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!

The UNESCO world heritage site, Ogimachi Gassho Village, Shirakawago, Gifu Prefecture, Japan
The UNESCO world heritage site, Ogimachi Gassho Village, Shirakawago, Gifu Prefecture (photo by tsuda CC BY)

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.

Winter at Mount Yotei, Niseko, Hokkaido, Japan
Mount Yotei, located in one of Japan’s most popular ski destinations, Niseko

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

Snow covers Otaru Canal, Otaru, Hokkaiko, Japan
Otaru Sushi Street is one of the best places in Hokkaido for fresh sushi

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, markets buzz with activity, and you’ll find impeccable seasonal specialties at top sushi shops throughout the country.

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.

Japanese yakitori (grilled chicken skewers)
Yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) (photo by City Foodsters CC BY)

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.

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!

The Japanese winter food, oden
The Japanese winter food, oden

Number 4: The Snow Monkeys

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

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).

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.

Buddha sculpture at the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival) in Hokkaido, Japan

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.

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.

View of Mount Yotei from the Grand Hirafu at Niseko resort, Hokkaido, Japan
View of Mount Yotei from Niseko, Hokkaido (photo by Jun Kaneko CC BY)

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“).

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.

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

Winter at Ginzan Onsen (Silver Mountain Hot Spring), Obanazawa, Yamagata, Japan
Winter at Ginzan Onsen (Silver Mountain Hot Spring), Obanazawa, Yamagata

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.

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.