air: The nearest airport is Nagoya Airfield (NKM) Airport, 28.1 km away.
By train: Yamagata Station is within the city.

Book your stay at Takamiya Ryokan Miyamaso via Booking.com

Book your stay at Takamiya Ryokan Miyamaso via Agoda.com

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japan winter
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A stop on the Joetsu Shinkansen line running from Tokyo to Niigata, Yuzawa (also called snow country or yukiguni) delights with 12 ski resorts, snow activities, and hot springs. Here, both powder and park skiing are available, ensuring that amateurs and professionals can indulge in some snowflake adventure. The destination also offers other exhilarating activities like snowmobiling (high-octane snow bikes!), hiking and trekking trails. The ski resorts also conduct winter firework displays, which illuminate the slopes on certain days from December to March. Additionally, skiers glide down the white hills carrying flaming torches, another splendid sight to behold. Lastly, head to one of the many ryokans (traditional guesthouses/farmhouses) in the city to soak in the hot spring onsens and relieve your fatigue from the day.

How to reach:
By air: The nearest airport is Akita (AXT) Airport, 55 km away.
By train: Echigo-Yuzawa Station Station is within the city.

Book your stay at Minakami Onsen Aratashi Minakami via Booking.com

Book your stay at Minakami Onsen Aratashi Minakami via Agoda.com


japan winter
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Just 38 km from Yuzawa lies the city of Tōkamachi. Every winter, the city accumulates an average of 2.5 metres of snow, which continues to enchant for almost one-third of the year. Here, along the Kiyotsukyo Hotel Setoguchi, get a pair of traditional Japanese snowshoes called kanjiki, and hike through the scenic snowfields. You can also build snow domes (kamakuras), light them up in the evening, and relish some freshly grilled mochi cakes. When in Tōkamachi, don’t miss the field museum ‘Matsudai Nohbutai’, where you can admire the works of Japanese and international contemporary artists.

How to reach:
By air: The nearest airport is Niigata Airport, 113 km away.
By train: Tōkamachi Station is within the city.

Book your stay at Belnatio via Agoda.com


japan winter months
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A winter getaway in Saitama is incomplete without admiring the three great icicles in Chichibu. While Misotsuchi icicles are naturally formed, the Ashigakubo and Onouchi icicles are man-made. They are lit up in vibrant, incandescent hues, generally on the weekends in January and early February. For a dreamy ice skating break, head to the Kasa Ice Rink. A snug way to enjoy the winter in Japan is to take a boat ride on a cosy Kotatsu boat.
Additionally, don’t reminisce about the summer swimming getaways, for Waku Waku Dome in Saitama delights with numerous heated swimming pools, some of which also have long slides for added splash and fun. Lastly, Saitama enchants with strawberry greenhouses where the temperatures are over 20 degrees Celsius — a warm way to appreciate the winter! We recommend visiting the Shimura Strawberry Farm and Imanishi Strawberry Park.

How to reach:
By air: The nearest airport is Tokyo Haneda (HND) Airport, 41.6 km away.
By train: Omiya Station is within the city.

Book your stay at BELLUSTAR TOKYO, A Pan Pacific Hotel via Booking.com

Book your stay at BELLUSTAR TOKYO, A Pan Pacific Hotel via Agoda.com

Unmissable winter adventures in Japan

Ice fishing at Lake Nojiri, Nagano, Sakamoto-ya

japan winter months
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Ice fishing in Japan is anything but shivering along frigid waterbodies. This unique experience lets you drag your hut onto the icy waters — quite literally. Turn the generator on and ride your heated cabin into the water. Then, reel in your line from one of the small poles in your mobile hut. Catch fish, take in the surreal views, clink your sake glasses, or watch a match — all at once! Our top recommendations for ice fishing include Lake Nojiri (Nagano), Lake Suwa (Nagano), Lake Akan (Hokkaido), and Lake Yamanaka (Yamanashi).

Dog Sledding in Tokachi, Hokkaido

Hop on a dog sled and allow the Alaskan huskies to ferry you through the snow-laden slopes of Japan. This unique experience can be witnessed in Tokachi and Hokkaido’s Shikaoi-cho town. We recommend reaching out to agencies like Mushing Works Dog Sledding Tours for a smooth-sledding experience.

Ice Climbing at Niseko

Niseko Mountain Guides
Image credit: Niseko Mountain Guides

For the bold, we recommend ice climbing at Hokkaido’s Niseko town. Climbing the frozen riks with twin ice axes is precarious and heart-thumping at once. The slippery slopes and intrepid obstacles further elevate the thrill. We suggest looking up Niseko Mountain Guides and undertaking this adventure under an experienced guide.

Paragliding in Atami, Mount Fuji, Takayama

paragliding in japan
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Take your kindred spirit to higher elevations and paraglide over the scenic Japanese Alps. Our top recommendations include Takayama (Takayama Sky Sailing Club), Mount Fuji (Asagiri Kogen Paragliding School), and Atami (Para Field).

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Best winter outfits to wear in Japan

When packing for Japan, make sure you include winter clothes like puffer jackets, trench coats or parkas. Also, pack warm fleece sweaters and pullovers that you can layer easily — perfect to insulate and stay warm. In place of jeans, we recommend carrying corduroy pants or fleece-lined leggings. If you plan on snow-based activities, pack snow pants made of nylon. Needless to say, multiple pairs of thermals are a must to get you through the frosty weather. Here, accessorise not just for style but for comfort too. Carry gloves, mittens, beanies, ear muffs, monkey caps and mufflers, based on your cold tolerance. In addition to grippy shoes, pack waterproof boots for snowy escapades. Lastly, carrying a lightweight raincoat and windcheater is also advisable.

(Main and Feature Image Credit: yoko_ken_chan/Shutterstock)

Related: Tokyo’s Dining Scene Has A Thriving Alcohol-Free Cocktail Boom — Here’s Where To Drink

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

– When does winter occur in Japan?
Winter in Japan starts around early to mid-December and continues until mid-March.

– Are there any must-visit destinations in Japan during the winter season?
Must-visit destinations in Japan during the winter season include Hokkaido, Tōkamachi, Saitama, Yamagata, Tochigi, and Nagano, among others.

– What winter activities can you enjoy in Japan?
One can enjoy winter activities in Japan like ice fishing, luxuriating in a hot spring onsen, dog sledding, sipping on hot sake, ice climbing, and paragliding, among others.

– Can I use English in Japan during the winter trip, or should I learn some Japanese phrases?
While learning a few phrases in the local language is always helpful, most people in Japan speak some English. Hence, you can travel comfortably if you’re unable to learn the language too.

Written By

Yashita Vashishth

Yashita Vashishth

Writer by day, reader by night, Yashita has a flair for all things travel, wellness and food. She has previously worked at Condé Nast India and Times Internet. When not working, you can catch her binge-reading the latest thriller on the block, re-watching Friends, trying a new recipe or hosting her friends.

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