Winter in Japan can mean a great deal of snow, but don’t let the cold put you off. In fact, the winter months are perhaps the best times to visit the island nation. Given Japan’s mountainous terrain and numerous volcanoes, you’re never too far from a ski slope - or a hot spring, for that matter. Winter in Japan is also a wonderful opportunity to venture out beyond the urban sprawl and experience the country, its customs, and cuisine like a local. If you looking for things to do in Japan in winter, we suggest you venture out to these 10 scenic snow-covered towns and villages to see Japan as if you’ve never seen it before.
1. Shirakawa-go, Gifu
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a popular winter destination, and it’s easy to see why: You’ll immediately fall in love with these charming, snow-covered thatched-roof farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old. The style in which these roofs are constructed is known as gasshou-zukuri, or resembling a Buddhist monk’s hands clasped together in prayer. Built without a single nail, these roofs are made to withstand the heavy annual snowfall in the Japanese Alps. Several of these gassho-style farmhouses also function as accommodations – so if you're considering memorable things to do in Japan in winter, why not spend the night in one of these rustic homes?
How to Get to Shirakawa-go
After arriving at Toyama via the Hokuriku Shinkansen, take a bus to Shirakawa-go (90 minutes). See on Google Maps.
During the colder months, the World Heritage sites of Nikko transform into a UNESCO winter wonderland celebrating the rich history and culture of Japan. Nikko Toshogu Shrine, Nikko’s famed attraction, is the eternal home of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate who ruled Japan for nearly 3 centuries. After you’ve explored the elaborate architecture of Nikko’s shrines and temples, soak in one of the many hot springs in the area, each with distinct colors, scents, and healing properties.
How to Get to Nikko
From the Tobu Asakusa Station, take the Tobu Railway to Tobu Nikko (120 minutes). Limited express trains bound for Tobu Nikko Station depart from JR Shinjuku Station as well (120 minutes). See on Google Maps.
3. Otaru, Hokkaido
When it comes to winter in Japan, the heaviest snow falls in Hokkaido, where you can enjoy the annual Sapporo Snow Festival. But, take a 45 minute train ride, and you’ll be whisked away to the port city of Otaru, a city pivotal to the development of Japan’s northernmost island. Brick warehouses and Victorian style street lamps line Otaru Canal, giving it a distinctly European feel. Visit at night and be charmed by Otaru’s Snow Light Path, an event held in February where the streets of Otaru are decorated with snowmen and candlelight.
How to Get to Otaru
Otaru is 30 minutes away from Sapporo and 75 minutes away from Shin Chitose Airport via the JR Airport Express. See on Google Maps.
If work hard, play hard, is your life’s motto, then book a trip to Niseko this winter. Niseko has long been Japan’s best-kept secret when it comes to ski resorts, outdoor adventure, world-class dining options, along with hot spring and spa relaxation. However, since the 1990s, it has seen a boom in international travelers, creating a hospitable cosmopolitan village that is blanketed in some of the world’s finest and driest snow.
If you want to go skiing in Japan, and we highly recommend it, then check out 10 Essential Tips to Plan Your Japan Ski Trip for some helpful advice!
How to Get to Niseko
Niseko is located 80 km west of Shin Chitose Airport, a 2 hour and 45 minute train ride. See on Google Maps.
5. Ginzan Onsen, Yamagata
A winter night walk down the snowy streets of this hot spring town will immediately invoke feelings of natsukashii, the Japanese word used to describe a feeling or yearning for times gone by. Ginzan Onsen is truly a sight to behold, with wooden inns lining its namesake Ginzan River. These structures were built between the early 20th to mid 20th century. Gas street lamps flicker softly in the night, casting a gentle amber light on the snow and surface of the river.
How to Get to Ginzan Onsen
Take the Yamagata Shinkansen to Oishida Station, then take a bus to Ginza-onsen (35 minutes). Alternatively, you can fly to Yamagata Airport and take a bus to Ginzan Onsen (70-90 minutes). See on Google Maps.
Rising to international fame after hosting the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, the ski resorts of Hakuba are one of the few places where you can test your skills on Olympic facilities. Snow sport enthusiasts will feel at home hitting the slopes of the 11 individual resorts, but don’t miss the opportunity to see one of the most peculiar (and popular) sights of winter in Japan — snow monkeys bathing contentedly in the hot springs of Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park.
Besides from world-class skiing, there are plenty of other things to do in the area. Check out our guide to 7 Best Things to Do in Hakuba When You’re Not Skiing!
How to Get to Hakuba
Take the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Nagano, where a 90 minute express bus will take you to Hakuba Station and within instant access of the area’s ski resorts. To visit Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, take a 10 minute bus ride to Kanbayashi Onsen from JR Yudanka Station, a 50 minute express train ride from Nagano Station. See on Google Maps.
7. Nyuto Onsen, Akita
Nestled in the Towada-Hachimantai National Park in eastern Akita Prefecture is Nyuto Onsen. The onsen is a collection of 8 hot springs and rustic Japanese inns overlooking Japan’s deepest lake. Here is one of the few remaining places where Japan’s fading tradition of outdoor mixed-gender bathing is still alive. Not to be missed is a soak in Tsurunoyu, the area’s oldest inn which is nearly 300 years old.
How to Get to Nyuto Onsen
Take the JR Akita Shinkansen to Tazawako Station. From there, it’s a 50 minute bus ride to Nyuto Onsen. See on Google Maps.
8. Ouchi Juku, Fukushima
Walk in the footsteps of samurai in the village of Ouchi Juku, a former post town on Aizu-Nishi Kaido that which connected Aizu, Fukushima with Nikko, Tochigi during the Edo Period. Ouchi-juku feels like a living museum, as the town has been restored to its former glory. Traditional thatched buildings, a trademark of post towns, line the unpaved main street, where you’ll find plenty of quaint shops, restaurants, and Japanese inns. Warm up with a local specialty - fish grilled at an iriori, or sunken hearth - then head to Ouchi-juku Town Pavilion to explore more of this historic village.
How to Get to Ouchi Juku
From Aizukawamatsu Station head to Yunokami Onsen on the Aizu Railroad, where you can take a 15 minute taxi ride to Ouchi Juku. A shuttle bus operates from April to November between Yunokami Onsen and Ouchi Juku (20 minutes). See on Google Maps.
9. Yuzawa, Niigata
Yuzawa is the backdrop for Snow Country (Yukiguni), a novel penned by famed Japanese Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata. Yukiguni, a name for the area facing the Sea of Japan, receives intense, long-lasting snowfall that can be as 4 or 5 meters deep. While isolation is a central theme of the book, you won’t feel alone here - Yuzawa lies in the heart of Japan's Snow Country Tourism Zone, a government initiative to encourage tourism to encourage domestic and international travelers to visit this breathtaking winter wonderland.
How to Get to Yuzawa
Take the Joetsu Shinkansen and get off at Echigo-Yuzawa Station. The station is connected to one of the resorts, so you’ve already arrived! Alternatively, you have a choice of buses that will take you to the area’s resorts and ski slopes in under 30 minutes. See on Google Maps.
10. Lake Kawaguchi
This winter, ditch the high adrenaline alpine sports and be soothed by the serene sight of a snow-capped Mount Fuji reflected on the surface of Lake Kawaguchi. One of the Fuji Five Lakes, Kawaguchi-ko is located right at the base of Mount Fuji. Visit early in the morning or in the late afternoon for breathtaking views of Japan’s undisputed cultural symbol.
How to Get to Lake Kawaguchi
Highway buses departing Shibuya, Tokyo, and Shinjuku Stations provide direct service to Lake Kawaguchiko (120 minutes). See on Google Maps.
Share your memories of winter in Japan in the comments below!