Top 5 Reasons to Visit Japan in Winter

Japan is famous for the beauty of its seasons, and winter is perhaps the most sublime.

Apart from the hustle and bustle of the New Year’s holiday, it is one of the quietest times of year to visit. Yet it offers some of Japan’s most unique experiences, most of which are exclusive to winter.

So we have collected 5 of our favorite reasons for visiting Japan in winter. Get yourself cozy and read on!

winter in Shirakawago village in Gifu Japan a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Blue light of evening in the peaceful village of Shirakawago (a UNESCO World Heritage Site)

Winter in Japan: The Basics

Winter in Japan is cold – this much is true. But if you enjoy the art of coziness, you will love the feel of winter in Japan.

In terms of the calendar, winter in Japan takes place from approximately December through mid-March.

The length and depth of winter depend quite a bit on where in Japan you go (as we wrote in our article on when to visit Japan, seasons and weather vary a lot from place to place).

For example, in mountainous and northern parts of Japan the winter is a bit longer and more severe, whereas in southern and western parts of the country it can be a lot milder.

This means that places like Hokkaido and the Japanese Alps experience much more of a winter than a place like subtropical Okinawa, where winter barely exists.

Japanese monks during winter on Mount Koya Japan

Japanese monks on Mount Koya (Koya-san) walk in the snow (photo Credit: Crystalline Radical via Compfight cc)

As for temperatures, this too varies significantly depending on where you go.

In most of Japan, winter temperatures range from approximately 25 to 45 °F (-4 to 7 °C), but in places like Hokkaido and the Japanese Alps it can get much colder.

Mountainous and northern parts of Japan are also blessed with abundant snowfall. In Hokkaido, snowfall is so plentiful that skiers and snowboarders consider it to have some of the best-quality powder in the world.

While travelers from Australia and throughout Asia have long known this, North Americans and Europeans are just starting to catch on.

Now that you have a little background, let’s discover what makes Japan such an amazing winter destination!

Top 5 Reasons to Visit Japan in Winter

Winter at Osawa Onsen, Hanamaki area, Iwate prefecture Japan

Winter in Hanamaki Onsen, Iwate Prefecture (photo credit: Ghost of Kuji via Compfight cc)

Number 5: Japanese Wintertime Food

Depending on your priorities, this could be Number 1.

Eating local and seasonal food is nothing new in Japan, where people think little of traveling across the country to sample a local specialty in season.

But while food is always a great reason to travel to Japan, winter is arguably the best time of year to visit for culinary travelers.

In winter Tsukiji Market buzzes with activity, and you’ll find impeccable seasonal specialties at Tokyo’s top sushi-ya.

Ginza Sushi Yoshitake in Tokyo Japan

Photo courtesy of: Rebekah Wilson-Lye

If you love seafood, it’s worth going out of your way to places like Kanazawa, on the Japan Sea coast, and Hokkaido. In Hokkaido you’ll also warm up with local specialties such as soup curry and miso ramen.

For oysters in season, head south to Hiroshima and Miyajima, where you can relish the winter over amazing grilled oysters and local sake.

But it’s not all seafood.

In winter, there is nothing cozier than warming up at a local izakaya over sake and Japanese-style tapas.

Grilled skewers of yakitori with chicken and garlic in Japan

Yakitori (grilled skewers)

An izakaya is a neighborhood establishment where locals go both for the food and the drink (izakaya is often translated as “Japanese-style pub” or “gastropub”).

Izakaya typically have eclectic menus, featuring a wide variety of Japanese dishes. You’ll find everything from tofu to karaage (fried chicken), grilled vegetables to sashimi, and yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) to tsukemono (Japanese pickles).

See our list of foods to try when visiting Japan.

Eating and drinking at an izakaya is a great way to mingle with locals, and particularly heartwarming during winter.

Vegetables at an izakaya or gastropub in Japan

Vegetables at an izakaya (photo Credit: PhoTones_TAKUMA via Compfight cc)

Winter also marks the appearance on menus nationwide of two wintertime favorites: oden and nabe.

Oden can be found everywhere from oden-specialty restaurants to izakaya and even convenience stores. Large simmering pots of dashi-based broth slow cook ingredients such as daikon, boiled eggs, tofu, fish cakes and more.

Nabe are generally stews (often translated as “hotpot”) composed of any of a wide range of ingredients, from vegetables to meat and seafood. Nabe is traditionally shared with friends or family, and there’s nothing more convivial than gathering around the table to enjoy one, especially in winter!

Number 4: The Snow Monkeys

The adorable snow monkeys are another wonderful reason to visit Japan in winter.

snow monkeys in winter in jigokudani nagano japan

Nagano, Japan’s famous snow monkeys enjoy a soak in the healing onsen (hot spring) waters

Even though the Snow Monkey Park (Jigokudani Yaen-koen) is open throughout the year, the dead of winter is by far the best time to visit.

At other times of year you may encounter some of the monkeys hanging about, but in the middle of winter you’ll find a gorgeous (and photogenic) snow-covered landscape, starring the charming Japanese macaques as they luxuriously soak in the piping hot onsen (hot springs).

It’s a must-visit destination for photographers, families and animal lovers.

Getting here requires a bit of travel, but it is worth the journey (and you get to pass through Nagano, host of the 1998 Winter Olympics and home of the magnificent Zenko-ji Temple).

winter at the snow monkey park jigokudani, nagano japan

Hiking into the Snow Monkey Park, Nagano (photo courtesy of Julie Snyder)

Number 3: Sapporo Snow Festival (Yuki Matsuri)

Every February the city of Sapporo, Hokkaido’s largest city, is host to the annual Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival).

One of the world’s great winter celebrations, the Yuki Matsuri is renowned for its massive and awe-inspiring ice sculptures.

The painstaking effort and creativity that goes into each of these sculptures can be enjoyed by day, and are even more magical in the evenings when they are beautifully illuminated.

Sculpture at Yuki Matsuri Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido Japan

At the Hokkaido Snow Festival (photo Credit: A is for Angie via Compfight cc)

Aside from the snow architecture, the Snow Festival features a variety of events for young and old, including concerts, culinary happenings, snowball fights, snow slides, ice bars and much more.

Advance planning to attend is absolutely essential, as Sapporo fills up months in advance with snow-loving travelers from around the world.

Number 2: World-Class Skiing & Snowboarding

In some circles, Japan’s skiing and snowboarding are legendary, and the news is beginning to spread.

View of Mount Yotei from Grand Hirafu at Niseko resort, Hokkaido, Japan

View of Mount Yotei from Niseko, Hokkaido (photo credit: Jun Kaneko via Compfight cc)

It’s something Australians have long known, and every winter ski resorts from Hokkaido to the Japanese Alps become home to snow-loving Australians.

As the powder-loving writers of PowderHounds put it: “Hokkaido skiing is incredibly rewarding for powder hounds,” and, “Niseko is the powder capital of the world”.

Hokkaido’s Niseko resort is the most famous of Japan’s ski areas, but it’s just one of several that are all worth the trip.

Japan receives abundant snowfall throughout its many mountainous regions, and slopes can be found all around the country.

Winter at Hakuba resort in the Japanese Alps of Nagano Japan

Hakuba in the Japanese Alps

If you’re traveling to Japan to ski or snowboard, the best two regions on which to focus are the northern island of Hokkaido and Nagano Prefecture in the Japanese Alps.

For overall experience, both are fantastic. Getting to Hokkaido usually means taking a domestic flight (just an hour from Tokyo), while getting to Nagano is relatively easy by train.

Hokkaido’s most famous ski resorts include Niseko, Rusutsu, Furano and Tomamu, and Nagano’s include Hakuba, Shiga Kogen and Nozawa Onsen.

And how does the Japanese après-ski experience compare?

There’s nothing like cozy izakaya food and hot sake (or cold beer) after a day on the slopes. (For a taste, watch Anthony Bourdain in Hokkaido on his former show, “No Reservations“).

skiing in japan at niseko resort in hokkaido

Niseko, Hokkaido (photo credit: Waltham Photo via Compfight cc)

Number 1: Onsen (Hot Springs)

Without onsen, winter in Japan would be beautiful, but perhaps not transcendent.

Many countries around the world have hot springs, but in Japan the art of the onsen experience has been perfected to an extraordinary degree.

rotenburo or open-air onsen hot spring bath in japan

Japanese onsen (hot springs)

Visiting an authentic onsen – especially in winter – is one of the quintessential Japanese experiences, and not to be missed.

Combined with a stay in a traditional ryokan (Japanese-style inn), and you have all the makings of an unforgettable trip.

When staying at an onsen ryokan, you soak in healing mineral waters, contemplate nature, drink green tea in a tatami-lined room, nap, and partake of incredible, memorable meals.

Room at luxury ryokan Gora Hanaougi in Hakone Japan

Gora Hanaougi, a luxury onsen ryokan in Hakone (near Mount Fuji)

Food is an integral part of the onsen experience.

An onsen ryokan stay usually includes dinner and breakfast, both of which typically feature a beautiful array of local and seasonal specialties.

Dinner is usually a multi-course affair, served either in the privacy of your tatami-lined room or in a small dining area. Meals can include:

  • Local vegetables, both grown and foraged
  • The bounty of the sea, and often local rivers
  • Local meats
  • The staples of Japanese cuisine, such as miso soup, and of course rice (often the highlight!)
  • Local water, refreshing beer, local sake or shochu

Breakfast is usually just as colorful, including miso soup or a variation and a variety of small dishes.

The magical combination of nature, culture, food and omotenashi (Japanese hospitality) result in an experience that is both incredibly relaxing and culturally fascinating.

room with private onsen at luxury ryokan Gora Kadan in Hakone Japan

Private onsen at Gora Kadan, one of Japan’s most renowned luxury ryokan

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About Andres Zuleta

Andres is the founder of Boutique Japan.

Unlike a lot of travel companies, we don't work from a cubicle!

In 2005, I first moved from New York City to Tokyo to study Japanese, and living in Tokyo changed my life, leading me to want to dedicate my life to helping others really experience Japan, the way I have been able to do so!

  • OK, I’m pretty sure you have me sold! I think a ski trip with a big bowl of ramen and a glass of shochu, then ending in a hot springs sounds amazing. I love that you get all of the snow and fluff with reasonably mild temperatures. Is it fairly easy to fly in and out despite the precipitation?

    • Yes, it’s very easy. Actually, there are more flights between Tokyo and Sapporo (Hokkaido) than I believe any other air route in the world, so getting up there and back is extremely easy!

  • Maritza Parra

    I’ve visited Japan in summer and absolutely adored it – I’ve NEVER thought of visiting in winter, until now – what beautiful things to see and experience! I’m ready for skiing, hot springs and snow monkeys!

    • The winter is amazing! The problem with Japan is that every season has so many good things about it, but even though I don’t love the cold winter is still my favorite time to visit, especially for onsen of course 😉

  • Celest Horton

    Wow! So many amazing things to do in Japan for the winter. The hot springs sound so relaxing and tying that in with a ski trip would be the perfect trip. The Onsen Ryokan stay sounds fabulous too. This whole outlined trip has just made my bucket list. Thanks!!

  • You had me at snow monkeys!

    Wow, how amazing are these photos? I never imagined it to be so pretty during the winter months, and am eager to see it in person now!

    This is great info. Thanks Boutique Japan for putting it together!

    • Ha ha! Anytime from December to March, Austin-san. Just let me know when you’re ready to go!

  • Skiing, hot springs, food, and snow monkeys! Ha ha, this place looks and sounds amazing in the Winter. It’s one of my favorite seasons. Great article and truly wonderful pictures. This is one of the places I have to visit on my list. I’ll certainly keep in touch! 😉

    • If you already love winter – admittedly, some people don’t – then you’ll fall in love with it in Japan. It’s hugely appreciated (all the seasons are greatly appreciated in Japan) and enjoyed to the fullest!

  • Well if this is not tempting to drop all things and head to Japan NOW, I don’t know what is. @andreszuleta:disqus You are amazing – how long did it take you to pull together this gorgeous post? I’m talking to Andy now …. Thank you for sharing your deep insights on one my most beloved places ON EARTH!

    • @fbahram:disqus This post has been in the works since last winter in Kyoto. In the depths of the Kyoto winter I began to write it, and then it sat untouched for months. Now with winter around the corner I am excited about the snow, and especially onsen, once again!