The cold December winter can sometimes bring about a significant drop in mood from the cheerful July summer. For some, the month is packed with gloomy days and constant wishes for warmer weather — but not in Japan. From the icy Hokkaido in the north to the busy city life of central Tokyo, there are tons of areas that are best seen and visited during the winter season in Japan.
Japanese winter is nothing short of magical. You’ll feel like you’ve stumbled onto a fairytale world with the snow-covered trees and slopes, with illuminations that warm up the streets with their twinkling lights. Japan doesn’t hold back when it comes to celebrating its seasons, and winter is one of the most festive times of the year!
Here are the best ways to spend the cold season in Japan — there’s something for everyone, from shopping and relaxation to outdoor activities and sightseeing.
Relax in an onsen
Enjoy December in Japan by relaxing in an onsen (温泉, hot spring). This Japanese hot spring is definitely one activity that you should never miss out on your visit to Japan — especially in December when it will be cold outside. Even though this activity is in demand all year round with locals and foreigners alike partaking in it, a dip in onsen during December is like a warm hug — especially if it’s an outdoor onsen. Regardless of whether your onsen is surrounded by the snow-covered trees or in a traditional Japanese ryokan, the experience is exceptional either way.
One of the most picturesque onsen in all of Japan is the Ginzan Onsen, a popular spot especially during winter. Located in Obanazawa in the Yamagata Prefecture, this historically-rich mountain town surrounded by peaceful nature is the perfect escape from the busy city. Relax in a toasty, peaceful outdoor hot spring and take in the air full of culture. While you’re at it, take a stroll around the city — you might even stumble across the historical silver mine built over five centuries ago!
Kowakien Yunessun is the perfect onsen spot if you’re interested in a unique onsen experience unlike the rest. While it has traditional onsen of the highest class for your pleasure, that’s not even close to the highlight of this place. Sign up for a once-in-a-lifetime experience of dipping your toes and soaking in a heated pool of red wine — if not, pick from choices of coffee, green tea and Japanese sake! Don’t miss out on their outdoor areas either, complete with waterslides and waterfalls, as well as an outdoor onsen with a magnificent view of Hakone.
Visit winter festivals
Source: kitchakron sonnoy from Flickr
What’s the holiday spirit without some festivals, am I right? In Japan, December is one of the months that’s abundant in festivals — from special winter festivals to Christmas markets that pull in people from the outskirts of the city to come down and participate.
Most of these festivals begin at the start of December onwards. Here’s a neat tip: the earlier you drop by these festivals, the better goods you have to select from. You know what they say, the early bird gets the worm!
As soon as December comes around, the Japanese take that as a sign to bring out the winter and snow festivals all around the country. Northern Japan goes all out, more so than the others — you’ll get to see everything from special winter performances to carefully crafted ice sculptures. Sapporo Snow Festival is one to put on your itinerary — despite the freezing cold in December, the locals lift their spirits by organising this week-long annual festival. The whole city turns into a winter wonderland with ice sculptures and illumination lining the streets. Over two million visitors each year drop by the city just for this occasion!
The Yunishigawa Kamakura Festival is another one that will definitely put you in a better mood during the cold winter. While you might have heard “Kamakura” as the city that houses the huge Buddha statue, it also refers to the traditional Japanese igloo! During the festival, tons of these dome sculptures are lined up with orange, twinkling glows as the sky turns dark. It’s a magical sight that warms your chest in the cold atmosphere.
Bask in winter illuminations
Source: Hiroaki Kaneko from Flickr
No one can beat Japan when it comes to winter illuminations — it’s without a doubt the winner. Thousands and millions of tiny bulbs of light decorate everything in the area, from trees and bushes to buildings and lamp posts. You might even be lucky and stumble across ones that put on a choreographed light show! A single city can house multiple light illuminations of various themes and people near as well as far come all the way from their home to witness such beauties.
While Tokyo has quite a substantial number of winter illuminations, go out of the main city to Nagasaki, the home city of a Dutch theme park called Huis Ten Bosch. This theme park is extremely gigantic — over 13 million light bulbs are needed to take over the park and illuminate every inch of the grounds in winter! You might need to spare a few hours to fully explore the Kingdom of Lights!
Another illumination event in Japan is the Nabana no Sato in Nagoya, one of the largest ones in the whole country. This flower park is already getting enough visitors throughout the year, but when it’s illuminated from December onwards with millions of LED lights decorating the fragrant park, there’s no doubt thousands of more visitors are making their way here. Here’s a tip: go up onto the observation deck to witness a spectacular panoramic view of the illuminations display!
Leisurely ice skate around town
Not all cities in Japan will be covered in powdery snow in December, but there’s an easy enough solution to enjoy the cold weather and that is a man-made ice skating rink! While there are tons of indoor all-year-round rinks in major cities of Japan, the special outdoor ones only pop up from December onwards and only for a few months. Take your ice skating shoes for a spin and brush up your skating skills.
Some recommended places are the Tokyo Skytree Town Ice Skating Park, or one outside of Tokyo in Yokohama called the Art Rink in Red Brick Warehouse — the latter is extremely unique and one to definitely check out even if you’re not an ice skater at all.
Stay at a ski resort
Nothing can beat the December cold weather than going up to a ski resort for fun and exciting ways to beat the snow! Whether it is skiing or snowboarding, hitting the snowy hills and slopes is undoubtedly the best activity to take part in when the weather gets colder.
While there are tons of ski resorts scattered throughout the country, don’t miss out on Zao Ski Resort where you can kill two birds with one stone to witness in-person the ice-coated trees that are known as “snow monsters”. The ski resort is coated with lush powder slopes, and taking an enjoyable slide down whether on ski or snowboards, zooming past the snow monsters will send a thrilling chill down your spine. Look out the winder in the evening where they will get lit up, giving off a mystical winter vibe.
Travel to Japan’s exclusive winter sites
Source: Thirawatana Phaisalratana from Flickr
Traveling from a place to the other might sound like a pain, but trust that these exclusive winter sites in Japan are worth every second of the journey. Japan is undoubtedly stunning all year round, but when the weather cools from December onwards, the country reveals new sides to its land.
No one would think to travel miles out of a city center, especially if it’s in another prefecture, to visit a park in December. Don’t be so sure yet, because the Jigokudani Monkey Park is extremely special. The Japanese macaques make a grand appearance when it gets cold. They come from deep inside the Jigokudani mountains to the thermal spa in Yokoyu River, dipping their toes and soaking in the warm water baths. You wouldn’t want to miss out a once-in-a-lifetime experience of getting up-close and personal with these adorable things!
Another magical sight in Japan during winter is none other than this designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shirakawago Village. Its conservation of the unique architecture of the houses earned them the title, and well-deserving to say the least. The village is beautiful all year round but it transforms into a stunning Japanese winter wonderland from December onwards. These Gashho-zukuri farmhouses are draped in snowfall — you might even be lucky enough to snag some tickets for the exclusive illumination light show events.
An underrated location of a winter spot in Japan is the Icicles of Misotsuchi. This winter phenomenon is not so far from Tokyo — it’s just in Saitama, the prefecture to the east of the main city. These ginormous icicles are created from the water that’s flowing down from the cliffs. Drop by during peak season in December for an exclusive light show where the icicles will be lit up in a blueish hue, giving off a mystical ambiance.
Shop at Christmas markets
Two huge celebrations in Japan are Christmas and New Year. Even though these events take place at the end of the month of December, Christmas markets pop up as early as the start of the month and even earlier! Visit the dozens of Christmas markets scattered around the country — the capital city Tokyo has more than a few that will definitely pique your interest. Roppongi Hills Christmas Market is without a doubt the most popular one of them all, featuring everything from Christmas-related goods to even German delicacies.
Winter in Japan is a magical time to be in the Land of the Rising Sun — and yes, the sun still rises and can be seen in the country, so don’t worry about gloomy skies and rainy weather. So stop avoiding the cold season and get out and about with all these exciting Japan-exclusive winter activities!