Winter is a beautiful time to visit Japan. There are many beautiful winter destinations to choose from. From enjoying gorgeous winter scenery to fun winter activities, to places serving specialty winter cuisine, you can find something for your trip. This article will help you decide on the best winter destinations to visit in Japan.
Main image: PIXTA
Why should you visit Japan in winter?
Japan is often well-known for its spring and fall seasons. However, the cold winter season is no less of a great time to visit the breathtaking country. Japan has a variety of experiences that are unique to winter! For example, during winter, there are beautiful illuminations. Cities and towns are decorated in lights from around November till February.
The surreal scenes the cold nights and snow create are a view you can only see during winter. There are also a variety of snow festivals, with extravagant displays of statues and objects made of snow and ice, winter activities you can enjoy with your family and friends, and also warm your body up at an onsen after a long cold day. The scenery and the contrast between cold and hot is a very relaxing onsen experience unique to winter in Japan.
Here is a quick list of some of the most recommended winter destinations to help narrow down your options.
1. Sapporo Snow Festival (Sapporo): Enjoy the stunning snow and ice sculptures on show
The Sapporo Snow Festival is one of Japan's most popular winter events. It is held over one week in February in Sapporo, Hokkaido. People from all over Japan head to Hokkaido to enjoy the stunning snow and ice sculpture displays. Before the pandemic, it attracted around two million visitors every year.
The festival has three areas: the Odori Park site, the Susukino site, and the Tsudome site. Each area has different-sized sculptures, with the Odori Park site featuring some of the largest snow sculptures lit up daily. The Susukino site typically features around 100 ice sculptures, and the Tsudome site, which is slightly less central, is an area where you can play in the snow. The sites offer activities such as snow slides, snow rafting, and more snow sculptures to admire.
The Odori and Susukino sites are located in central Sapporo and can be accessed either on foot (around 20 min.) or via the Namboku Subway Line (around 10 min.) from Sapporo Station. The Tsudome Site is slightly harder to access but can be accessed using a shuttle bus or a 15-minute walk from Sakaemachi Station, 10 minutes on the Toho subway line from Sapporo Station.
(Note that in 2023, the Tsudome site will not be open.)
Various places in Sapporo city, Hokkaido, 060-0042
Odori Station （Namboku Line / Tozai Line / Toho Line）
- Phone Number 011-281-6400
- Address Various places in Sapporo city, Hokkaido, 060-0042
2. Zao Juhyo Festival (Yamagata): Enjoy Yamagata’s famous snow monsters on Mount Zao
These startling figures, known as the “snow monsters,” are called “juhyo” in Japanese and can be seen on the summit of Mount Zao, in Yamagata. These spooky shapes are actually trees that have been swallowed whole by the snow, creating the image of scary monsters.
You will find these monsters lit up during the Zao Juhyo Festival, held around early January till early March. Make sure to dress warmly when visiting this incredibly popular destination, as the weather tends to be harsh at the top of the mountain.
To reach Zao Onsen, close to where the snow creatures are, you must take a bus from Yamagata Station. The ride is around 40 minutes. Once you have reached Zao Onsen, take two ropeways to reach Jizo Summit Station.
Zao Onsen, Yamagata City, Yamagata Prefecture, 990-2301
Yamagata Station （Ou Line / Yamagata Line / Yamagata Shinkansen）
37 minutes by bus
- Phone Number 023-694-9518
- Address Zao Onsen, Yamagata City, Yamagata Prefecture, 990-2301
3. Nabana no Sato (Mie): Visit one of Japan’s most famous illuminations
A garden of flowers and light, Nabana no Sato is a very famous winter illumination site with over 5.8 million LEDs lighting up the spectacular garden of flowers. The LEDs light up the dark, cold winter nights and create romantic images among the sea of flowers. They even have an open-air hot spring foot bath, restaurants, and shops where visitors can stop and warm themselves up or take a short break.
Nabana no Sato is around a 35-minute trip from Nagoya Station. It takes around 25 minutes to reach Nagashima Station, and then there is a direct bus from Nagashima Station to Nabana no Sato, which takes around 10 minutes. From Osaka, it is a 2-hour train ride from Namba Station to Nagashima Station.
270, Nagashimachokomae Urushibata, Kuwana-shi, Mie, 511-1144
Nagashima Station （JR Kansai Main Line）
21 minutes on foot
- Phone Number 0594-41-0787
- Address 270, Nagashimachokomae Urushibata, Kuwana-shi, Mie, 511-1144
4. Shirakawago (Gifu): Take in this real-life winter wonderland
Shirakawago is well-known for its farmhouses with steep roofs. These buildings were specially made to combat the large amount of snow the region receives yearly. With around one to two meters of snow, during winter, Shirakawago turns into a real-life winter wonderland.
The locals often plan special illumination events from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. to add to the already magical atmosphere of the Shirakawago. In 2023, illuminations are scheduled for the following dates (all of which are Sundays):
・January 15, 2023
・January 22, 2023
・Janaury 29, 2023
・February 5, 2023
・February 12, 2023
・February 19, 2023
From Kanazawa Station, there is a highway bus visitors can take, which will take around 90 minutes. Note that the last bus which can access Shirakawago departs before the light-up starts.
For safety reasons and to help avoid overcrowding, the number of visitors allowed into the village is limited. All visitors must get an advance reservation to visit during the light-up events.
To enjoy the illuminations, there are three ways of visiting:
1. Joining a bus tour. Several tour companies offer tours from Takayama and Kanazawa. Reservations would need to be made directly with the tour operators. (There is also a tour available at the link below.)
2. Stay overnight. There is a limited number of rooms available and many local lodgings held a lottery system in previous years. It's important to book accommodations early for availability. (For 2023, note that all accommodations are fully booked for the illumination period.)
3. Visit by car. This involves registering for a parking space as well. Details on this and on tours can be found on the Shirakawago Tourist Association website.
- Address 1086 Ogimachi, Shirakawa, Ono District, Gifu 501-5627
5. Ginzan Onsen (Yamagata): Be transported back a hundred years to Japan’s Taisho Era
Ginzan Onsen is a very popular hot springs town in Japan, and its iconic wooden structures, many originally constructed around the 1920s and 1930s, are visited by crowds of tourists every year. The atmosphere will leave you breathless and feel like you have taken a step back in time.
Along the beautiful Ginzan River are multiple traditional Japanese ryokan inns. Stroll along the snowy footpaths and then warm your body up at one of the authentic hot springs. While it makes a great day trip, staying overnight in Ginzan Onsen lets you have the whole snowglobe fantasy to yourself! Because of the area's popularity, be sure to book accommodations well in advance (and make sure they include meals, as the number of restaurants is very limited).
To get to Ginzan Onsen, it is a 40-minute bus ride from Oishida Station. Getting to Oishida Station from Tokyo is around a three-hour Shinkansen ride.
Yamagata Prefecture Obanazawa City Yamagata Large Ginzan Shinhata, 999-4333
Oishida Station （Ou Line / Yamagata Shinkansen）
- Phone Number 0237-28-3933
- Address Yamagata Prefecture Obanazawa City Yamagata Large Ginzan Shinhata, 999-4333
6. Oirase Gorge (Aomori): Tour through this beautiful winter valley
The breathtaking Oirase Gorge is filled with frozen waterfalls, rows of stunning icicles, and mountains covered in pure white snow. This beautiful scenery has even been designated as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty. Take advantage of a Winter Bus Tour, like one offered by Towada Travel, so you can fully enjoy the views without worrying about driving in the winter climate.
Oirase Keiryu building, Towada-shi, Aomori larger section of a village Okuse character Tochikubo 183, 034-0301
Shichinohe-towada Station （Tohoku Shinkansen / Hokkaido Shinkansen）
- Phone Number 0176-74-1233
- Address Oirase Keiryu building, Towada-shi, Aomori larger section of a village Okuse character Tochikubo 183, 034-0301
7. Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park (Nagano): Go on a one-day trip to see the bathing monkeys!
When you think of winter in Japan, the image of the snow monkey relaxing in the onsen may have been a photo you have seen already!
Jigokudani Yaen-koen is located in the northern part of Nagano Prefecture. Because of the steep slopes of the valley and steam coming off the hot springs below, this area became known as “Jigokudani” - “Hell Valley.”
The numerous wild Japanese macaques (or “snow monkeys”) have called this area home for ages. And today, you can enjoy watching the adorable snow monkeys soaking in the hot springs, surrounded by snow!
While you can make it on your own to the Jigokudani Monkey Park, given the park’s location, it is convenient to join a tour. The tour below showcases some of the exciting areas of Nagano, including the iconic monkeys bathing in the onsen.
Jigokudani Monkey Park地獄谷野猿公苑
- Address 6845 Yamanouchi-machi, Shimotakai-gun, Nagano, Japan 381-0401
8. Icicles of Misotsuchi (Saitama): A magical art-like scenery only seen during winter
This magical world created by icicles is just a short train ride away from Tokyo. The icicles can grow to around 30 meters in width and 8 meters in height and are formed by the headstream of the Arakawa River. This view can only be seen from mid-January till mid-February, as it is the coldest time of the year. The illumination of the icicles is also a sight to see.
The icicles of Misotsuchi can be visited by taking the Seibu Ikebukuro Line from Ikebukuro Station to Hanno Station and then transferring to the Chichibu Line to Mitsumineguchi Station. From there, you will need to either take a bus or taxi to reach the icicles of Misotsuchi. Be sure to check the official website for dates and details.
Icicles of Misotsuchi三十槌の氷柱
- Address 4066 Otaki, Chichibu, Saitama 369-1901, Japan
9. Shiretoko Drift Ice (Hokkaido): A spectacular and unique view of drifting ice
Shiretoko is a peninsula located in northern Hokkaido, and its abundance of nature enabled it to become a World Heritage Site. The adjacent Sea of Okhotsk experiences a build-up of drift ice (or Ryuho) during winter.
This beautiful sight can only be seen during early February and March. In order to celebrate this magical view, the Shiretoko Ryuho Festival is held and allows visitors to enjoy both the drifting ice, ice domes, and exciting illuminations.
If you're staying in the area, various hotels and ryokans offer warm onsens from where people can view the drifting ice. You can also join a tour to don a dry suit and enjoy an exciting walk on the ice as well!
The easiest way to get here is by taking a night bus named “Eagle Liner,” which departs from Sapporo Station. The night bus will deliver you to Utoro Town in Shiretoko in the morning. Accessing Shiretoko via train is somewhat more complicated, as it involves around a 4-hour trip from Sapporo to Kushiro, then another 2 hours and 26 min. on the Semmo Line to Shiretoko-Shari Station. From here, you would take a bus from Shari Bus Terminal to the Utoro Hot Spring area.
Rausu-cho, Menashi-gun, Hokkaido and Shari-cho, Shari-gun, 099-4100
Shiretoko-Shari Station （Senmo Main Line）
- Phone Number 015-432-7500
- Address Rausu-cho, Menashi-gun, Hokkaido and Shari-cho, Shari-gun, 099-4100
10. Shirohige Waterfall (Hokkaido): A unique waterfall that resembles a white beard?
Shirohige Waterfall is located 600 meters above sea level and is known for the water flowing in between the rocks, which resembles a white beard, hence the name “shirohige” (translating to white beard). During winter, most of the rivers freeze, including white beard; the flowing water creates a dreamlike scene. The frozen waterfall is lit at night, adding to the fabulous view.
Shirohige Waterfall is a 30-minute bus ride from JR Biei Station. You can also enjoy this area on a day trip tour from Sapporo as well.
Shirogane, Biei-cho, Kamikawa-gun, Hokkaido, 071-0235
Biei Station （Furano Line）
30 minutes by bus
- Phone Number 0166-94-3025
- Address Shirogane, Biei-cho, Kamikawa-gun, Hokkaido, 071-0235
11. Mt. Fuji (Yamanashi/Shizuoka): Take in Japan's most iconic mountain
In winter, you can enjoy stunning clear views of Japan’s iconic 3776-meter-tall mountain from many areas. But to really soak it all in, you’ll want to head to Lake Kawaguchi.
One of the famed “Fuji Five Lakes,” this area affords incredible views of Japan’s majestic mountain. Also in the area is Arakurayama Sengen Park, home to the iconic five-story pagoda that’s widely considered one of Japan’s best landmarks. Toward the southeast is Oshino Hakkai, a popular scenic spot with ponds and stunning Mt. Fuji views. You
Getting to the Lake Kawaguchi area via bus or train is easy, and we recommend staying overnight to enjoy a memorable experience: sunrise over Mt. Fuji. If you are considering a day trip, however, several tours are available. Some include options to tour the area or even head to the Gotemba Premium Outlets to enjoy some shopping. Any way you get there, visiting in winter also means there is a higher chance of seeing Mt. Fuji due to the cold and clean air, and you can see it beautifully covered in white snow!
Fujikawaguchiko-machi, Minamitsuru-gun, Yamanashi, 401-0301
Kawaguchiko Station （Kawaguchiko Line (Fujikyuko)）
1 minute on foot
- Address Fujikawaguchiko-machi, Minamitsuru-gun, Yamanashi, 401-0301
12. Izu Shaboten Zoo (Shizuoka): Watch the adorable capybaras come to take a bath in the hot springs
Izu Shaboten Zoo is home to beautiful botanical gardens and animal attractions. But visit during winter, and you’re in for a treat! Home to Japan’s first-ever capybara onsen, Izu Shaboten Zoo is a must for families. You can admire these adorable creatures taking a bath in the hot springs - a treat only during the winter months. There is also a petting area where you can touch the capybaras and other animals.
Izu Shaboten Zoo is around two and a half hours by train and bus from Tokyo Station.
Izu Shaboten Zoo伊豆シャボテン動物公園
- Address 1317-13 Futo, Itō, Shizuoka 413-0231
Tips for an exciting winter adventure!
One of the pros of traveling during winter is that it is considered off-season. While the holiday season (Christmas and New Year) tends to be busy with the locals, tourist-wise, many decide not to travel during the cold months. This means you will be able to enjoy all of these exciting destinations without the worry of overcrowding, making these destinations well worth your time.
Take advantage of various transport passes to make the most of your exciting winter adventure. Most prefectures and/or regions will have some form of a pass, which will often allow you to take as many rides as you like within a day. In many instances, if you show these passes, they usually give you a discount on entrance fees to famous tourist spots.
In particular, when traveling to Japan, if you are able, the Japan Rail Pass is very convenient as it allows you to ride JR trains and buses. They have an extensive transport network throughout the country, and it is beneficial when you want to access various destinations efficiently, as this rail pass also covers the Shinkansen.
Lastly, do not forget to eat the multiple specialties of each region. If you are a seafood lover, winter is the season perfect for a range of seafood, including oysters and crab. These delicacies are particularly tasty during the winter season. Other than seafood, during winter, dishes such as a hot pot or a bowl of ramen are great to soothe your tired body and taste the unique flavors of each region. Make sure to enjoy both the event at the destination but also the local foods and winter specialties at the various prefectures to make the most of traveling during winter in Japan!
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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