Winter in Japan: 20 Best Things to Do in Japan’s Cold Season

Winter in Japan is an exciting time filled with unique activities and breathtaking landscapes. Whether it’s skiing down powdery slopes, soaking in hot springs, or dining on snow crabs, winter has no shortage of things to do, see, and eat. If you remember to pack the proper attire, and don’t mind a bit of adventure, this list of 20 things to do in Japan in winter is your ticket to a cool time indeed!

Check out our writers’ top Japan travel ideas!

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When Is Winter in Japan?

Winter in Japan typically lasts from December until February, and reaches its peak in January. However, as Japan runs long from north to south, the winter climate differs greatly between regions. For example, in Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido, wintery weather can start as early as October, while Japan’s southernmost Okinawa barely has a winter at all. That’s why it’s important to plan your itinerary before packing clothes and gear.

How Cold Does Japan Get In Winter?

Tokyo in winter is chilly but relatively mild and sunny, with the temperature averaging 0-8°C, and snowfall a rarity. Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, regularly drops below 0°C between December and March, and snow is a given. The Hokuriku and Tohoku regions are also notorious for their snow, including Niigata, Yamagata, Akita, Aomori, and Toyama, where accumulated snowfall is often measured in meters in particularly snowy spots!

The Best Things to Do in Winter in Japan

1. Hit The Powdery Slopes

One of the top reasons to visit Japan in winter is skiing and snowboarding. Ski resorts can be found in much of Japan, including the well-established Niseko in Hokkaido, which sits in the shadow of Mt. Yotei. Niseko’s powder snow is light and dry, and there are loads of resorts suiting all skill levels.

Closer to Tokyo is the valley town of Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture, which hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, and boasts 10 fantastic slopes frequented by a vibrant community. Just over an hour from Tokyo is also the highly accessible Echigo-Yuzawa, home to 12 ski resorts including GALA Yuzawa, which has its very own bullet train station!

Recommended Accommodation in Niseko: Annupuri Lodge at Niseko

2. Warm Up Inside a Kamakura Snow Hut

Like the Inuits of Canada, winter in Japan comes with its own frozen domiciles called “kamakura.” These hollowed-out snowdomes were originally built as shrines to the God of Water, and continue to be a beloved winter tradition providing a surprisingly snug nook against the frigid climate.

Several areas throughout Japan hold kamakura festivals, such as Yunishigawa Onsen in Nikko, which is famous for both large-scale snowdomes that you can sit in, along with rows of adorable mini-kamakura illuminating the night. Further north, the annual Yokote Snow Festival is held in Yokote, Akita Prefecture, on February 15 and 16. It features more than 80 kamakura, including those set up at the foot of the magnificent Yokote Castle.

3. Admire the Architecture of Shirakawa-go

Situated at the foot of the sacred Mt. Haku in Gifu Prefecture, the old homesteads in the UNESCO World Heritage site Shirakawa-go appear even more spectacular during winter in Japan. These structures, some of which are around 300 years old, were built with triangular thatched roofs in a traditional style called “gassho-zukuri” to keep the heavy snowfall that regularly hits the region from building up.

In addition to viewing these impressive dwellings, Shirakawa-go also holds several festivals throughout winter, like the Silkworm Festival and the Katteko Snow Fireworks, both in February.

Recommended Accommodation in Shirakawa-go: Onyado Yuinosho

4. Relish Japanese Winter Delicacies

Winter in Japan wouldn’t be complete without enjoying the bounties of the season. Seafood delicacies are particularly plentiful between December through February, with Japanese crab being the staple. There are several crab varieties to sample in winter, such as king crab in Hokkaido, and snow crab in the Hokuriku region, which includes Echizen crab in Fukui Prefecture and Matsuba crab in Tottori Prefecture.

Other winter must-tries include fresh “fugu” (pufferfish) in Shimonoseki, plump salty oysters from Hiroshima, firm and succulent monkfish in the fishing village of Kazamaura, and “buri” yellowtail from Toyama Bay.

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5. Thaw Out in an Onsen Hot Spring

Whether you’ve spent the day on the slopes, or a night out at a winter festival, nothing beats a soak in one of the many “onsen” hot springs that dot Japan. There are loads of remarkable resort towns to choose from, like the evocative Ginzan Onsen with its charming retro gas lamps and wooden inns, or Kusatsu Onsen, famous for its picturesque Yubatake hot water field.

If you feel squeamish about bathing nude with strangers, here are 12 Japanese onsen hot springs you can visit with swimsuits.

6. Sapporo Snow Festival

The Sapporo Snow Festival started back in 1950 with just a few snow sculptures, but has since exploded into a massive spectacle drawing in over a million visitors each year.

The attractions are spread out across three distinct venues: the central Odori, where many of the biggest and best snow sculptures are exhibited; the nightlife district of Susukino, which is decorated by glimmering ice sculptures; and Tsudome, an interactive venue with snow slides and more. A skating rink and a plethora of food stalls add to the fun, while after-dark light-ups bathe the scene in an enchanting glow.

Sapporo is also near many renowned hot springs, like Jozankei Onsen, and is the birthplace of miso ramen, giving you plenty of warmth and nourishment to fight against the cold.

Recommended Accommodation in Sapporo: Hotel Resol Trinity Sapporo

7. Bask in Stunning Illuminations

Although night comes early during winter in Japan, magnificent “illumination” displays stave off the darkness to cheer up locals and attract visitors during these otherwise dreary months.

Yomiuriland, one of Tokyo’s largest amusement parks, hosts the Jewellumination, where magical jewel-colored LED lights transform the grounds into a radiant wonderland. Closer to Tokyo Station is the Marunouchi Illumination, which sees over a million golden bulbs on hundreds of trees make the already bright Tokyo streetscape even more dazzling.

Winter in Osaka likewise has its central Namba area lit-up with a festive kaleidoscope of a million lights, while Osaka Castle is adorned by illuminated artworks. Most cities in Japan also have their own renditions, so be sure to check them out while visiting!

8. Ring in the New Year With Hatsumode

Hatsumode is a Japanese New Year’s tradition dating back to the Heian Period (794-1185). It is the custom of visiting a shrine or temple during the first week or so of the New Year to make an offering and pray for the coming year.

However, there’s more to hatsumode than just praying. As the entire community is involved, it has a festive mood complete with food stalls and activities. You can scoop up decorative “omamori” good-luck amulets, and have your fortune told via “omikuji” paper slips. For those unfamiliar with how to pray the Japanese way, we suggest checking out this article, too.

Popular hatsumode spots include Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu Shrine and Senso-ji Temple, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura, Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto, and Izumo Taisha in Shimane. Keep in mind that crowds will be massive, so be prepared to wait in line.

9. Hunt For Bargains With Fukubukuro

Those who love a good deal will do well to visit Japan in winter! Japanese lucky bags, called “fukubukuro” are packed with a bunch of goodies sold all together at a discount, often with the contents inside kept secret until opening!

The process is simple: visit a store of your choice between January 1-3 (or even afterwards) and try to get your hands on one of these fleeting fukubukuro. While they can be found easily enough, some popular stores may require a reservation months in advance!

Why the appeal? Mystery may have something to do with it, especially since fukubukuro are a way for stores to unload old inventory, and could be filled with anything. Check out our guide to fukubukuro to learn how to secure your own.

10. Mingle With the Snow Monkeys

While Japanese macaques can be found throughout the nation, none are more entertaining than the “snow monkeys” that live at Jigokudani Monkey Park in mountainous northern Nagano Prefecture. Here, visitors can walk amongst dozens of these playful primates as they freely run, roam, and even bathe in nearby hot springs.

Due to the area’s high volcanic activity, natural hot springs abound, and the snow monkeys adorably take to the onsen much like we humans do, visibly enjoying the steaming water as snow falls around them. Thanks to their tame nature, it’s easy to snap great photos, but don’t get too close to them.

11. Engage In Alternative Snow Activities

If skiing and snowboarding isn’t your thing, there are plenty of alternatives to make the most of winter in Japan. For a more relaxed experience, join a snowshoeing tour, which are available with both modern snowshoes or traditional “kanjiki” Japanese-style snowshoes. If you’re seeking speed, then a thrilling snowmobile ride through forest trails would be right up your alley.

For younger visitors and those young at heart, airboarding down a slippery slope, ice-skating at one of the many rinks set up during the season, or just making some good old-fashioned snow angels is sure to leave you with unforgettable winter in Japan memories!

12. Cruise Through the Okhotsk Drift Ice

Every January, ice chunks from the mouth of Russia’s Amur River drift down the Okhotsk Sea into northeastern Hokkaido, forming drift ice famous in places like Mombetsu, Abashiri, and Shiretoko. These wide sheets of ice are around 50 cm thick, and can only be broken up by special icebreakers that also double as passenger cruise ships.

We recommend setting sail on the powerful Aurora, which departs from Abashiri Port, or the equally tough dual-drill Garinko, departing from Mombetsu Port. For an even more up-close encounter, there are also “ice walk” tours available, where you’ll be able to walk across the drift ice to feel the intensity of winter in Japan for yourself.

13. Go Ice Fishing For “Wakasagi” Smelt

As mentioned, winter in Japan comes with an array of delicious seafood, but like the adage goes: Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. That being said, ice fishing for “wakasagi” smelt is not just a practical pastime, but an enjoyable and (if you catch something) satisfying experience. In January, Lake Akan and Lake Abashiri in Hokkaido are ideal as they are the first to freeze, but Nagano’s Lake Matsubara and Fukushima’s Lake Hibara are also popular haunts for ice fishers.

This primitive method of fishing requires warm clothing, proper equipment, and, above all, patience. While pros will often set themselves up, ice fishing facilities and tours with tents, holes, and gear all provided can be found at several frozen lakes in Japan.

14. Survive the Snow Monsters of Zao

Around January, the Zao Mountain Range in Yamagata Prefecture is blasted by Siberian winds smothering its fir trees in layers of distorted ice giving the impression of monstrous beasts! Dubbed the “Snow Monsters of Zao,” these surreal natural creations can be viewed from above aboard the Zao Ropeway, and then examined up close at the Jizo Sancho Station Summit Terrace.

After absorbing the 360-degree view of the frozen world below (and heating up in the station’s restaurant), pop on your skis or snowboard and race down the mountainside slopes of the Zao Onsen Ski Resort. While a pleasure to behold in the day, the Snow Monsters become even more photogenic during the Zao Juhyo Festival, when they are illuminated by colorful lights at night.

Read more about Zao Onsen and 14 other places to visit in Yamagata Prefecture.

15. Uncover Frozen Waterfalls

The freezing temperatures during winter in Japan affect all elements of nature, and even powerful waterfalls cannot escape its grasp. The majestic wintery sheen and long glass-like icicles of these “icefalls” is perhaps the most stark demonstration of winter’s boundless might.

In Kamikawa, Hokkaido, visitors can join the annual Sounkyo Onsen Ice Waterfall Festival, which not only features the iced-over Ryusei and Ginga Waterfalls, but also a breathtaking winter fireworks show. Closer to Tokyo, the Chichibu region of Saitama Prefecture hosts the Otaki Ice Festival in January, where the magnificent Misotsuchi Icicles hang from the rocks above. Within the deep forests of western Tokyo, the 23.3-meter Hossawa Falls is another beautiful frozen wonder only a 20-minute walk from the Hinohara Village Office.

16. Catch the Early Plum Blossoms at the Atami Plum Garden

The Atami Plum Garden, in the coastal resort city of Atami, was established in 1886 and is filled with over 450 plum trees of 60 varieties, some around 100 years old. The first wave of delicate buds blossom as early as mid-November, making them some of the earliest in Japan. This is followed up by staggered middle and late-blooming plum trees, letting visitors enjoy their flowers all throughout the winter.

17. Capture Photos at the Kasayama Camellia Groves

Winter in Japan is also the season of the radiant camellia flowers that flourish in Toragasaki at the northern tip of Mt. Kasa, Yamaguchi Prefecture. Here, 25,000 camellias grow across 10 hectares, dotting the pastoral landscape with vibrant flourishes of red and yellow.

To celebrate, the Hagi and Camellia Festival is held every year from mid-February to March, coinciding with the flowers’ peak blooming period. Visitors can enjoy activities and events while strolling along a promenade under the luxuriant canopy.

18. Spot the Yukitsuri Trees at Kenroku-en

While winter in Japan is an exciting time for travelers, the harsh elements can harm nature. For example, Kenroku-en, one of Japan's premier ancient gardens, is known for its Karasaki pine and other beautifully manicured trees whose delicate aging branches can crack under the weight of winter snow.

Therefore, in order to protect them, the groundskeepers perform “yukitsuri” between November and mid-December. Using ladders, this process involves painstakingly setting up a tent-like structure of straw ropes and bamboo poles over the trees to support their branches and prevent damage.

While most famous at Kenroku-en, the tradition of yukitsuri can be seen all throughout the snowy regions of Japan, and is often said to be one of the first signs of winter. Witnessing this kind act truly drives home just how important gardens like Kenroku-en are to Japanese people.

Recommended Accommodation Near Kenroku-en Garden: House Hotel Kenrokuzaka

19. Climb the Snowy Steps of Kifune Shrine

Kyoto doesn’t typically get a lot of snow, which is why when winter weather does grace the ancient capital, it’s a truly special occasion best appreciated at a few select spots.

One of these is Kifune Shrine, whose stone stairs lined with vermillion-colored lanterns form a striking contrast when blanketed in pristine white snow. From early January to late February, the path is lit up at night, casting a warm winter glow over the spectacle. This special illumination only happens when it's snowy, so if you choose to visit, pray for fresh white powder.

20. Follow the Path of Light at Miyajidake Shrine

Just like the Arctic reveals its Northern Lights, a rare luminous phenomenon also exists during winter in Japan. The 1,700-year-old Miyajidake Shrine is located in the seaside town of Fukutsu, Fukuoka Prefecture, and is reputable for many aspects, but mostly for its transient “Path of Light” every February and October.

The shrine sits above the city, facing west towards the Genkai Sea, and a straight road runs uninterrupted from its entrance to the coast, giving the impression of a path. Twice a year in late February and late October, the setting sun blazes a perfect golden trail from the sea all the way up to Miyajidake Shrine. To celebrate, the Path of Light festival is held for a week, culminating in its namesake phenomenon.

Check out our writers’ top Japan travel ideas!

Brighten Up Your Winter in Japan With Fun Activities!

With boundless fun and frivolity, it’s well worth braving the freezing temperatures to experience winter in Japan. In general, snowy northern regions like Hokkaido, Tohoku, and Hokuriku have the best winter scenery and activities, so we recommend starting your seasonal sojourn there. Whether it’s staples like skiing and snowboarding, or more unique activities like walking on drift ice or meeting the snow monkeys, you’ll be glad you picked winter to visit Japan. So, use this article as a jumping off point and start planning your ultimate winter Japan holiday!

Thumbnail: PIXTA

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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About the author

Joshua Furr
Joshua hails from North Carolina, USA (home of bluegrass, flight, and Pepsi), but he prefers a life abroad. He loves digging into Japan’s rich folklore, soaking in an onsen and hiking, but his real passion is discovering the hidden gems that lie in the castle town of Joetsu, Niigata. When he’s not writing, you can find him happily enjoying a steaming bowl of gyudon.
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