More Than Just Hokkaido! 10 Spots in Northern Japan for the Ultimate Winter Experience

Winter in Japan offers many memorable experiences, especially when you undertake a journey north to Hokkaido and the Tohoku region, which provide authentic and delightful insights into local cultures. Consequently, you'll not only be treated to stunning views of snow-clad landscapes but will also feel a warm and fuzzy glow after participating in fun-filled festivals, pretty illuminations, and rejuvenating winter activities. Here are ten fabulous winter attractions in Northern Japan that you shouldn't miss!

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When Is Winter in Northern Japan

Northern Japan consists of Japan’s northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido and the Tohoku region, which encompasses Aomori, Akira, Iwate, Miyagi, Yamagata, and Fukushima Prefectures.

Due to its northern location, Northern Japan gets cooler faster than the rest of Japan, and by December, Northern Japan can witness substantial snowfall that can last through February, with the peak usually occurring in January.

10 Places to Enjoy Winter Scenery in Northern Japan

1. View a Snowy Otaru Port from Above (Hokkaido)

If you're visiting Otaru in Hokkaido, be sure to include a trip to Mt. Tengu. Utilize the Tenguyama Ropeway, a 30-person gondola that takes you to the peak in about five minutes. Once there, the picture-perfect view of Otaru Port and Ishikari Bay exudes a sense of serenity that will render you speechless. This view has been recognized as one of the best bird's eye views in Japan, earning a star in the Michelin Green Guide Japan.

In fact, Mt. Tengu boasts an equally impressive night view—so much so that it is known as one of the three best night views in Hokkaido. Thus, staying for a night in Otaru is advisable for travelers who want to immerse themselves in its stunning night scenery.

・Stay in Otaru

Grand Park Otaru stands out as an accommodation that you may want to consider, as it is located near Minami Otaru Station. Depending on your preference, you can choose your hotel room from a wide range that includes Japanese-style suites, connecting rooms, and Japanese-style rooms with ocean views. No matter which room you choose, it'll be perfect for lounging and tuning into the ebb and flow of the waves, letting them soothe your soul!

2. Gaze at a Snow-Covered Hirosaki Castle (Aomori)

Hirosaki Castle stands tall and proud as the sole remaining castle in Tohoku built during the Edo period (1603 – 1867), making a visit to Aomori a journey into the heart of history. Standing on its grounds lets you share space with a magnificent relic that has withstood the test of time. You certainly won’t be disappointed by its structure. Situated on top of a hill, Hirosaki Castle features eye-arresting walls, moats, gates, and watchtowers, providing you a vivid glimpse into how the samurai clan must have defended their territory tenaciously then.

Hirosaki Castle attracts many visitors during the cherry blossom and winter seasons. Indeed, your heartstrings will be tugged at the sight of its snow-covered facade. Another draw is the Hirosaki Castle Snow Lantern Festival, typically held for four days in mid-February. Photography enthusiasts will relish the chance to take photos of the hundreds of snow statues adorning the castle grounds. Art fans will love viewing beautiful traditional Japanese artworks displayed at the Tsugaru-Nishiki-e Cloister. Parents, too, can delight in watching their children sled down snow-packed slopes. Hirosaki Castle truly has something for everyone!

3. Admire Breathtaking Snowy Scenery at Lake Tazawa (Akita)

Did you know that Lake Tazawa is not only the deepest lake in Northern Japan, but also in the whole of Japan? This fact draws many travelers to Akita during winter, eager to witness the lake’s unique characteristic of never freezing due to its significant depth. Plus, you will be awe-inspired by how its placid waters beautifully contrast with the blanket of snow covering the mountains.

Don't forget to make a brief stop at Tazawako Resthouse which overlooks Lake Tazawa. Here, you can either rejuvenate yourself by grabbing appealing local souvenirs or enjoy a quiet lunch while soaking in the spellbinding lake view – or even do both!

・Stay Near Lake Tazawa

Many travelers enthusiastically choose to stay near Lake Tazawa to experience the sublime beauty of its sunrise and sunset views. Tazawako Lake Resort & Onsen allows you to begin and end your day with these breathtaking views from the privacy of your hotel room. Whether you prefer Japanese-style rooms or Western-style rooms, the hotel offers both options along with Japanese-Western fusion rooms. This ensures that you have a cozy and comfortable space to let Lake Tazawa melt away your stresses! Plus, a natural hot spring is available for you to luxuriate in.

4. Visit Snowy Huts in Yokote (Akita)

Culture aficionados who wish to immerse themselves in traditional Akita culture should head over to Yokote during winter. Did you know that the locals there have preserved a centuries-old tradition, keeping it alive and dynamic? Since it is one of the areas with the heaviest snowfall, Yokote transforms into a picturesque landscape every winter, its beauty accentuated by some 100 “kamakura” snow huts and many other miniature snow huts. Snow huts are a rare sight, so you will have a fun time admiring the architecture, feeling the sturdiness of the walls, and of course, taking memorable photographs!

These snow huts are usually constructed for both locals and tourists to celebrate the Yokote Kamakura Festival, held on February 15 and 16 every year. Inside each snow hut, an altar honors the water god, enabling devotees to pray for familial and business prosperity and bountiful harvests. This unique festival includes an element of cultural interaction. Adorable Akita children will play with one another inside the snow huts, sipping on “amazake” (a sweet fermented rice drink) and grilling rice cakes.

5. Relish the Mystical Atmosphere of Gokurakuji Temple (Iwate)

Gokurakuji Temple in Iwate makes a remarkable impression. Red and earthy brown colors are leveraged to great effect in this sacred landmark, radiating a sense of regal majesty. Come winter, you will be able to witness how the red facade of Gokurakuji Temple sharply contrasts, yet complements its snow-filled surroundings, creating a visual symphony that marries natural beauty and spiritual significance. You will be compelled to take a quiet moment to contemplate life amidst this ethereal beauty.

6. Balk at the Surreal Sight of Frost Covered Trees of Zao (Yamagata)

Perhaps you would like to take a respite from the hustle and bustle of city life. If this resonates with you, consider welcoming the prospect of finding solace in Zao Onsen. Boasting three public hot springs, three footbaths, and another five facilities offering day spas, it lets you unwind and soothe your tense muscles in its healing waters. The invigorating experience is heightened by the presence of strong acidic sulfur waters, providing your skin with a pleasing sensation.

Zao Onsen should also excite skiing enthusiasts, as it has well-demarcated slopes that cater to all skill levels, from novice to expert. Your skiing adventure here becomes unforgettable with the enchanting presence of the Zao Snow Monsters. Why are they named as such? Due to the serendipitous combination of Siberian winds and heavy snowfall, the alpine trees are uniquely transformed and shaped into such intriguing creatures. These enthralling monsters grace the landscape from December to February, offering a magical spectacle. Consider joining this Klook tour that will not only let you witness these frost-covered trees, but also explore the next featured destination on our guide, Ginzan Onsen.

7. Enjoy a Quintessentially Japanese Hot Spring Town at Ginzan Onsen (Yamagata)

If you’ve been fascinated by iconic films such as Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away” and are attracted to the rustic beauty of old-world Japanese towns, you’re in for a treat. Ginzan Onsen is an idyllic hot spring town that flaunts wooden hot spring inns along the Ginzan River. Nostalgia beckons as these inns were built during the Taisho period (1912 – 1926).

You should certainly consider a stay-over in this town in winter because gas streetlamps will illuminate the streets in the evening, casting a soft, romantic glow on the snow-covered inns. Take a moment to soak in the atmospheric vibes by dipping your feet into the free footbaths strategically located along the river and savor the tranquility!

8. Explore Tranquility and Tradition at Rinnoji Temple in Sendai (Miyagi)

Another irresistible gem in Northern Japan that you shouldn't miss is Rinnoji Temple in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture. Its expansive grounds – hosting one of the most exquisite Zen gardens in Tohoku, a serene lake, as well as a striking three-story pagoda - offers you an enriching experience!

Take your time to stroll through this winter wonderland, taking in how the powdery snow gently blankets the shrubs and trees in a warm embrace, working together with brown snow suspenders (yukitsuri) to create captivating scenes. The iconic pagoda towering over the lake is also a signature sight that you should capture as it encapsulates the essence of Rinnoji Temple's allure.

9. See a Train Pass Through the Tadami River Bridge No. 1 Viewpoint (Fukushima)

Transport and photography enthusiasts, pay attention! Would you like to capture breathtaking photographs of a train crossing a magnificent river amidst a spectacular snow-covered landscape? You can easily do so by visiting Tadami River Bridge No. 1 Viewpoint in Fukushima! The train appears from dense foliage, which is blanketed in snow during the winter, creating a magical white spectacle that almost seems to glimmer.

Getting there is not as challenging as you may think, as you can use public transport to reach Mishima-Juku. Once there, a 15-minute walk along a promenade will lead you to Tadami River Bridge No. 1 Viewpoint. Set up your photographic gear and wait with bated breath for that exhilarating moment when the JR train chugs its way along the bridge.

10. View Historic Scenery in Winter at Ouchijuku (Fukushima)

Keen to experience snow at a place where time seems to have stood still? If this description appeals to you, read on. Nestled within the mountains in Fukushima, Ouchijuku is a quaint town that has maintained its vestiges of history. Once a lively postal town during the Edo period, it still dazzles your eyes with rows of thatched-roof homesteads, featuring an architectural style seldom found elsewhere. After you admire the simple yet elegant aesthetics of these structures, step inside to marvel at old-fashioned “irori” fireplaces and Edo-style artifacts. These homesteads have been masterfully transformed into charming shops and restaurants, so enjoy a leisurely afternoon shopping and dining!

Also, don’t miss out on the Ouchijuku Snow Festival, where the town transforms into a winter wonderland, with snow accentuating the beauty of its homesteads. To add to the enchantment, local men adorned in traditional loincloths light handmade snow lanterns lining the streets. The festivities culminate in a spectacular fireworks display on Saturday evening, making the second week of February the ideal time to mark your calendar and visit Ouchijuku!

Enjoy a Mesmerizing Winter in Northern Japan

There is something truly special about a snow-clad winter. It's as if time slows down, allowing you to be fully present and relish this natural marvel. Hokkaido and the Tohoku region in Northern Japan will enhance your winter experience with a buffet of interesting landmarks and exciting activities, spanning the spectrum from boisterous festivals to adrenaline-pumping sports. You'll undoubtedly treasure your sojourn in this winter paradise!


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Tohoku Feature

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

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About the author

Kai Le
Kai Le took part in the Japan Exchange Teaching programme as an Assistant Language Teacher and had the best two years of his life. Even though he has since returned to Singapore, he remains passionate about all things Japanese, not least because he married a capable Japanese lady and has two wonderful bicultural children. Besides writing and Japan, he is passionate about reading, Netflix, and cryptocurrency.
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