When you think of the best places to visit in winter, you might think of snowy mountain resorts in Europe or the Rockies. If you’re not a fan of snow, you might think of an island getaway in the Caribbean. But there’s nothing better, in my opinion, than winter in Japan. The winters in Japan are beautiful, cozy, and a lot of fun. Depending on where you go, you have mountains with some of the best skiing conditions in the world, beaches and great weather, or mild temperatures in the cities like Tokyo or Kyoto that make sightseeing more comfortable than in summer. No matter your winter travel preferences, you’ll find something for you in Japan in the winter.
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When is Winter in Japan?
The winter season in Japan is a relatively brief one starting around the beginning of December and running through to the end of February or at the latest, mid-March. But, as with many countries, the further north you travel, the winters begin to get longer and harsher.
In some parts of northern Japan, especially Hokkaido, and in the more mountainous regions like the Japanese Alps, winter can extend from November right through to May with the coldest temperatures being experienced around mid-season in February.
Stay in southern Japan or in the Pacific Ocean coastal areas, and because of the milder climate there, you might not see one snowflake fall all winter and the days can often be gray, damp, and overcast. In Tokyo, winter is usually December to February with cooler weather on either side that would also be great to travel in.
Head west to the prefectures along the coastline of the Japanese Sea facing towards Russia and Korea and winter is a whole new story. Temperatures drop to below zero almost daily, and heavy snowfalls are frequent.
Also see our Packing list for Japan in Winter.
When Is the Best Time to Visit Japan in Winter?
Japan is a country that receives over twenty million visitors annually, and as with many places that attract travelers in vast quantities; it has its touristic high and low seasons.
January to March is one of the best times to visit Japan as it is considered to be the low season: there are fewer crowds, and accommodation is generally more economical.
Though it has to be said, forget the days leading up to and after New Year. The same as Oban in August and Golden Week in late April, New Year is one of the main celebratory periods and can be absolute chaos for transportation. Hotel reservations are also hard to come by as everything is booked well in advance and many businesses, shops, and restaurants close for the holidays.
Early December is also a good time to visit Japan as it’s the shoulder month between high and low seasons, the weather is cold but clear and there are not so many visitors to contend with.
What to do in Japan in Winter
Before we get into the specifics of where to go in Japan, I thought I’d list some overall things to do. These are things that happen in multiple places or are quintessentially winter things you can find all over Japan. They’re all special to Japan in winter and shouldn’t be missed.
New Year Celebrations
From around the beginning of December, you can feel everyone’s anticipation of the New Year celebrations all around the cities and towns of Japan. The shops will be showcasing products for the New Year, such as auspicious osechi cuisine, New Year’s decorations, New Year’s greeting cards, and lucky bags full of goods that can be bought at special discount prices.
2024 is the Year of the Dragon. You will be able to find products with illustrations of cute dragons, which are considered auspicious this year.
If you spend the New Year in Japan, how about joining the crowds for the traditional New Year midnight shrine or temple visit? In Tokyo, there are plenty of countdown parties and concerts held either in the open or in clubs and live music venues. The New Year’s Fox Parade held in Oji, a town in the Kita ward of Tokyo, is increasingly popular, attracting participants from all around the country.
Winter illuminations are one of the distinctive features of this season in Japan. The cities and towns are decorated with beautiful lights from around the end of November to February.
In Tokyo, you can find beautiful illuminations around Tokyo Station, in Ginza and Yurakucho, as well as Ebisu and Roppongi. The wide parks located less than one hour away from Tokyo, such as Sagamiko Pleasure Forest and Ashikaga Flower Park, have been drawing the attention of thousands of visitors thanks to the innovative collaboration between light and nature.
In Osaka, the Nakanoshima Park Illumination has an exciting theme every year while Kobe’s Illuminarie is famous worldwide for the scale and splendor of the lights. If you visit Japan in the winter, do check out some of the illumination events around the city. And when you’re finished, check out Osaka nightlife for a unique blend of classic and modern.
Check out this Tour around Mt. Fuji with the 5 Story Pogoda and Illuminations viewing.
Naturally, if we are talking about sights in winter, natural landscapes never fail to capture our hearts. The sight of entire vistas glittering white with freshly piled snow will both refresh and enthrall you. However, such scenes do not just occur everywhere in Japan. In fact, in big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Fukuoka, snow is a rare sight.
Hokkaido is the first area to experience snowfall in Japan, with the first snowflakes drifting down beginning at the end of October and early November. In the areas of Aomori, Akita, and Iwate, snow begins to fall from early November to mid-November, while in the areas of Yamagata, Miyagi, and Fukushima, it will start falling from mid-November into late November.
In places such as Niigata, Toyama, Ishikawa, Fukui, and Nagano, it begins snowing from late November to early December, so you can enjoy the scenery then.
Even in regions where snow does not tend to pile up, you can find snowy landscapes if you head towards the mountains. For example, snow is very rare in Kyoto itself but places like Kinkakuji Temple, Ginkakuji Temple, and Kifune Shrine are famous for their snowy backdrops in the winter. The combination of temples and gardens is particularly gorgeous, and many tourists come to Japan during wintertime just to enjoy these evocative scenes.
Japan is a mountainous country, which means it’s an ideal environment for winter sports such as skiing, snowboarding, skating, and snow trekking.
You can find excellent ski resorts near Tokyo or you can enjoy a few days in Hokkaido, the most popular destination for exciting winter activities. Our favorite ski resorts are in Hakuba Valley, see our Complete Guide Here. But Niseko in Hokkaido is world-renowned. We’ll go into them in more detail below.
Gorgeous snow festivals are being held at various locations in eastern and northern Japan, like the Sapporo Snow Festival. They all contain extravagant displays of buildings and statues made completely out of snow and ice, which are illuminated at night, creating a wonderful landscape that can be enjoyed only during this season.
Each festival has various events that attract many visitors from all around the country. The tasty hot local dishes available at the yatai food stalls are themselves one of the attractions at these events.
Check out this great Japanese festival list so that no matter when you visit Japan you can find a festival for your trip.
Visiting Sapporo in winter is popular due to the snow festival. To make the most of the season, add a guided tour of local food in Sapporo’s Susukino neighborhood, to sample fresh seafood and delicious dishes to help warm up.
Winter is also the best time to appreciate hot springs or onsen as they’re called in Japan There’s nothing like warming up by taking a hot bath in thermal water. Moreover, many hot spring resorts in the mountains offer open-air baths with wonderful views. Minakami Onsen in Gunma or Nozawa Onsen in Nagano are just two places where you can enjoy the amazing experience of taking a bath while gazing at the snowy landscape outside.
Best Places to Visit in Winter in Japan
Finally, let’s get into our list of the best places to go to in Japan in winter.
Winter in Hokkaido is really cold, yet it’s one of the most beautiful places to visit in the world. The world’s famous Sapporo Snow Festival takes place in the capital city, Sapporo for 2 weeks and turns the whole city into a dreamy winter wonderland.
Over 2 million visitors attend the event every season from Japan and overseas and they are indulged with spectacular snow and ice sculptures.
The nearby ski resort of Niseko (about 2 hours by car/bus) is another must-visit in Hokkaido. It’s the number 1 ski resort in Japan and is renowned for its quality of powder snow throughout the winter.
The Drift Ice or ryuhyo in the Okhotsk Sea north of Hokkaido is the northern hemisphere’s southernmost region to see drifting ice, located on a similar geographical latitude as Portland, Oregon, and Venice, Italy.
The ice originates from the Amur River in Russia and then drifts through the Sea of Okhotsk to reach Hokkaido, usually in mid-January to early February, before melting before April.
Hokkaido is Japan’s northern-most island. It is by far the coldest place in Japan and gets the most snow. It is home to some of the best skiing in the world and should be on any winter itinerary for Japan. The best way to get to Hokkaido from elsewhere in Japan, especially Tokyo or more south, is by plane. You can fly into Sapporo and venture out from there.
I recently put Hokkaido on my list of Top Hygge Destinations around the world.
The Kamakura Festival
The Kamakura Festival, held in Akita prefecture in the north of Japan, is another favorite snow festival held from February to March. Dome-shaped snow structures are created in various sizes. Within each kamakura there is a snow altar dedicated to the water deity, to whom people pray for ample water.
A charcoal brazier is set up to provide warmth and grill rice cakes. In the evenings (18:00 to 21:00), children invite festival visitors into their kamakura and offer them rice cakes and amazake, a type of warm sweet rice wine with zero or very low alcohol content. In return, the visitors make an offering to the water deity at the altar.
The festival area extends east of Yokote Station to Yokote Castle, which is located about two kilometers away across Yokote River. Starting from the station, visitors can enjoy a leisurely stroll along the streets of the town and appreciate scenes of kamakura built beside houses in the neighborhood. It is also possible to take part in kamakura making at one of the hands-on sessions at Komyoji Park.
Winter is arguably the best season to enjoy Onsen (hot spring bath) as there is nothing better than soaking up our bodies in a hot bath when it’s cold outside. Moreover, to enjoy it in an even better way could be surrounded by snow. There are hundreds of Onsen towns in Japan, but if you wish to enjoy a snowy Onsen experience, definitely head north.
Ginzan Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture is one of the most historical and picturesque Onsen towns in Japan. The town offers an amazing preserved nostalgic townscape from the 19th century and has been featured in the media in past. It was chosen as “Japan’s most charming winter village” by CNN.
Juhyo Ice Trees
Juhyo Ice Trees are an amazing winter phenomenon that can be captured in Japan in the northern ski resort at Zao. The Zao ice trees are one of the most unique and spectacular snow arts made by nature.
Hundreds of snow monsters cover the slope at Zao Ski Resort and visitors can enjoy skiing and snowboarding past these trees. At night, the snow monsters are lit up and display mystical winter scenery.
Jigokudani Monkey Park.
The snow monkey park near Nagano offers a unique experience of seeing wild monkeys bathing in natural hot springs. The park is inhabited by Japanese Macaques, which are usually just called snow monkeys. The park is located in the monkey’s natural habitat in the forests of Jigokudani Valley in Yamanouchi.
The park has one man-made pool where the monkeys gather, but monkeys can be seen bathing in the natural baths and rivers around the main pool.
Accustomed to humans, the monkeys can be watched from very close and they will almost completely ignore the human guests around them. But, you shouldn’t try to pet or feed the monkeys and just watch them going about their lives.
The park is open all year but from December to March is the best time to visit because of the beautiful snowy scenery and the most amount of monkeys wanted to warm up in the baths.
If you happen to be visiting other times of the year you can still come to Jigokudani but there are also plenty of places to see snow monkeys in Japan.
There is a bit of a walk from the car park to the actual park so if you have little ones, you might need to consider that, especially if it’s snowy and your kids tire of walking in their boots and snow gear after a short hike. We brought a plastic sled to give the kids a hand on the long winding hike.
While you’re in Nagano, I recommend visiting either Hakuba or Nozawa Onsen. Both towns are a short drive (though in opposite directions) from Nagano and offer some world-class ski areas (some of the ski events for the Nagano Olympics were held in Hakuba), a great ski town atmosphere, and obviously onsens.
If you’re new to skiing, I recommend booking a private lesson to help you stay safe on the mountain and have a fun time.
Another winter phenomenon in Japan, and this one is more accessible from Tokyo. The icicles of Misotsuchi are gigantic icicles created by flowing water over the cliffs upstream from the waterfall in the Chichibu area in Saitama Prefecture, which is located next to Tokyo, making it a great day trip. During the peak season, the special light-up event is held and lightens up the icicles mystically.
Tokyo Disney Resort
If you’re a die-hard Disney fan, or just want to feel the nostalgia of your innocent youth, a trip to Tokyo Disney won’t disappoint. Especially in winter before Christmas, I think TDR is magical. With special performances, holiday decorations, and limited-time food and merch, a trip to Disneyland might just be what you need at the end of your trip to Japan.
Located very close to Tokyo, you can easily get a feel for the park in one day (or add a second day and visit Tokyo Disney Sea. I recommend choosing a weekday to avoid crowds and try to stay away from the big holidays like Christmas and New Year or other Japanese holidays that happen during winter.
Buying tickets for Tokyo Disney Resort can be a little tricky. You can get tickets on the TDR website (though it can be hit or miss working with foreign credit cards), most conbini like 7-11 or lawson, at a JTB travel agent, on klook, or if you stay at a Disney hotel or partner hotel (but double check when you book that they’re guaranteeing tickets for guests.)
Check out what to do at Tokyo Disneyland during Christmas here.
The Sky Tree is a fun experience any time of the year, but in winter you can get great views of a snow-covered Mount Fuji. Between May to September Fuji-san is often obscured by haze or clouds (and in my opinion doesn’t look as impressive without snow) so winter is my recommended time for viewing.
The Skytree also gets you a great view over the city if you can stomach the jaw-dropping height. A view over one of the largest cities in the world, as well as a spectacular view of an iconic volcano, is a must when visiting Japan. Buy your tickets on Klook. It’s cheaper than other places online and it will save you so much time in line.
While you’re in Tokyo shop for a good book at one of these English Bookstores.
Shirakawago Village is a charming and rustic traditional Japanese village located in Gifu Prefecture, Central Japan. The UNESCO World Heritage village displays the beautiful scenery in each season collaborating with the surrounding nature.
In winter, the snow covers the whole village and creates a wonderful view. The special light-up events are held several times during winter. It is one of the most beautiful and traditional places Japan has to offer.
Japanese Winter Food
Eating local and seasonal food is the norm in Japan, where people it’s common for people to travel across the country to sample a local specialty in season. But while food is always a great reason to travel in Japan, winter might just be the best time of the year for culinary travelers.
Top sushi spots in Tokyo, as well as other sushi hubs like Kanazawa, Toyama, Fukuoka, and Hokkaido all, showcase seasonal specialties from the winter catches.
In Sapporo, you can sample heartwarming foods like soup curry, and miso ramen. Winter also brings about two of the nationwide winter favorites: oden and nabe.
Oden is a type of nabemono (a Japanese one-pot dish) that has several ingredients like boiled eggs, daikon, and konjac, in a dashi broth, can be found anywhere from oden-specialty restaurants to izakayas and even convenience stores like 7-11 or Lawson.
Oden is one type of nabe, but nabe or “hotpots” can be made from a wide range of ingredients and are usually shared with family and friends.
Talking about izakayas, they’re a great place to spend a cold winter evening. Izakayas are a small local establishments, sort of like a bar or tavern but serve small tapas-style dishes. Every izakaya I’ve been in has a cozier vibe than you might get from a typical bar in the U.S. and is a great place to experience Japanese food and culture.
Check out one of these Restaurants:Klook.com
Japanese Winter Fashion
When packing for Japan’s winter weather you’ll need a down jacket or coat, gloves, a hat, and possibly a scarf. If you’re sticking near Tokyo, some (obviously) close-toed shoes would be fine, but if you’re venturing north or to the mountains, you’ll need boots that can withstand snow.
For gift ideas for the traveler in your life, check out our traveler gift guide.
Winter is a great time to visit Japan. From amazing winter sports to cozy hygge experiences, you should visit Japan in the winter if you have a chance. Hopefully, this list gave you an idea of some of the best places to go in Japan and spark your wanderlust for your next adventure.
THIS ARTICLE MAY CONTAIN AFFILIATE LINKS. PLEASE READ THE DISCLAIMER FOR MORE INFO
Are you ready for Japan?
- Book Your Flights– To find the cheapest flights, flexibility is a must. Some great options are Google Flights for the calendars to find the cheapest options, Skiplagged, and Skyscanner. For more options see our resources page. For Japan, check flights for both Tokyo Airports (Haneda and Narita), as well as Osaka (Kansai).
- Find Transportation- Buy your JR Pass for your bullet train and inter-city travel before you leave home. Research a Suica card, the public transportation card you can either buy before or as soon as you arrive.
- Book Your Accommodation– Look at Booking.com, Hotels.com, or Expedia for hotels in Japan. You can also look at AirBnB or VRBO as we’ve had great luck finding inexpensive, large, and clean homes to rent.
- Book Tours and Experiences- Check Klook or Viator for some of the best tours and attractions for a great price for experiences like Tokyo Skytree, TeamLab Borderless, and Universal Osaka. For Tokyo Disney Resort, check my guide here.
- Stay Connected– Order a pocket WIFI for airport pickup if you’re with a family or group, or order a SIM card just for your phone. Check out our guide to staying connected here.
- Buy Travel Insurance- I always recommend World Nomads for insurance. It’s better to protect yourself in case of mishaps. Learn more about World Nomads in this FAQ post.
- Pack Your Bags– Check out my packing lists, or my favorite travel gear to help you remember all of the essentials.
- Learn About Japan– Learn about Japan with guidebooks like Lonely Planet, or, shameless plug, search around my site for more info.