During winter, a frigid chill engulfs the whole of Japan, and while it rarely snows in most of the country’s metropolitan areas, the surrounding mountains and northern regions are regularly covered by fresh blankets of powder.
Pack plenty of warm clothes, then bundle up and head outside. With perfect powder snow and over 600 resorts to choose from, Japan is the ideal destination for winter sports. Though, even if you don’t ski or snowboard, you’ll still find cultural adventures, superb cuisine and other outdoor activities.
Japan truly embraces the wintertime, making the coldest months a great time to visit. So, where to go when you’re there? We round up some of the best places to visit there in winter.
Japan’s icy northernmost island, a short flight from Tokyo, is best loved for world-class powder snow, delicious seafood, and natural hot springs. Much of Hokkaido is wild and unspoiled, with volcanic lakes and a fascinating indigenous culture.
Niseko United is located on the mountainside of Niseko Annupuri — a 1,308-metre-high mountain — and consists of four ski resorts: Niseko Annupuri International Ski Area, Niseko Hanazono Resort, Niseko Tokyu Grand Hirafu, and Niseko Village Ski Resort. While each resort is independent, they all connect near the mountaintop and are covered by the Niseko United All Mountain Pass.
Rusutsu Resort houses a resort hotel and ski slopes within its grounds and is one of the largest single ski resorts in the whole of Hokkaido. Thirty-seven courses extend over the west, east, and Isola Mountains, offering a wealth of snow activities that cater to all levels, from beginners to professionals.
Japan’s north-eastern wilderness Tohoku, which encompasses six rural prefectures, is bound by custom and heritage. The region’s picturesque Ginzan Onsen town is like stepping back in time to the early 20th century.
Tohoku is just over one hour on the shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo, depending on which part you’re visiting. The Tohoku region is a veritable winter wonderland, home to some of the most popular ski resorts in the world and its very own ‘snow monsters’. But if you’re after something a little more slow-paced and away from the adrenaline-filled slopes, there are plenty of other winter experiences to keep you occupied.
If you’re into mountains and outdoor sports, Shirabu in Yamagata Prefecture has everything on offer. For skiers and trekkers, Shirabu is a constant draw and is also famous for its hot springs. The area is dotted with traditional Japanese inns, with thatched roofs and rustic cottages that bear witness to the area’s 700-year history.
Zao Onsen, also in Yamagata, is an historic hot spring area and one of the largest hot spring and ski resorts in the Tohoku region. The snow monsters — or Juhyo — that Zao is famous for spread out near the top of the slope and you can reach them by taking two connecting cable cars from the foot of the mountain.
Nagano and Niigata
Come to Nagano and Niigata for world-class outdoor sports, and stay for townscapes from the samurai era, vibrant festivals and abundant hot springs. Host of the 1998 Winter Olympics, Nagano is an outdoor sports mecca particularly famous for skiing and snowboarding. Skiers and snowboarders descend on Nagano from around Japan and across the globe. After hitting the powder-rich slopes, get warm with onsen soaks and flasks of hot local sake.
Often called the “roof of Japan,” it boasts the highest mountain ranges in the country. Enclaves of rural culture continue, much as they have for centuries, with the villages of Tsumago and Narai appearing as if they were plucked straight from a samurai film.
Hakuba Valley is an international mountain resort made up of 10 ski resorts scattered at the base of the Ushiro Tateyama Mountain Range in northern Nagano Prefecture.
Running from south to north, the 10 snow resorts have distinctive ski areas offering all snow travellers an exciting winter experience.
Niigata Prefecture’s GALA Yuzawa Snow Resort is touted as the only snow resort in Japan with a shinkansen station, and one of the most accessible ski resorts from Tokyo. The region receives huge amounts of snow each season, and GALA Yuzawa enjoys excellent snow conditions. Being less than 80 minutes from Tokyo by Joetsu Shinkansen means that even a day trip from Tokyo is possible.
Think you’ve seen it all? A few hours northeast of Tokyo, the little-known hot spring resorts of Gunma are great if you’re wanting to escape the crowds. Right in the centre of Japan, the land-locked prefecture of Gunma is surrounded by mountains, and volcanoes, and packed full of nature. The landscapes in this part of Japan are just stunning. They’re sights you don’t see very often, but they are beautiful, especially dusted with a fresh layer of snow.
Located in Joshin’etsukogen National Park, the historic 140-year-old Hoshi Onsen inn creates a world entirely different from city lifestyle. Here you can soak in 100% pure spring water that bubbles up from between the rocks set in the bottom of the baths.
Located on the expansive Minakami Kogen Ski Resort, this “Dog Sledding Trial Run” is the only place on Honshu where you experience real dog sledding without having to travel to Hokkaido.
If you’re looking for a liberating open-air rotenburo bath, head to Manza Onsen, which pours out in an alpine region 1,800 meters up in the mountains. Soak in its milky-white waters while you enjoy the surrounding natural landscape.
Swap the ski slopes for culture, cuisine, and scenic treasures without the crowds this winter in Fukuoka Prefecture, located in the northern part of Japan’s southern island of Kyushu.
With moderate winter temperatures, travellers can explore Fukuoka’s hidden gems year-round, including on a traditional donkobune tour along Yanagawa’s picturesque canals, guided by sendo-san (boatmen). From December to February, the punts are fitted with heaters to keep passengers warm as they traverse the city’s historic moats, now a relaxing canal network. While in town, guests can also sample Yanagawa’s signature dish, Unagi — locally caught eel.
Travellers can also see the first of Japan’s famed blooms in Fukuoka from mid-February, with the start of the plum blossom season. Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine, just 30 minutes outside of Fukuoka City, is a must-visit as more than 6,000 plum trees blanket the grounds with bright pinks and a glorious scent.
Kyushu visitors should consider a visit to Kurokawa Onsen, a short drive from the famous volcano Mt. Aso. The charming town is full of well-preserved traditional architecture and phenomenal outdoor baths.
Wakayama is Japan’s spiritual heartland attracting both enlightenment-seeking pilgrims and onsen lovers. From the World Heritage-listed Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route and the mountaintop temple complex of Koyasan, the prefecture has plenty of winter travel adventures that don’t involve a pair of skis.
Koyasan is one of the greatest and most imposing Buddhist centres in Japan. The 25-metre-high Daimon Gate welcomes visitors to this World Heritage site, dedicated to esoteric Buddhism. Stroll through over 1,200 years of history in this vast, peaceful complex, with over 100 temples scattered throughout the grounds.
One of the most important places in Koyasan is Okunoin Temple, the mausoleum of the monk Kukai, an influential and revered religious figure. In Buddhism, though, it’s not the destination, but the journey that counts.
The cobbled pathway leading to Okunoin passes by over 200,000 mossy gravestones and memorials under a thick green canopy of ancient cedar trees. Famous historical figures, great samurai, and royalty rub shoulders with more prosaic modern heroes of business and industry.