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Experience Japan's Winter Wonderlands
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Experience Japan's Winter Wonderlands

Love snow and wintry vistas? Every year, Japan’s plentiful snowfall transforms this beautiful country into a winter wonderland.

Snow Country
Best Things To Do In Japan’s Winter Wonderlands
Bonus Recommendations


If you find snowy landscapes and frozen vistas absolutely enchanting then you’ll love Japan’s winter wonderlands. Japan is blessed with pleasingly diverse weather, with plenty of pleasant weather throughout the year balancing with hot summers, beautiful springs, and of course, snowy winters. The country enjoys plentiful snowfall across different regions throughout the year while also being home to colder, more mountainous regions that remain wintry almost all year round. Japan’s annual snowfall and the many unique aspects of its landscape have gifted the country with some of the world’s most beautiful winter resorts and ski slopes, while its volcanic geography has also led to an abundance of natural hot springs - the perfect places to warm up after a day having fun in the snow. And that’s not all - Japan’s winter wonderlands are packed with things to see and do, from outdoor adventures to indoor activities, natural wonders to wintry cities. Yes, that’s right. It’s not just Japan’s rugged natural landscape that looks beautiful dusted with gorgeous white snow and ice, but also its cities, temples, shrines, pagodas, and traditional villages. And the best way to see everything is to travel by train using the JR Pass for almost unlimited rail travel. Ready to explore? We’ll tell you everything you need to know.  

Snow Country

Did you know the snowiest city in the world was in Japan? Based on the volume of snowfall, Aomori is the snowiest city on the planet with more than 100,000 residents. You can find out more in our guide to Aomori, Japan’s Festive Northern City. According to meteorologists, Japan receives somewhere between 300-600 inches of snowfall each year in its snowiest areas. It’s no wonder that Japan has been affectionately and somewhat poetically referred to as ‘snow country’ for many years. Technically, Japan’s ‘snow country’ (yukiguni) is the area affected by the heaviest snowfall. Geographically, this is the belt of land facing the Sea of Japan from Honshu’s northern tip, encompassing the Japanese Alps, including Hokkaido and Sado Island, all the way down to Yamuguchi, largely the North and Northwest of Japan. The term, snow country, is also closely linked to Fukui, Toyama and Niigata Prefectures. But why does Japan have such wonderfully heavy snowfall? This is due to the point where cold air masses from Siberia meet the moist air from the Sea of Japan creating perfect conditions for snow over the mountainous regions of North and Northwest Japan. The result of this amazing snowfall? A true winter wonderland. The mountains, forests and rural villages, shrines and temples, and major cities are beautiful at any time of year, but they look particularly magical topped with snow. If you love the aesthetic of a snowy vista then Winter might just be the best time of year to visit Japan. It’s incredibly beautiful. 

Best Things To Do In Japan’s Winter Wonderlands

If you love snowy weather, both being outside in it, and admiring it from the warmth of indoors, then Japan’s winter wonderlands have no end of activities to make your visit extra special. From Japan’s snow-capped mountains and northern regions to seeing its famous cities and villages, temples and shrines, dusted with snow, you’ll find enchanting beauty everywhere you look, with so much to do, from winter sports to hot springs, to natural wonders, winter illuminations, snow festivals, food, and scenic train journeys. Let’s take a look at our top ten recommendations:  

1. Winter Sports

If you’re an avid skier or snowboarder then Japan is simply unmissable. Thanks to its mountainous landscape, forged by thousands of years of volcanic activity, combined with its unique geographical location and the icy winds blowing across from Siberia, it has gained a reputation as one of the world’s best winter sports destinations for international visitors. Having hosted the Winter Olympics twice in 1972 and 1998, as well as the Asian Winter Games, it’s probably not surprising to find out that winter sports are hugely popular within Japan too. As a result, Japan has more than 500 ski resorts with some of the best slopes and winter sport infrastructure anywhere in the world. Hakuba Valley in Nagano is probably the best known to international visitors in this region. In Hakuba there are a whopping 11 different ski resorts to choose from, meaning that there’s an incredible level of variety on offer. Hakuba is especially known for deep powder and slopes that are typically steeper than Hokkaido’s. The region is also home to resort towns like Yuzawa and Nozawa Onsen, both famed for their hot springs, known in Japanese as onsen. As for the skiing at these resort towns, Nozawa Onsen is one of Japan’s longest and most cherished ski destinations.

Meanwhile, in Hokkaido - Japan’s northernmost island - you’ll also find a number of outstanding resorts. While Sapporo Teine is the closest ski resort to the city of Sapporo - Hokkaido’s capital - many of the more serious ski resorts in the area are located closer to Mount Yōtei. Two of the big name ski resorts in this area are Niseko and Rusutsu. Some of the most popular ski resorts in the centre of Hokkaido include Furano, Asahidake and Tomamu. Furano is best known as being a family-friendly destination, even though it is home to some challenging runs that include the island’s steepest. Asahidake, on the other hand, is perfect for more seasoned skiers thanks to its back country slopes. It’s also a great pick if you prefer cross-country to downhill. Lastly, we have Tomamu, one of Japan’s classier resorts that offers plenty of comforts once you’re done for the day. For the perfect introduction to everything you need to know about getting started in winter sports, try our Starting Guide to Skiing and Snowboarding in Japan.

2. Hot Springs and Onsen Towns

What better way to warm up after skiing and snowboarding than to lower yourself into a beautifully warm onsen? Quintessentially Japanese, almost nothing can compete with the sheer relaxation offered by bathing in an onsen whether it’s at a traditional Ryokan inn, an onsen town, a spa resort, or even outdoors in the mountains or forests. For an overview of onsen resorts across Japan, plus advice on etiquette, read our Relax and Unwind in an Onsen guide.

Japan’s hot springs are legendary and one of the many unique activities that attract visitors from around the world all year round. However, there’s something extra special about taking a dip in an onsen during Winter. You even bathe in an outdoor mountain onsen with the snow falling around you. It’s an amazing way to warm up while relaxing your body and mind while surrounded by ice and snow. One of the closest onsen towns to the snowy city of Sapporo is Jozankei Onsen, which is just an hour from the city centre. Located in the beautiful Shikotsu-Toya National Park, Jozankei is a gorgeous attraction in itself, on the cliffs of the Toyohira River, and is well known for its stunning colours in autumn. The hot springs there were first discovered in 1866 and make a lovely way to unwind during any trip to Sapporo. Another recommendation would be a trip to the town of Ginzan in Yamagata prefecture - the beautiful real-life inspiration for the fantastical onsen town in Studio Ghibli’s animated masterpiece Spirited Away. You can reach Ginzan by taking the JR Yamagata Shinkansen from Tokyo to Oishida Station. From there, buses depart for Ginzan Onsen every 60-90 minutes.

3. Japanese Alps

In the heart of snow country, the Japanese alps offer some of the country’s most spectacular and rugged landscapes and views. Landlocked in central Honshū, the Japanese alps are a complete opposite to the lowland, highly populated, futuristic cities of modern Japan and experience plentiful snowfall. You can easily travel to Takayama with your JRailPass and use it as a jumping off point for all the area’s highlights. In Takayama’s old town you’ll find perfectly preserved Edo-Period houses, as well as sake breweries. Wander the streets and buy some local crafts from the morning market, or tour the temples, shrines and castle ruins. Located within the Chubusangaku National Park, the Northern Japan Alps are a volcanic mountain range that reaches across three prefectures, Toyama, Nagano, and Gifu, with mountainous peaks as high as 3,000 metres tall. The Northern Japanese Alps offer some of the most spectacular experiences across the whole of the country. With the peaks of Mt. Tateyama and Mt. Akazawadake - known as the Roof of Japan - and its famous snow corridor on one side, and the deep, forested valley of Kurobe Gorge with its sightseeing railway on the other, the Kurobe area in Toyama has two incredible adventures for the price of one. Geographically close, but accessed from completely different directions, these experiences combine to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We’ll have more on the famous snow corridor and the Kurobe Alpine Route below.

4. Kurobe Alpine Route

Known as the ‘Roof of Japan’, the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route is a unique route through the Northern Japanese Alps and Tateyama mountain range, which can only be travelled via a range of different transportation methods, including trains, buses, cable cars, trolley buses, and a ropeway. It was officially opened in 1971 and links Toyama City with Omachi in Nagano. The name ‘Roof of Japan’ comes from the views at the highest altitude along the route - an incredible 2,450 metres at Murodo Station and 3,015 metres from Mt. Tateyama - from where you can literally look out over the ‘un-kai’, or ‘cloud sea’. One of the most famous aspects of the route is a breathtaking snow corridor - literally walls of solid snow up to 15 metres high - which you travel between via highland bus. The corridor is formed by accumulated snow during winter and is located on the road from Bijodaira to Murudo. Meanwhile, the Kurobe Gorge has become one of Japan’s most celebrated destinations for lovers of nature, unspoilt forests, and picturesque natural beauty. Divided by the Kurobe River, Kurobe is one of the deepest gorges in Japan. As well as its untouched forests, spectacular and rugged cliffs, and natural volcanic hot springs, Kurobe Gorge is arguably most famous for Kurobe Gorge Railway - a beautifully scenic sightseeing rail journey with some open-sided carriages to appreciate the full splendour of the incredible views. Kurobe Gorge Railway was originally built to help with the construction of Kurobe Dam but has become a major tourist attraction in recent years. This gorgeous journey is one of the most picturesque in Japan and covers more than 20km of scenery on a winding route between Unazuki Station and Keyakidaira Station, which includes more than 40 tunnels and bridges. One of the most famous stops is Kanetsuri Station, which features ‘Mannen Yuki’ (the ‘ten thousand year old snow’) - a compacted wall of snow that literally lasts all year round. Read our blog, the Kurobe Alpine Route: A Detailed Guide, for everything you need to know.

5. Scenic Train Journeys

Is there anything better than gazing at a beautiful snowy vista from the comfort and warmth of a train carriage? Japan’s trains are famous for their speed, safety, and efficiency, as well as their incredible views. Naturally, a train journey through one of Japan’s winter wonderlands is practically a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the best value way to do it is by purchasing a Japan Rail Pass for unlimited travel on the country’s world-leading domestic rail network. One of the most scenic journeys is the Wide View Hida train, which is frequently used to travel to Takayama and the aforementioned Japanese Alps. The Wide View Hida train is a limited express service operated by JR-Central between Nagoya – Takayama and Toyama. A limited number of trains also service Kyoto and Osaka. The train is a popular option to travel to Takayama with, because of the scenic views along the route and even better, it is included in the JR Pass. The route starts at Nagoya station and follows the Miyagawa river into the Japanese alps. Along the way, there are plenty of scenic views from the Japanese countryside to the mountain landscape of the Alps. The route is considered one of the most beautiful in Japan, and certainly worth making on its own. The train gets its name from the wide glass windows, for the best views along the route. Hida refers to the Takayama-Hida region. The most popular stops along the route are Gifu, Gero Onsen, Takayama and Toyama stations. For more on this route read our dedicated blog post, Wide View Hida Train, and for more on the subject of scenic rail journeys generally, check out our guide to Japan’s Best Rail Journeys.

6. Visit Hokkaido

Japan’s northernmost island naturally receives a lot of snow each winter and makes for a magical destination if you’re a fan of winter weather. Few places in Japan are so perfect for visiting in winter as the northern island of Hokkaido. While maybe not as popular as the big name destinations on Honshu like Tokyo and Osaka, Hokkaido has plenty going for it and the cold weather of winter has a way of accentuating its talents. By visiting Hokkaido in winter you’ll have the chance to see incredible festivals, fill up on tasty food, play in the snow and witness Hokkaido’s true beauty. Rather than shying away from the cold weather, short days and snow, Hokkaido has a habit of holding festivals at this time of the year instead. Many Hokkaido winter festivals focus on the huge downpours of snow the island receives each winter, while others like the Sapporo White Illumination focus on Japan’s love of winter illuminations. Perhaps the most famous in Hokkaido is the Sapporo Snow Festival. Attracting over two million visitors a year, the Sapporo Snow Festival has been running annually for more than 70 years. Since it started in 1950, when it was founded by a small group of high school students, it has gradually transformed into a massive winter carnival that revolves around the international snow sculpture contest, ice statues, illuminations and other seasonal activities. We’ll have more on Sapporo further below.

Hokkaido features the perfect conditions for skiing and snowboarding, so naturally, skiing is one of the most popular winter activities. You're spoiled for choice with ski resorts in Hokkaido too - just another reason why it’s Japan’s premier ski destination. One of the two main areas to find ski resorts is the immediate area around the capital Sapporo, with famous ski towns like Niseko and Rusutsu. The other area, while slightly harder to reach, is near the centre of the island with resorts like Furano and Asahidake, which are not to be missed. Besides skiing, resorts often have other activities like ice skating, sledding, and snow tubing. Finally, Hokkaido is also home to some of Japan’s wildest, most beautiful national parks, including Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park and Shiretoko National Park. Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park is Japan’s northernmost national park and is blessed with rugged mountains, beautiful alpine flowers, and stunning coastal views along Rishiri Island and Rebun Island. It is ideal for hiking, nature photography and geology lovers. Shiretoko National Park is also home to a beautiful and diverse array of wildlife, including spotted seals and Sika deer, you can also undertake activities such as brown bear watching in the summer months and whale watching and drift ice cruises in the winter when ice flows down from Russia’s River Amur. For more on this subject read our post on Japan’s National Parks. For more on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, read our guide to What Is There To Do In Hokkaido During Winter?

7. The Winter City

Hokkaido’s capital, Sapporo, is sometimes referred to as the capital of the north or the winter city, but it’s just one of a number of winter cities in the prefecture that are known for the icy weather and love of all things snowy. Let’s start with Sapporo and move on to some of Hokkaido's other snow-bound city destinations. Sapporo describes itself as a metropolis surrounded by incredible nature - it is known for being lush and green during the summer months and magically white with snow in the winter. The city sees an impressive five metres of snow fall every winter, making it a true winter wonderland during the colder months. It’s also famous for its seafood, as being a gateway to the great outdoors of Hokkaido, for its vibrant art, culture, and shopping, hot springs, proximity to skiing and winter resorts, and more. In recent years, Sapporo and Hokkaido have become more accessible than ever before thanks to the launch of the high-speed Hokkaido Shinkansen bullet train which has turned a seven-hour journey from Tokyo to Sapporo into a four-hour journey. It’s fully covered by the JR Pass too. Incredibly, once the experimental Alpha X Shinkansen train launches in years to come, this journey will be reduced to just three hours! Other winter cities in Hokkaido that are well worth a visit as part of any winter wonderland experience include Asahikawa, Hakodate, and Otaru. Read about the former in our guide to Asahikawa, Hokkaido’s Snowy Second City.

8. Winter Illuminations and Festivals

Japan has a love affair with Winter illuminations and snow festivals - known as Yuki Matsuri in Japan. Tokyo in particular has a huge number of illuminations to see in the run-up to Christmas, but some of the biggest are elsewhere in Japan. If you love illuminations as much as people in Japan, try Kobe Luminarie or Sagamiko Illumillion festival in Kanagawa, which is said to use six million LED lights in its Pleasure Forest at Lake Sagami Resort. Snow festivals featuring incredible ice sculpture creations and much more are also very popular in Japan and are known for their spectacular visuals. The most famous is arguably the Sapporo Snow Festival, but there are many others in Hokkaido alone. These include the Asahikawa Snow Festival, the Otaru Snow Light Path and the Sounkyo Ice Waterfall Festival. Others, like Shikaribetsu Kotan and Hoshino Resort Tomamu Ice Village, take things a step further by building entire little villages out of ice, complete with ice bars and more.

You’ll definitely want to take lots of photos given how ‘Instagrammable’ these festivals are so make sure you buy a PocketWifi device in advance to ensure you stay connected, without expensive data roaming charges, while you’re travelling the country. To read an extensive rundown of all the best winter illuminations in Japan read our indispensable Winter Illuminations in Japan You Can’t Miss guide. Festivals also means winter food! 

Japan is a paradise for food lovers and the cold winter months are known for wholesome, hearty food designed to warm you up. Look out for dishes such as nabe - Japanese hot pot - as well as Sukiyaki and Shabu Shabu. You’ll also find ramen, Kaki, pine mushroom broth, pumpkin soup, chestnuts, Kyoho grapes, sweet potato, comforting Pacific mackerel,  Sanma fish and more on the menu too. Of course, Japan being Japan, you don’t just have to restrict yourself to seasonal winter dishes during your winter wonderland stay, you also have everything from Michelin-starred Japanese fine dining to favourites such as sushi and ramen, right through to streetfood, Izakaya bar-restaurant meals, and much more. Find out more in our Beginners Guide to Japanese Food.  

9. Snow Monkeys

Known as the ‘Paradise of the Monkeys’, the world-famous Jigokudani Monkey Park is located in the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park in Yamanouchi, northern Nagano. It is a large park that is best known for its open-air hot spring bath, which was built for the snow monkeys to bathe in. Each year, millions of people travel to Japan just to see this incredible sight. The park is particularly popular during the snowy winter months, anytime from December to March in Nagano, but it can be enjoyed all year round. Soaking in the hot springs is a big part of the monkeys’ daily routine and it is believed to have major stress relieving properties (in both monkeys and humans!). As well as the attraction of the main pool, visitors will encounter large numbers of monkeys along the main paths. There is also a visitor information centre on site which provides further insight into the monkeys’ behaviour, habitat, diet and much more. The monkeys are used to human visitors and interaction so they can come quite close. Even the park’s sometimes large crowds (up to 500 visitors-a-day during peak season) don’t faze these confident and fun-loving creatures. You’ll have a great time, just remember not to touch or feed the monkeys. Jigokudani Monkey Park opens at 9am daily and closes at 4pm with extended hours from 8.30a to 5pm seasonally. It’s easy to reach Jigokudani using your JRailPass. If you’re travelling from Tokyo, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen bound for Kanazawa. From Kyoto, take a Hikari train on the JR Tokaido Shinkansen from Kyoto station to Nagoya then switch to the JR Shinano express to Nagano. Once at Nagano, from whichever direction you’ve travelled, you’ll need to take a shuttle bus to the monkey park. For much more on this topic read our definitive guide to Monkeying Around in Jigokudani Park.

10. Visit a Real-Life Winter Wonderland Village

Shirakawa-go is a travel destination right out of a snowy fairy tale. Hidden away in the mists of the Japanese Alps, the region of Shirakawa-go was long isolated from the outside world. The result is a unique local culture and history, marked by the Gassho-style houses (with distinctive inverted V-shaped roofs) and sustainable way of living in local, sometimes harsh, conditions. It is not without reason that Shirakawa-go is a UNESCO world heritage site. December is a great time to visit Shirakawa-go to experience those Gassho houses covered in snow. Read our guide to Visiting Shirakawa-go with the JR Pass for more information. Shirakawa-go was recently named one of the best villages in the world for tourism by the UN along with four other Japanese villages. You can read about all five in our guide to Japanese Villages to Visit in 2024

Bonus Recommendations

  • As well as frozen wonderlands, winter also sees Japan celebrate Christmas and New Year. For more on how Japan marks these special holidays read our guides, Does Japan Celebrate Christmas and Spending New Year in Japan
  • On a related note, you may also want to know what it is like to travel during the holiday period in Japan? You can find out here in our guide to Things You Need To Know While Travelling During Japan’s Holidays.  
  • Temperatures in Northern Japan can sometimes range from highs of -2 °C (28 °F) and lows of -7 °C (19 °F) during the Winter, which is very cold, so pack appropriately. wrap up warm and wear suitable footwear. 
  • If you get cold and you’re staying in a traditional Ryokan, see if they have a kotatsu - this is a low table fringed with a thick quilt with a heater underneath the top. Yay!
  • Whatever month you choose to visit, it’s super useful to stay connected to the internet and not just to upload selfies to social media, but for language tips, directions, and more. Also, the Internet connection in certain winter resorts can be a bit disappointing, so be sure to purchase Pocket Wi-Fi before going to stay connected during your trip. Investing in one of these brilliant devices for constant internet access and high speed unlimited data is highly recommended while visiting Japan. 
  • If your winter wonderland holiday in Japan is your first time in the country, why not make life easier by using our Meet & Greet service on arrival? It’s like having an expert on Japan as your personal assistant. We’ll take care of you from the moment you arrive. 

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