Even if you don’t love cold weather, it’s hard to resist the magic of winter in Japan, the coziest time of year (with delightfully few tourists).
Yet winter is often overlooked, despite offering some of Japan’s most sublime experiences — and fewer tourists. (See our full article on the seasons and when to visit Japan).
Because we love winter in Japan both for its unique experiences and its relative lack of crowds, we’ve compiled a few of our favorite things about this underrated season. Get yourself cozy and read on!
- Is Winter a Good Time to Visit Japan?
- Weather in Japan in Winter
- 8 Experiences That Make Winter a Unique Time to Explore Japan
Originally written in November 2014, this post was updated and republished on December 6, 2021.
Is Winter a Good Time to Visit Japan?
Most people are drawn to Japan’s peak seasons, spring and fall, so we’re always thrilled when a new client asks us, ”Is Japan worth visiting in winter?”
The answer is a resounding yes!
If you can handle a bit of cold weather, and love exploring with fewer tourists around, winter is a great time to visit Japan. As you can read in more detail below, winter in Japan offers amazing sushi and sashimi, heartwarming comfort foods and cozy izakayas, soothing hot springs and gorgeous snow-covered landscapes, and fewer crowds throughout the country.
Weather in Japan in Winter
How cold is Japan in winter? Well, let’s be honest. The weather in most parts of Japan in winter is cold – this much is true. But if you enjoy the art of coziness, you will love the feel of winter here.
When Is Winter in Japan?
Winter in Japan generally lasts from early to mid-December until the middle of March, but the duration and intensity vary by geography.
- In most parts of central Japan (including Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka), winter temperatures range from about 25 to 45 °F (-4 to 7 °C).
- In mountainous and northern parts of Japan (such as Tohoku and Hokkaido, and the Japan Alps) it can get much colder. These areas experience a longer and more intense winter and are also blessed with abundant snowfall.
- In southern and western parts of Japan (such as Kyushu, Shikoku, and Okinawa) it can still get cold, but on the whole, winter tends to be a bit milder.
Japan in December
In early December, it’s already winter in Hokkaido, but in places like Tokyo and Kyoto, it may still feel like late autumn. It’s common to have crisp, chilly weather and blue skies (hence the term akibare, referring to the clear sunny skies common in fall), and not uncommon to have views of Mount Fuji from Tokyo skyscraper hotels (such as Aman Tokyo and Park Hyatt Tokyo, among many others).
By late December, it’s fair to say it feels like winter throughout Japan, though as usual the parts of the country furthest south and west (such as Kyushu, and especially Okinawa) remain milder.
Japan in January
As the crowds begin to thin following the New Year holidays, and mid-winter begins to set in, expect cold weather most everywhere you go. Even though the ski season starts before January, in most ski areas like the Alps, Tohoku, and Hokkaido, your probability of getting great conditions starts to increase once January rolls around.
For the most part, there are also very few tourists in January, other than at ski resorts. Most travelers use all their vacation time over the holidays, so if you can visit Japan in January you may have popular places like Kyoto mostly to yourself.
Japan in February
By February, most people in Japan are starting to get excited about spring (which usually begins to make itself felt by mid-March), and February can feel cold and dreary for residents. But for tourists, it’s another excellent time to visit, if you don’t mind the cold.
For travelers who enjoy spectacle, consider planning in advance to attend the remarkable Sapporo Snow Festival (Yuki Matsuri). Held annually in February, Hokkaido’s Yuki Matsuri is one of the world’s great winter celebrations and features awe-inspiring ice sculptures, local cuisine, snow slides, snowball fights, ice bars, and more.
Just keep in mind that any holiday period tends to mean big crowds, and the Chinese New Year period (which often occurs in early February) is also a very busy time of year, with visitors flocking to Japan from throughout Asia.
Technically, winter lasts into March, though by the middle of March the cherry blossom season starts getting into full swing.
8 Experiences That Make Winter a Unique Time to Explore Japan
It can be hard for travelers to resist the pull of sakura (cherry blossoms) or fall foliage, but we think even people who normally dislike cold weather should consider visiting Japan in winter.
To help you decide when to travel to Japan, and whether this less crowded time of year is for you, let’s dive into what makes Japan such an appealing winter destination!
1. Fresh Sushi and Seafood
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 in some ways the best time of year for culinary travelers.
You’ll find extraordinary seasonal specialties at top sushi shops in Tokyo, and other sushi meccas such as Kanazawa, Toyama, Fukuoka, and Hokkaido. Hiroshima and Tohoku are just two of many destinations for oysters, where you can savor the bounty of winter paired with local nihonshu (sake).
2. Japanese Wintertime Comfort Foods
Along with seafood, Japan is also outstanding when it comes to comfort foods. If you’re in Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido, make sure to sample the heartwarming specialties of soup curry and miso ramen.
Winter also marks the appearance nationwide of two wintertime favorites: oden and nabe.
Oden can be found everywhere from oden-specialty restaurants to izakayas (see below) and even convenience stores. Large simmering pots of dashi-based broth slow cook ingredients such as daikon, boiled eggs, tofu, and more.
Nabe are 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!
3. Cozy Bars, Izakayas, and Cafes
Speaking of conviviality, few things are more comforting than warming up at a local izakaya over small tapas-style plates and sake (see our full post on izakayas in Japan).
An izakaya is typically a neighborhood establishment where locals go both for the food and the drink (it’s often translated as “Japanese-style tavern”). Izakayas have eclectic menus featuring anything from tofu, tsukemono (Japanese pickles), and grilled vegetables, to sashimi, yakitori, and karaage (fried chicken).
Eating and drinking at an izakaya is a great way to mingle with locals, and particularly comforting during winter.
4. Luxury Ryokans and Onsen
Without onsen (hot springs), winter in Japan would be beautiful, but perhaps not transcendent. Many countries around the world have pristine hot springs, but in Japan, the art of the onsen experience has been perfected to an extraordinary degree.
When staying at a ryokan with hot springs, you pass the time by soaking in healing mineral waters, contemplating nature, drinking green tea in your tatami-lined room, napping, and partaking in incredible, memorable meals. Yes, food is also an integral part of the onsen experience. A ryokan stay typically includes dinner and breakfast, both of which normally feature a beautiful array of local and seasonal specialties.
The exceptional combination of nature, culture, food, and omotenashi (Japanese hospitality) result in an experience that is both incredibly relaxing and culturally fascinating.
5. Powder Paradise: Japan’s Legendary Skiing and Snowboarding
If you love outdoor sports, what could be better than skiing or snowboarding all day, then enjoying a delicious hot meal of local Japanese cuisine and a soak in the onsen?
Japan is blessed with abundant snowfall throughout its many mountainous regions, and you can find winter resorts around the country, particularly in Hokkaido, Tohoku, and the Japan Alps.
In Hokkaido, snowfall is so plentiful that skiers and snowboarders consider it to have some of the best-quality powder in the world. Niseko is by far Hokkaido’s best-known ski destination and is home to luxury accommodations and a thriving culinary scene. A small handful of Hokkaido’s other notable ski areas include Rusutsu, Furano, and Tomamu.
Tohoku and the Japan Alps are both slightly easier to get to (both are fairly convenient to reach by train, whereas the easiest way to get to Hokkaido for most people is by domestic flight), and can be great alternatives if you’re not attached to the idea of skiing in Hokkaido.
The 1998 Winter Olympics were held in Nagano, in the Japan Alps, and the region’s many ski resorts include Hakuba, Shiga Kogen, and Nozawa Onsen. In the Alps, you’re also within easy reach of the famous snow monkeys (see below). As for Tohoku, it’s one of Japan’s most off-the-beaten-path regions, and in addition to its many ski areas features pristine nature, history, and some of Japan’s best onsen.
While it varies a bit depending on the area, the ski season generally lasts from December to April, though expect the best conditions around January and February (naturally, it can vary a lot from year to year). And for the non-skiers traveling with the powderhounds, enjoy gorgeous snow-covered landscapes, onsen and spa treatments, and warm nihonshu!
6. Japan’s Snow Monkeys Love Winter
Humans are not the only ones enjoying onsen. Especially in winter, the Japanese macaques of the famous Snow Monkey Park soak in the remote onsen of Jigokudani.
Located in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture in the Japanese Alps, the Snow Monkey Park (Jigokudani Yaen Koen) is especially popular among family travelers, photographers, and of course animal lovers.
The Snow Monkey Park is open throughout the year, but it’s best experienced in the dead of winter, when the landscape is covered in deep snow and the local macaques have good reason to spend time savoring hot springs.
7. New Year’s Celebrations in Japan
While many restaurants and other establishments close for several days around the New Year’s period, which holds great significance in Japanese culture, it can also be a very special time to be in Japan.
Sure, you’ll find countless New Year’s Eve parties at bars, clubs, and restaurants in cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, which have some of the best nightlife on Earth. But while we love a good party, perhaps the real magic of New Year’s in Japan is found in its more old-fashioned side.
This is especially apparent in historic cities like Kyoto and Kanazawa, where locals flock to traditional districts and Buddhist temple bells ring out at midnight, creating an unforgettable, timeless atmosphere. On New Year’s Day, many Japanese people visit Shinto shrines, such as Meiji Jingu Shrine in Tokyo.
8. Enjoy Fewer Crowds in Winter
If you’re the type of traveler who loves getting off the beaten path, and avoiding touristy times of year, winter may be the ideal time for you to visit Japan.
Apart from the winter holidays, winter is generally a low season. However, keep in mind that this doesn’t quite apply to ski resorts, which tend to be at their most popular throughout the winter.
Ski areas notwithstanding, when speaking with clients who have flexible travel schedules we often ask: would you rather have warmer weather, or fewer tourists around? If you can tolerate a bit of cold, and enjoy feeling like you have a destination almost to yourself, consider bundling up for the chilly weather and travel to Japan in winter!
When to Begin Planning Your Winter Trip to Japan
We hope our introduction to the joys of winter in Japan helps you as you plan your adventure!
Depending on your dates and trip priorities, we recommend planning about 6-12 months in advance to ensure you can get your first choice accommodations and experiences.