the cold weather settles in, the days grow short and the nights grow long, but
stirs with millions of LED lights, cheerful festivals, and plenty to do in the
way of skiing and snowboarding. So much so that Japan
was the Winter Olympics host country twice
Visiting Japan in winter means relaxing in an outdoor hot spring, savoring seasonal food, or checking out the local wildlife! It all depends on what you want out of your vacation. Read on for our winter in Japan travel guide!
Generally, winter lasts from December to February. With the rainy season long over most of Japan is sunny and dry, but temperatures vary by region. In Tokyo, daily highs reach 12°C (54°F) in December but fall to 5° (41°) in the mornings and evenings. By January, it drops to 10°C (50°F) at midday with lows of 2°C (35°F). February sees warmer weather that averages near 11°C (50°F) during the day and 3°C (37°F) at night.
Central Japan and Kansai encounter similar conditions, but Okinawa hardly ever gets colder than 14°C (57°F). Northern Japan and mountainous regions reach below freezing temperatures, and experiences fluffy snowfalls almost every day. At the same time, other parts of the country might on rare occasion get a light dusting.
Hokkaido in Winter
Although Hokkaido is beautiful all year round, you can’t miss exploring this island during this time. Don’t miss the Sapporo Snow Festival where local and international artists build snow and ice sculptures as tall as buildings. Or, head to Otaru to see the thousands of lanterns lining the streets and canal during the Snow Light Path Festival.
Aoi Ike: The Blue Pond
While you’re in a Hokkaido, take a day trip south of Asahikawa. Although you might have never heard of the tiny Biei, Japan, winter creates one of the most breathtaking sights. The naturally occurring minerals in Aoi Ike naturally shine a brilliant hue of blue. In the cold seasons, the waters crystalize in an eerily perfect reflection of the surrounding nature.
No matter where you go, it’s hard to miss the parks, city blocks, and shopping centers glittering at dusk. Ashikaga Flower Park in Tochigi Prefecture holds one of the largest light festivals in the country from October to February. Most festivals don’t last this long, however. You’re more likely to see these events in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Shirakawa-go and Gokayama Gassho Houses
The ancient farmhouses of Gifu and Toyama Prefectures are on our list of must visit places in Japan. Although the scenic mountain towns are gorgeous year round, in winter the unusual architecture of these UNESCO cultural sites become apparent. The “Praying Hands” thatched roofs keep the snow from piling up while maintaining plenty of space in the living quarters. It’s thanks to this engineering that some of these houses have stood for over 250 years.
As iconic as the cherry blossoms, Mt. Fuji seems to pervade every part of Japanese culture from ancient art to current company logos. Unfortunately, because of Mt. Fuji’s height, clouds form around her peak in the warm months and block the picturesque view. In winter, however, the temperatures at the base and apex balance out, and the clouds open to clear skies for unobstructed panoramas. Climbing, however, is a different story as the walking summits close until July, and driving roads may close due to snow.
Akan International Crane Center, Kushiro Hokkaido
Japan’s geography supports significant biodiversity, which you can experience even in winter. At the Akan International Crane Center, you can see the rare red-crowned cranes. The sight of the majestic birds gathering on the pure white snow will leave you in awe.
Snow Monkeys in Jigokudani Park
There’s nothing better than soaking in an outdoor hot spring in freezing temperatures… unless a monkey joins you! In Nagano Prefecture you can enjoy the natural scenery, snowy alps, and see Macau monkeys doing something quite unusual. The Jigokudani Monkey Park maintains natural pools that attract wild monkeys for warming up during winter.
Abashiri Icebreaker Cruise
Among the winter activities in Japan, the Abashiri Icebreaker Cruise provides one of the best sightseeing experiences. Sit back and relax inside of a warm cabin as you pass through natural ice floes on the Sea of Okhotsk. The drift ice starts forming in January but reaches peak thickness in the second half of February.
It’s said that about 73% of Japan is mountainous, and that means lots of opportunities for skiing and snowboarding! Resorts can be found all over Northern Japan including Niseko City in Hokkaido, the Japan Alps in Nagano, and Fujiten Snow Resort at the base of Mt. Fuji. The season usually starts around mid-December and lasts through March depending on the amount of snowfall.
The annual Yokote Kamakura Festival is held from February 15th to the 16th in Akita Prefecture. This 400-year tradition features handmade igloos that house shrines to various Shinto deities. If you miss the festival, check out Kamakurkan Hall which preserves these structures year-round.
Because the climate varies across the country, packing for Japan’s winter season largely depends on your exact destinations. In general, plan on bringing long-sleeved shirts and pants as well as a down jacket for outdoor activities. If you plan to ride public transportation or spend a long time inside, wear layers! Japan’s shopping malls, restaurants, trains, and other facilities are usually heated very well.
If you find that you made a mistake on your packing list for Japan after your arrival, don’t fret! Buying winter clothes in Japan is one of the most easy-going shopping experiences. Head to UNIQLO to purchase Heat Tech underclothes, convenience stores for pocket warmers, or any department store for cold weather accessories.
Christmas Eve (December 24th)
Generally, Christmas isn’t celebrated as a religious nor a family holiday in Japan. Instead, young couples take this opportunity to go on romantic dates.
New Years (December 31st to January 3rd)
Like Golden Week (April 29th to May 5th) the New Years Holidays are a peak season for travel in Japan. Families hold reunions, watch the sunrise on January 1st, and pray for good fortune at shrines and temples.
Coming of Age Day (The Second Monday of January)
Local young people turning 20-years-old don elaborate kimono and take part in rite-of-passage ceremonies across the country. Celebrations start during the day at prefectural and ward offices and go on through the night with family parties.
Setsubun (The Day Before the Spring Equinox) Setsubun coincides with the lunar calendar’s New Year's Eve. To celebrate, the Japanese throw roasted soybeans or peanuts at people dressed as demons to symbolize ridding themselves of bad fortune.