Introduction

Spring in Japan is beautiful — many travellers plan their trip to Japan around that time of the year to witness the blooming flowers as the weather warms up. What you don’t know is that you’re missing out on heaps of excitement that takes place only during Japanese winter! 

Winter in Japan is magical — winter illuminations, snow-covered slopes and trees that mimic that of a fairytale are just the tip of the iceberg. The Japanese celebrate winter like no other despite the cold and snow, because it’s also the time for winter events and ice sculptures! Let’s not forget about the onsens, bathing outdoors in natural hot springs.

If these don’t make you want to venture Japan in winter, here is a list of places in Japan that will definitely convince you otherwise.

1. Jigokudani Monkey Park

Source: Douglas Sprott (flickr)

Hello, monkeys! Just two hours north of Tokyo, you can find wild Japanese macaques chilling in their very own thermal spa, up in Nagano. They inhabit the Jigokudani mountainsides and roam the extensive terrains freely, and part of their territory includes the Yokoyu River valley.

While the park is only reachable on foot through the dense forest of about a mile, I promise it’s worth the trek — I mean, who doesn’t want to get up close and personal with bathing macaques? It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

2. Shirakawago Village

Source: Trey Ratcliff (flickr)

Shirakawago Village is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the conservation of the unique architecture of the houses — some have steeply sloping roofs constructed without nails that enables them to cope structurally with the heavy wind snowfalls. The area transforms into a Japanese winter wonderland in mid-December, when snowfalls begin and the Gassho-zukuri farmhouses take on a snow-covered picture-perfect look. 

The most popular village, Ogimachi, has the biggest and most number of traditional farmhouses dated back over two hundred years ago! On top of it all, Shirakawago also has winter illuminations worth staying and booking in advance for, because it is a popular event. 

3. The Blue Pond

Have you ever seen the sky on the ground? The Blue Pond, located near the town of Biei in Hokkaido lets you witness just that. The lagoon-like pond that holds sky-blue coloured water was created when excavations were made to prevent mudslides from eruptions of Mount Tokachi from reaching the town. 

Because of that event, the hollow left behind from the digs filled with water. The pond contains traces of chemicals that turn its waters a rainbow of different blue hues throughout the year, and during winter the scenery is so magical as the blue pond is accompanied by the whitened tree branches.

4. Abashiri Drift Ice

Source: Ludwine Probst (flickr)

Found up north of Japan is Hokkaido, the coldest city in all of Japan! Because of that, Hokkaido experiences all kinds of spectacular phenomenons in winter, and one of them is the drift ice. The Sea of Okhotsk along Abashiri City is known to be the southernmost point to witness the drift ice, just like in the Arctic. There is also a sightseeing ship that allows you to watch the dynamic drift ice in close proximity, but only during a limited time of the year.

5. Zao

Source: Anthony Coronado (flickr)

Winter can bring out the most spectacular natural sights. One of them is the winter phenomenon that is at a popular ski resort in Northern Japan called the Zao Ski Resort. Hundreds of Zao’s ice trees, also known as Juhyo, covered the slopes of the ski resort. These unique and amazing snow monsters are a work of art made by nature.

Visitors of the ski resort can even ski and snowboard around and by the trees. In the evening, the snow monsters are lit up and put on a mystical winter scenery.

6. The Icicles of Misotsuchi

Source: tsuru_g4 (flickr)

Most of the places that experience a winter phenomenon are usually found in the colder regions of Japan, like Hokkaido. This one is more accessible from Tokyo, and it is the Icicles of Misotsuchi. They are gigantic icicles created by the flowing water over the cliffs upstream from the waterfall in Chichibu area in Saitama prefecture, located right next to Tokyo.

Not only is this an extremely beautiful natural sight on its own, during the peak season, but there will also be special light-up events held that lighten up the icicles in a blue-ish hue, giving them a mystical feel.

7. Kamakura Festival

Source: chee_hian (flickr)

Kamakura is not only linked to the city that is known for its famous and huge Buddha statue, but also referred to the dome-shaped snow sculpture that is a traditional winter item in Japan. 

Held in the northern part of the country, the Yunishigawa Kamakura Festivals takes place at the Yunishigawa Onsen Town in Tochigi Prefecture, where hundreds of dome sculptures in all sizes line up, lighting up the dark night sky with orange glows.

The event runs for about a month from February to March, and even though the Kamakura domes are the main attraction, there are also other several fun snow activities offered in the vicinity. 

8. Ginzan Onsen

Source: Jojje Olsson (flickr)

Who doesn’t love a good onsen? Bathing in natural hot springs is an enjoyable way of relaxing, and locals and foreigners often take the time out to go to them as it also has health benefits. In winter, the surrounding of the onsen is filled with snow and ice, and the air is chilly. Yet, as you dip into the onsen, you’re warm and toasted amidst the cold winter.

Ginzan Onsen is one of the most picturesque places to go for a winter onsen. Located in the Yamagata prefecture, the small mountain town is full of historical ryokans and traditional onsen inn lined along the banks of the Ginzan River. 

Stay overnight at one of these, and even consider one with a private onsen, to enjoy the full experience. Public onsens are also available for those not looking to spend the night. If you’re not feeling up for the full immersion, a public foot spa is also available. 

9. Sapporo Snow Festival

Source: David McKelvey (flickr)

Winter in Hokkaido is really cold, but instead of being down in the slumps because of the weather, the capital city, Sapporo, hosts the world’s famous Sapporo Snow Festival for a week-long that turns the whole city into the dreamy winter wonderland, covering three major sites — the Odori, the Susukino and the Tsu Dome. With ice sculptures and illuminations, over two million visitors, local Japanese and travellers, attend the event every season!

Each site cover a different thing: the Odori hosts the most spectacular and biggest sculptures, and you’ll be able to get a great view of them from the Sapporo TV Tower; Susukino has the smaller ice sculptures that are distributed between the karaoke bars and other entertainment establishments; The Tsu Dome offers loads of snow-related activities for both adults and children.

10. Winter Travel via JR Tadami Line

Source: Masahiro IIZUKA (flickr)

Who would’ve thought that a train ride would be a place to visit and do during winter? Yet the JR Tadami Line makes the cut. This rail service runs for over eighty miles through the most spectacular parts of Fukushima and Niigata prefectures, and can you imagine these landscapes covered in snow?

It’s extremely beautiful and jaw-dropping, it’s no doubt that this train ride will quite literally take your breath away. The best part of it all, although it might seem like a drag on other days, is that the train isn’t those express, fast ones. So you’re in for a plentiful time of admiring the scenic vistas through the carriage window.

Conclusion

Winter can be cold and sometimes depressing, but each season always has something to offer. Japan is especially best in winter, providing a mix of tradition and modern events, natural and man-made sights, and activities that can be enjoyed by all. 

From resort activities like skiing and snowboarding near the Zao monster trees, dipping in the hot water of the natural hot springs in Ginzan, to getting a picturesque trainride across parts of beautiful Japan, there is no reason to not enjoy the cold and snow in this amazing country.