Winter in Japan

Winter in Japan

Introduction

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

Image Source

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.

Conclusion

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!

10 Best Places To Visit During Japanese Winter

10 Best Places To Visit During Japanese Winter

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.