Japan is an excellent country to visit at any time of year, but depending on your interests, some seasons might be more enticing than others. In winter, northern Japan’s landscape glitters in pure white as lakes and ponds freeze over and snow falls heavily on the mountains. Even though temperatures can drop below zero and the nights are long, Japan’s winter season offers unique experiences that will make your trip worthwhile.
Here are some suggestions for what to do in January during your next visit to Japan.
Japan’s subtropical and subarctic temperatures support significant biodiversity. Even in winter, you can experience Japan’s amazing wildlife—whether from afar or up close! Japan’s most popular furry friends—the Japanese macaques (or snow monkeys)—love to take baths in natural hot springs! Enthusiastic travelers can glimpse this phenomenon at Nagano’s Jigokudani Monkey Park or similar hot spring parks created for the monkeys’ safety.
In Jigokudani Village, you too can soak in the natural waters at various ryokan—Japanese-style inns. Many inns have outdoor hot springs where you can take in the view of the surrounding snow-capped mountains. Be warned, though: while humans aren’t allowed to enter Jigokudani Park’s springs, the monkeys didn’t get the memo about not joining the human baths! Stick around long enough and you might look up to see a fuzzy little buddy beside you!
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If you’ve ever been to Tokyo in the middle of summer’s sizzling, sticky heat, it’s hard to imagine that you can also see drift ice in Japan. From January to early April, ice floes appear in the Sea of Okhotsk near Hokkaido. The coastline near Abashiri City typically gets the most ice, and you can take the Abashiri Ice Breaker Cruise to see it at its thickest.
From the ship, the horizon diffuses into the glowing white expanse, blurring the line between sky and sea. If it snows during your voyage, enjoy seeing the beautiful torrents of flakes as they circle down onto the drifts. As the sea ice forms, marine wildlife like seals and sea birds rest on the floats. You can brave the cold and view everything from the ship’s deck, or sit comfortably inside and watch the scene unfold from plush leather sofas.
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In mountainous Toyama and Gifu Prefectures, the Shirakawa-go and Gokayama villages are powerful testaments to humankind’s ability to adapt. Even centuries ago, the harsh winters were no match for the Japanese people’s ability to design these clever farmhouses. The triangular frames are called gassho-zukuri in Japanese, which comes from the word describing how someone might fold their hands in prayer. The shape allows the snow to fall off the thatched roof while retaining enough interior space so that inhabitants of ancient times could work through the winter, traditionally cultivating silkworms. Interestingly, these houses’ thatched roofs were built without nails, and the original structures have survived for centuries. In fact, the oldest homes date back over 250 years!
While it’s possible to see the gassho houses all year round (they’re quite extraordinary during the cherry blossom season), visiting them in winter lets you see the their designs’ true function. You can even stay in one of these homes and immerse yourself in Japan’s authentic mountain lifestyle!
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If you love the Sapporo Snow Festival, check out another Hokkaido ice sculpture event like the Sounkyo Ice Festival at the foot of Sounkyo Onsen. Hokkaido native Takenaka Toshiro started the festival in 1976, and international artists have been flocking here ever since. Experiencing this winter event is like stepping into a small village of multi-story buildings made purely from ice and snow!
The festival is beautiful during the day, but most people visit at night when the area’s 10,000 square meters become a colorful fantasyland of brightly-lit sculptures. On weekends, firework displays conclude the evenings. It goes without saying that you ought to dress warmly before going to an ice festival, but this one gets extremely cold given Sounkyo’s proximity to the Ishikari River. Be warned—days and nights reach below freezing temperatures during the festival’s January to March run.
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The Sounkyo Gorge has an abundance of waterfalls along its sheer cliffs, but two in this region stand out. The Ginga no Taki (Milky Way Waterfall) gracefully trickles like a spool of white thread down the rock face, while its neighboring Ryusei no Taki (Shooting Star Waterfall) thunders down in the warm months. In the wintertime, however, the waterfalls in Sounkyo Gorge solidify into massive icicle formations that seem frozen in time.
These natural structures are strong enough to support an average human’s weight, so the Sounkyo Gorge’s waterfalls have become a popular spot for ice climbing. If you would like to try ice climbing for yourself, you can arrange for a certified guide through third parties like us! The Sounkyo Gorge offers courses for ice climbers from beginner through advanced levels, but you may have to traverse some frigid, unfrozen waters. Or, you can simply view the gorgeous falls from a safe distance!
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Whether you prefer to spend your winter doing extreme sports like snowing and skiing or sipping a warm cup of tea after a hot springs bath, Japan has something for everyone! If you plan to continue your vacation itinerary from January to February….