Japan is a stunning country no matter the season but come winter, the landscape of Japan is at its best.
A Japanese temple covered in snow
Traveling to Japan can be a peculiar experience unlike any other, mainly because the country is unique in its love for the changing seasons. The spirit of valuing and celebrating the changing of seasons is deeply rooted in Japanese culture, and even the country’s topography drastically changes through the year.
Those who’ve visited Japan in autumn must have seen a sea of yellow and red leaves, but by spring, pretty much all of Japan is swarmed with pink and white cherry blossom trees. Come winter; Japan gets covered in thick blankets of snow, making it the season when the country’s already stunning scenery is at its best. From outdoor onsens surrounded by snow to annual ice and snow festivals, these are the most beautiful destinations in Japan for a winter vacay.
10/10 Sapporo, Hokkaido
Winter is possibly one of the best times to visit the capital of Hokkaido which gets covered in several feet of snow and glows at night under the festive lights. But it’s the snow festival that millions flock to Sapporo for each winter. The Sapporo Snow Festival, which began in 1950, hosts the International Snow Sculpture Contest, where several teams from across the world compete in their snow statue-making skills. The result is parks filled with giant sculptures that are several feet high, made entirely out of snow, and open for the public to marvel at.
9/10 Kenrokuen, Ishikawa
Kenrokuen is one of three parks that make up the Three Great Gardens of Japan, and while it may seem like parks are best visited in the warmer months of the year, Kenrokuen is a sight to see during the winter. As heavy snow falls at the end of the year, Kenrokuen practices the yukitsuri technique of using ropes and bamboo to prevent the weight of the snow from damaging the trees. While this is an entirely functional event, yukitsuri also happens to look stunning, especially when the trees are illuminated with lights.
8/10 Yunishigawa Onsen, Nikko
Yunishigawa is a remote hot spring town in the mountains that is believed to have been founded by the Taira clan, who were in hiding after a political defeat in the 12th century. The onsen town was meant to be a hiding refuge but is a famous winter spot in the present day for its snow-lined hot spring baths. In the winter, Yunishigawa also hosts the Yunishigawa Kamakura Snow Festival, during which hundreds of little Kamakura (snow huts) of different sizes are built all over town and lit with candles in the evenings, making it one of the best light and snow festivals in the country.
7/10 Mount Fuji
It’s widely believed that despite the freezing temperatures, winter is the best time to visit Mount Fuji for its powdery snow, clear skies, and excellent visibility. In fact, December and January are perhaps the best months of the year to see the mountain, with Mount Fuji being visible 77% and 80.6% of the time, respectively — the highest in the entire year (via Live Japan). Visitors can hike to Fuji Five Lakes for the clear views of the mountain, hop onto the Mt. Fuji Panorama Ropeway or stick around the many light festivals that take place against the backdrop of the mountain.
6/10 Liyama Kamakura Snow Village, Nagano
Kamakura is the Japanese word for igloo, and each winter, the city of Iiyama opens a makeshift village made of 15 to 20 snow huts or igloos. While it is called a village, the Kamakura village is a restaurant in reality that is open only for a month between January and February. Visitors can reserve an igloo and enjoy warm hotpots and rice balls inside their little snow hut. As the sun sets, the village of igloos glows in the light of the lanterns.
5/10 Mount Zao
Hidden deep inside Mount Zao — a volcano between Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures — are Juhyo or snow monsters that come out to play each winter. Surprisingly, however, these are no walking monsters. Mount Zao experiences unique weather conditions where wind from Siberia is blocked by the fir trees on the mountain, and water droplets freeze on their branches at high altitude. This is what creates Juhyo — fir trees frozen in strange monster-like shapes. Parts of Mount Zao where the Juhyo live can be accessed by foot and ropeway, of course, but they are also open for skiing.
4/10 Chichibu, Saitama
Japan is famous for its natural springs, but few wonder what becomes of them in the freezing temperatures of winter. As it turns out, they freeze! Each winter, the spring water in Chichibu — a stone’s throw away from Tokyo — gradually freezes into sharp icicles as temperatures drop. The Misotsuchi Icicles attract thousands from across the globe to Chichicu to witness the natural wall of icicles that is about 10 meters tall and 30 feet wide. There are even events between January and February where colorful lights are placed to illuminate the extraordinary Misotsuchi Icicles.
3/10 Shirakawago, Gifu
The village of Shirakawago is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its Gassho-style houses, the only surviving houses of this kind in Japan. Shirakawago is also famous for experiencing heavy showers of snow that cover the village with several feet of snow and turn all of Shirakawago into a fairytale village. At the peak of snowfall in winter, residents of Shirakawago participate in a light-up event that can be toured on buses or viewed from the observation deck at the Ogimachi Castle Ruins high up above.
2/10 Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, Nagano
Located inside the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park — the fourth largest national park in Japan that is home to several volcanos, lakes, and famous mountain peaks — is the Jigokudani Monkey Park, also known as the Snow Monkey Park in the winter. The park is located in a forest that is the natural habitat of Japanese Macaques, or snow monkeys. While the monkeys live in the park all year round, cold temperatures of the winter make the monkeys come out in hoards for a dip in the natural hot spring inside the park — there’s no better time to see the snow monkeys than, well, in the snow!
1/10 Ginzan Onsen, Yamagata
An onsen is one of those bucket list activities on a trip to Japan, even if it’s during the scorching months of summer. But there’s no better time to visit an onsen than in winter when soft snowflakes fall on your skin as you soak in a hot bath. Of all the onsets spread across Japan, Ginzan is famously known as an onsen town and a stunning one at that. Founded over 400 years ago, the wooden structures of Ginzan Onsen are built along a river, and narrow bridges lit with vintage lamps take visitors across the waterbody. During winters, thick snow covers the onsen and its surrounding trees and mountains but steaming hot springs continue to warm guests all night.