5 Ways to Spend Winter in Japan

Published 16 June 2016

Georgina Ramin

Georgina Ramin

Spring in Japan may sound ideal, surrounded by Cherry Blossoms, but those beautiful blooms also mean you’ll be surrounded by not-so-beautiful crowds. So if you’d rather see Japan in a beautiful light without the crowds, winter is the way to go.

While the temperatures do drop (snowing in much of the north and in the alps), Japan’s winter is beloved for being dry and sunny. It’s also one of my favourite times to visit Japan because you’re able to enjoy so many different experiences in just a few days. Whether it’s indulging in the world renowned dining scene, taking part in one of the many rich cultural experiences or hitting the ski slopes, Japan has something for everyone.

A lake at a garden in Tokyo

Crowds walking through a market in Tokyo

Get on Tokyo Time

Most Japan holidays begin in the buzzing capital of Tokyo, which is a great place to recuperate from your flight. You could easily spend two weeks in Tokyo alone and never be bored, but if you’ve only allocated a few days to visit I recommend visiting one or two areas each day to get a sense for how diverse the city is. A great way to get your bearings is with a visit to the top of the 634 metre high Tokyo Skytree where you can take in 360 degree views of the city.  From there, some of the best areas to visit in Tokyo include Ginza, Shinjuku, Akihabara, Harajuku and Roppongi.

A bowl or ramen on a table in Japan

Swap the sushi for ramen

Japan may be world renown for sushi, but their noodle soup dish of ramen is the meal of choice come winter time. The soup is served with various toppings including pork, egg and nori. Fuunji near Shinjuku Station and Konjiki Hototogisu near Hatagaya Station are some of the most renowned ramen houses to visit in Tokyo. Don’t expect a quiet dining atmosphere though. Ramen houses are loud, filled with locals slurping their noodles and almost exclusively Japanese speaking staff yelling out orders as well as the customary welcome, Irasshaimase when new patrons enter the restaurant. Slurping noodles is an indication of enjoyment in Japan and many believe the act enhances the flavor of the soup. Make sure you slurp as loud as you can to give your compliments to the chef!

An onsen in Japan overlooking a snow capped mountain

Warm up in an onsen

Onsen is the Japanese word for hot spring and describes the traditional public bathing pools formed naturally by geothermic activity. Onsens were traditionally located outdoors and used by village residents who believed the mineral content in onsen water had healing powers. Onsens are a great way to warm up and relax your muscles but there a few rules you must obey to stay culturally respectful.

All bathers are required to wash their bodies in the showers provided before entering the onsen and swimsuits are not permitted (onsens are separated by gender). It’s important to not be too noisy as onsens are considered a place of relaxation so splashing and loud conversation is generally prohibited. If you have a tattoo check that your chosen onsen allows you to use their facilities. Almost half of the onsens in Japan ban those with tattoos from using their facilities. The rule was traditionally made to keep out Yakuza (Japanese gang members) but is still enforced today.

While onsens are found all throughout the country, one of the best places to experience it is at Nozawa Osen, which can be reached from Tokyo in less than 4 hours by bullet train. The village not only offers a fantastic onsen experience, but is also home to shrines, temples and Japan’s famous Snow Monkeys, which bathe freely in their own “private” onsen bordered by dramatic cliffs.

A snow covered street in Nozawa Onsen

Top tip: Visit Nozawa Onsen on the 15th of January to witness the Dosoujiin Fire Festival. Taking place over three days, the festival features copious amounts of sake along with the assemblage of a huge wooden shrine in the village centre. The men of the village, aged 42, then attempt to defend the shrine from those aged 25 in a sake fuelled and frenetic pyrotechnic battle that can last hours until the wooden shrine is eventually burnt down.

Ski slopes in Hokkaido with mountain in the background

Hit the slopes in Hokkaido

Japan’s northernmost island Hokkaido is the destination of choice for those wishing to enjoy outdoor winter activities. On the island is Niseko, Japan’s most famous ski resort and a mecca for great snow, accommodation and apres skiing that will satisfy both the dedicated adventurer or relaxed vacationist. After a day on the slopes getting waist deep in the Japow (Japan’s famous powder snow), the action continues in Niseko with numerous bars and restaurants in town. If you need to warm up even further, don’t miss trying one of Japan’s top shelf whiskey.

An ice sculpture of the Taj Mahal at the Sapporo Snow Festival

Embrace winter at the Sapporo Snow Festival

The Sapporo Snow Festival runs for one week at the beginning of February and is the region's most popular winter event which features over 300 snow and ice sculptures displayed over 3 locations: Odori Park, Susukino and Tsu Dome. The largest of the ice sculptures are found in Odori Park which is also the fitting location for the annual International Snow Sculpture Contest that runs over five days. Twelve teams from across the world participate in the contest where they must use only snow and ice to create an elaborate sculpture that often extends meters into the air. The festival also features ice skating and giant snow slides. 

See the snow covered sights of Japan on our tailor-made Japan holidays. For itinerary ideas, see our Japan Travel Guide or talk to one of our Experts today.

You might also like:

7 Things to do in Japan

Exploring Japan's Culinary Treasures

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