Winter in Japan often goes overlooked by visitors due to the hype surrounding the spring cherry blossom season and vibrant foliage of autumn. Winter, however, provides an equally incredible Japanese experience where you can witness numerous exciting events and activities that are only offered at this time of year.

Japan’s winter landscapes are magical and fewer crowds mean better enjoyment of key landmarks and attractions. From exciting snow festivals to adventurous winter sports, winter in Japan offers incredible experiences that are not to be missed. Let us look at the many things on offer during the winter season and other things you should know when visiting Japan this time of year.

Weather

Mount Fuji - Fujiyoshida, Japan - Travel photography
Photo by Giuseppe Milo via Flickr

From the northern island of Hokkaido to Okinawa in the south, Japan’s winter weather can be drastically different depending on where you are. Winter runs from December through February, with the northern regions and western coast along the Sea of Japan seeing the coldest temperatures and heaviest snowfall. The eastern coast along the Pacific, as well as the south, tends to stay dry, with sunny days that rarely drop below freezing. Japan’s larger cities such as Tokyo and Osaka enjoy mild winters with little snowfall. In addition to colder weather, expect shorter days throughout the winter, with sunset occurring around 4:30-5:30pm. February is the peak time for enjoying winter sports and the beautiful winter landscape.

Visas

Japan offers visa exemptions for 68 countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. This allows for short stays of up to 90 days for tourism purposes or visiting friends and family.

Tourism

Otaru Canal
Photo by Reginald Pentinio via Flickr

Traveling to Japan during the winter season equates to far less crowds than are experienced during the three other seasons. The spring hanami, summer holidays, and autumn koyo attract most of the attention from domestic and international tourists. A winter visit allows you to take in most of Japan’s notable sights and attractions with fewer crowds and lines. However, it should be noted that the period around New Year’s is considered one of the busiest travel periods both for domestic and international travelers within Japan. You can expect intense travel activity occurring from December 29 to January 4 when many travelers are visiting family or enjoying time off. Be sure to also check opening times for museums, restaurants, stores, and attractions, as many places may be closed over the holidays.

Things To Do:

Winter Sports

Snowboarding in Nagano
Photo by sean via Flickr

The town of Niseko on Hokkaido Island is home to Japan’s finest skiing and snowboarding. Enjoy four interlinked ski resorts within the Niseko United including Grand Hirafu, An’nupuri, Niseko Village, and Hanazono. The ski season runs from late November through April where you will enjoy great lift systems and well-tended slopes. Other great locations for winter sports include Myoko Kogen, Naeba, Kagura, and Tazawako Those not up for downhill skiing can enjoy snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and ice skating at numerous locations around the country.

Onsen Hot Springs

Shiretoko Kamuiwakka Onsen
Photo by thefriendlyuser via Flickr

Nothing beats taking the chill off winter like a long soak in Japan’s soothing nutrient-rich hot spring baths. Popular throughout Japan, these natural outdoor hot springs can be found in every prefecture. Gunma Prefecture offers the famous onsen resorts of Kusatsu while Takaragawa onsen offers unisex baths where you can enjoy a session with your partner or family members. Check out the Manza Onsen in the Kantō region, Kamuiwakka onsen in Hokkaido, or the many onsen baths of Beppu on the island of Kyushu in the south.

Sapporo Snow Festival

Light show
Photo by Danielle Olson via Flickr

Japan’s most celebrated winter festival, the Sapporo Snow Festival takes place in Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido. Be awestruck by incredible artistic masterpieces crafted from snow and ice that depict things such as anime characters, dinosaurs, famous landmarks, and dragons. In addition to the massive snow sculptures that are created by teams from all around the world, visitors can enjoy sledding, snow mazes, ice bars, music, and regional food. The event takes place in February each year.

Winter Wildlife Experiences

Onsen Day
Photo by azkin via Flickr

Humans aren’t the only ones to enjoy a relaxing onsen bath in winter. Each year, visitors flock to Nagano prefecture to witness the snow monkeys, or Japanese macaques, soak in the winter onsen waters of Jigokudani Yaen-koen. The monkeys are present here year round, but the winter landscape provides the best setting for photography. Another incredible winter wildlife experience is witnessing the red-crowned cranes. The cranes winter in the Tsurui-Ito Tancho Sanctuary, where they perform their elegant mating rituals that are fascinating to watch and capture on camera.

Winter Illuminations

DSC_0428
Photo by Marufish via Flickr

Japan’s winters may be lacking the pink cherry blossoms of spring and the red and yellow leaves of autumn, but there is no lack of color thanks to the many winter illuminations that can be found across the country. Large displays of fairy lights can be witnessed in all the major cities including Tokyo and Osaka, as well as smaller towns. Notable displays include Tokyo’s Marunouchi illuminations, Osaka’s Midosuji illuminations, and the famous Kobe Luminarie. The dazzling light displays often begin in November and run through the holidays. Some even extend into late winter.

Yuki-no-Otani Snow Wall

Snow-wall (yuki no otani) at Murodo Tateyama
Phot by Ankur P via Flickr

Located in the Toyama prefecture, visitors to the Tateyama Murodo plateau can walk among towering walls of 20m tall snow walls created by snow removal vehicles clearing the Alpine Route roadway. The massive 500m long snow wall is formed late in the season and extends into spring, with a side of the road being designated for pedestrians to safely walk and admire the walls.