Japan is a place that’s visited throughout the year—mostly, though, it seems that the three seasons are the times when it experiences the most significant influx of tourists. Everyone knows about the famous cherry blossom in spring; in the summer, you can enjoy the sun and lush green landscapes, and even autumn is well-known for its picture-perfect turning leaves. So, some may think: why would anyone in their right mind choose to come during the coldest season? Those are the people who are blissfully unaware of the fact that winter is indeed the best time to travel to Japan—if you know how to dress to beat the cold, that is! Here are the top things you can do in Japan in winter.
1. Crowds are Smaller
Going to Japan? You know there will be crowds. Lots of crowds. People everywhere. But if you know that it’s not your cup of tea, and you prefer places with fewer people, it doesn’t mean that you have to give up Japan. Quite the contrary—just opt for travelling in the winter. Many of the iconic sights in Japan are almost deserted throughout the colder months, so you’ll basically have them all for yourself! And let’s not remember the touch of snow that will make your photos look like postcards. Of course, if you generally hate winter, this might not be a good idea, but if you can cope with cold weather just fine, or, even better, if you like it, this is the time to book your tickets and enjoy the country. Just don’t share the secret, okay?
2. You Get to See Snow Monkeys!
If you’re going to Japan in the winter, this is a must see that will warm any cold heart out there! If you go to Yudanaka, a tiny town in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture, you’ll see plenty of snow monkeys. The town is worth visiting on its own, as it’s known for hot spring baths—can you imagine a time more perfect to immerse yourself in the hot bath than winter? Additionally, it has some picturesque traditional inns where you get to enjoy warm sake (more on that later). An hour’s walk away from it is the Jigokudani Monkey Park, home to the cutest Japanese macaques who will show you all the joys of winter: hanging out in their hot spring, playing around and throwing a snowball or two!
3. Skiing in Japan Is Another Story
Over 70 percent of Japan is actually covered with mountains. No wonder this is an ideal destination for skiing and other winter sports, as the country has over 500 ski resorts! Besides, thanks to icy winds coming across the sea from Siberia, the country receives the most reliable snowfall, meaning—there’s no way you’ll get there and then have to skip skiing due to lack of snow! Japan ski resorts can be found in a range of price and offerings, from the minuscule (but with great snow and slopes nevertheless!) to world-class ones. Generally speaking, ski resort infrastructure and hospitality in Japan is top-notch, and since many resorts can be found not far away from Tokyo (think Nagano, just two and a half hours away), you can even incorporate a day of skiing, snowboarding and sledding, followed by onsen baths. But we do recommend more than a day because it’s just so superb!
4. Onsen Hot Spring Baths Just Work Better in Winter
Sure, you can do a hot spring bath in the summer as well. But it’s not the same as immersing yourself in hot water while it’s chilly outside and the snow is falling around you! Hot springs, or onsen as they call it in Japan, are an integral part of the Japanese culture. That means that there are resorts dedicated to this practice all around the country, from traditional wooden bathhouses to enormous and lavish themed hot spring complexes. If you’re feeling extra, these are the places where you can even bathe in milk and honey, or red wine if you’d like!
5. Warm Sake Doesn’t Work That Well in Summer!
It’s like having gluhwein on the beach. Sure, you could do that… but why would you? The point of a hot alcoholic drink is to warm you up a little in the cold weather. (Just make sure not to overdo it!) Sake is, as you might know it already, Japan’s native rice wine. It can be served both warm or cold, but having it warm is a special treat for many, a cozy feeling in a bottle. After a long day out and about in Tokyo or out in the mountains, go to a traditional ryokan inn or an izakaya pub, and warm a bottle of hot sake to warm your body and spirit!
6. Enjoy the Kotatsu
Ever heard of kotatsu? Well, prepared to be blown away if you haven’t. Japan is cold in the winter, there’s no way around it. But the ingenious Japanese have come up with a great solution: the kotatsu. A kotatsu is a low table covered with a thick quilt, which also covers a heater underneath the table. So what they do to warm up, is sit cross-legged around the table, with the quilt over your knees—how great is that? In winter, most traditional Japanese-style inns will have kotatsu, while some bars can even have them outside. Really, isn’t winter in Japan just the best?!
7. See the Snow Festival
Sapporo Yuki Matsuri, or snow festival, is a winter celebration in Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido. For a few days every year—do we have to emphasise it’s in winter—streets and squares of the city are filled with giant snow and ice sculptures, with the addition of toboggan runs, ice bars, games, and everything wintery you can think of! The statues are up to 20 metres tall and 30 metres wide, so if you’ve ever wanted to see a giant replica of the Eiffel Tower or the pyramids of Giza in the snow, this is the place to be! However, it has to be noted that this remains immensely popular, so if you do decide to go, book accommodation in advance.
8. Witness a Natural Phenomenon
We’re talking red-crowned cranes. If you happen to be in Hokkaido for the Snow festival above, it would be a waste not to go to Tsurui to witness one of the most beautiful events of Japan! Every winter the population of red-crowned cranes congregate in Tsurui to mate, and they will perform a mating dance together. This is such a fantastic sight, you will even be prone to think the cranes choreographed the event! Enjoy this at the Tsurui-Ito Tancho Sanctuary, and you’ll be so happy you’d witnessed this. Have we convinced you? Winter is indeed the best season to visit Japan. And if you’re afraid of the cold, we’ll just repeat what your mother has been telling you for ages: layers, layers! That’s the pure and simple truth of handling winter.
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