Everyone’s heard of Japan’s legendary beauty in spring and autumn. But there’s another season that is worth considering – and no, it’s not summer. Perhaps surprisingly, winter in Japan is actually a great time to visit.
Yes, winter in Japan can be cold (unless you want to go to Okinawa) but as with any season in Japan winter has its charms. We spent almost 3 weeks in Japan in December and January, so read on to find out about the best things to do in Japan in winter, and why you should consider spending winter in Japan.
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Why should you visit Japan in winter?
As well as being able to see and do pretty much everything that you can do at other times, visiting Japan in winter has a couple of huge advantages.
Winter in Japan means clear skies
Well, in December at least. December is the driest month in Japan, so you probably won’t be rained on. We spent almost three weeks in Japan over the Christmas holidays and we got a light dusting of snow a couple of times in Kyoto and Takayama, and I’m struggling to recall any rain.
This means that you get some stupendously clear days, making trips to Matsumoto Castle (above) even prettier as you can see the snow capped mountains surrounding the city. It’s also a great time to make a pilgrimage to Mt Fuji as you’re most likely to get a good look at this notoriously shy mountain.
So, what’s the weather like in Japan in winter?
The weather in December is getting colder, yes, but it’s not that inclement. During our trip there were a few days in Tokyo in mid December when the sun was out and we didn’t even need coats – a couple of layers including a thick jumper was fine. Although we’re from the UK so to be fair, anything over 10°C and sunny usually means no coats!
January and February are the coldest months so you should expect snow, especially in the northern parts of the country and in the mountains although heavy snowfall is much less likely in Tokyo and the Kansai areas. Wrap up warm!
Here’s a breakdown of average temperatures across the country (as Japan is so long, it varies quite a bit!).
Japan temperatures in December
Sapporo: Min -4°C (25°F) to Max 2°C (36°F)
Tokyo: Min 4°C (39°F) to Max 12°C (54°F)
Nagasaki: Min 6°C (43°F) to Max 13°C (55°F)
Japan temperatures in January
Sapporo: Min -7°C (19°F) to Max -1°C (30°F)
Tokyo: Min 1°C (34°F) to Max 10°C (50°F)
Nagasaki: Min 4°C (39°F) to Max 10°C (50°F)
Japan temperatures in February
Sapporo: Min -7°C (19°F) to 0°C (32°F)
Tokyo: Min 2°C (36°F) to Max 10°C (50°F)
Nagasaki: Min 4°C (39°F) to Max 12°C (54°F)
As you can see, while the winter temperatures in Hokkaido are pretty cold, things are a lot more temperate down in Tokyo.
Unlike the UK, Japan is prepared and life carries on as normal after a snowfall. And who doesn’t love a winter wonderland?
There are fewer crowds during winter in Japan
The festive New Year season aside, there aren’t going to be anywhere near as many tourists at the main attractions. The Japanese love to tour their own country but in January and February they’re not as likely to be on holiday. Foreign tourists are more likely to be lured to the warmer climes of Thailand and other SE Asian countries.
You won’t have the place to yourself, but you’re less likely to be stuck in queues and visiting super popular places like Kyoto aren’t going to be as stressful.
Just watch out for Chinese New Year in February – Japan is super popular at this time of year!
Winter seasonal festivities
Japan has four seasons, as the Japanese are fond of saying. So what, I hear you say. So does the UK, and a bunch of other places.
But the Japanese are right; Japan has very distinct seasons with hot rainy summers, pleasant autumns and springs, and snowy winters. The scenery changes dramatically throughout the year, as do celebrations and festivals.
In the spring you can of course visit Japan for hanami, or cherry blossom viewing; the hot summers are famous for firework festivals; and in autumn there’s koyo or autumn leaf viewing.
And Japan does seasonal differences very well. Everywhere is decorated according to the season and seasonal food and drinks make an appearance. So no matter what time of year you decide to visit Japan, the season will be celebrated and it’ll feel very different to other times of the year.
Read on to find out what makes winter in Japan so special!
10 of the best things to do in Japan in winter
So what sort of things can you expect to do in Japan in the winter? You can of course tour the cities in much the same way as you can in any other season, but here are some winter specific things to do to help you make the most of your Japanese winter itinerary.
Warm up in an outdoor onsen
There’s something extra special about onsen, or Japanese baths in the winter. After a long day sightseeing there’s nothing better than relaxing in a steaming, mineral rich bath to soothe your muscles. It’s even better if the onsen is outside and you have to run over the snow to get in!
The cold air also means that you can stay in the onsen longer without cooking yourself! I’m not sure how popular hot baths are in the sticky humid summers.
There are so many options for visiting onsen baths in Japan. You can visit an onsen town, like Shibu Onsen, or stay in a ryokan which has bathing facilities (this option is best for families with small children). Many ryokans offer a private onsen for those of us who are too shy to join in the communal baths – this is also great if you have large tattoos.
Other popular onsen destinations include Hakone Onsen and Kusatsu Onsen.
See the snow monkeys and other winter wildlife
Everyone’s heard of the snow monkeys in Jigokudani Monkey Park near Shibu Onsen in the Japanese Alps. This is where you can see Japanese macaques bathing in the hot springs in the forest. They’re very unconcerned by all the people who come to see them, so it’s a great way of getting up close to the monkeys without having to visit a zoo.
While you can visit the snow monkeys year round, in the summer they might not be in the baths as it gets too hot, so winter is the best time to see them using the onsen.
January and February are the best times to visit as there’s more snow, but even in late December there was a sprinkling of snow on the ground and many of the monkeys were bathing in the onsen.
If you’re heading further north, then try to see the red-crowned cranes in Hokkaido. These graceful, elegant birds are a national symbol of Japan, depicted in many artworks and stories, and have even appeared on the ¥1000 note. The red-crowned cranes were once critically endangered but recent conservation efforts have seen their numbers increase dramatically.
The best place to see red-crowned cranes in Japan in Kushiro Shitsugen National Park in Eastern Hokkaido. You’re able to see them all year round but winter is the best time. The birds are more active here between November and March, and the snowy background makes for better photos!
Warm yourselves up with hot sake (and yuzu tea)
You’ve just got to try sake when you’re in Japan, and while I’m sure cold sake in the summer can be refreshing, a warm cup of sake on a cold day is just the right thing to warm you up.
One of the best places to try sake is in Takayama, in the Japanese Alps. Takayama has all the right conditions to make great sake; cold temperatures, clear mountain water and good rice.
Takayama is home to six sake breweries, and there are plenty of shops in town selling sake (you can tell by the large ball suspended over the entrance). So it’s the perfect place to tour some breweries and find your favourite sake.
Takayama is also a great winter destination as it’s got a beautiful old town and an open air museum, and it’s an easy day trip to Shirakawago (pictured).
Shirakawago is one of Japan’s most famous and beautiful villages as it’s got several traditional houses with steeply pitched roofs called gassho-zukuri. You may even choose to stay in a traditional house in Shirakawago!
Shirakawago is lit up on certain Sundays in January and February – unmissable if this is when you’re in Japan. Click here for dates and times.
Keep an eye out for our upcoming guide to Takayama.
Yuzu tea is an alcohol free drink that’s just as warming on frosty days as sake. As with other citrus fruit, yuzu is in season in the winter months, and you’ll find it served as dessert or flavourings in foods. It can also be made into a sweet tea, its tanginess often tempered with honey and sometimes ginger – a perfect pick me up!
Winter food specialities
A huge part of travelling to Japan is to experience the food! Seasonal treats will be on sale everywhere and with many places now catering for vegetarians and vegans, everyone can find traditional Japanese food without too much trouble.
On a cold day, stop in at a ramen shop for a hearty bowl of hot noodles – this is definitely one of the best Japanese winter comfort foods going!
One of my favourite meals was in Takayama where I had hoba-yaki. This is a dish from the Gifu region where vegetables and tofu (or meat, if you’re not a veggie) are mixed with miso and cooked on a hoba leaf over charcoal. It was definitely a bit different, and the leaf gives the food a smokey flavour.
Another warming food you’ll see everywhere is oden, which is a Japanese winter stew. It’s usually made in a large vessel filled with soy flavoured dashi stock (so not usually suitable for vegetarians). Typical ingredients cooked in the dashi include tofu, eggs, daikon, fish cakes, potatoes, octopus and more. You can get oden at street food stalls, and we also saw some in every 7-11 we went into.
And while you can get mitarashi dango (grilled mochi-like rice balls covered in warm sweet soy sauce) year round, we thought that they tasted especially good in winter. These mochi balls went down a treat with our kids and we had to have some whenever we saw a stall selling them!
Skiing and other winter sports
Japan has some great ski resorts, especially in Hokkaido, although plenty can be found in the Japanese Alps. Japan’s ski slopes are renowned for their deep powdery snow – some say it’s the best in the world! Night skiing is popular too, but double check if you need a special permit.
Up in Hokkaido, the best resort is Niseko, with its views of Mt Yotei (pictured). Niseko is said to have the best, deepest powder (around 15 metres). It’s only two hours from Hokkaido’s main airport, and might be worth visiting at the same time as the Sapporo Snow Festival.
On Honshu, the best known resort is Hakuba in the Japanese Alps. Hakuba comprises 11 ski resorts so there’s a lot of choice here. You could also try Yuzawa, a large resort only a couple of hours from Tokyo, which also has hot springs.
Nozawa Onsen is probably the best for beginners – this town hosted events during the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics and its runs are suitable for all levels. The town has 13 public onsen which are perfect for soaking your weary muscles after a day on the slopes, and you’ll find English menus around town too.
The Japanese ski season generally runs from December to March, so it’s a little shorter than in Europe and the USA. January and February are the best times to ski in Japan, but be wary of Chinese New Year as everywhere will be extra busy!
Admire the plum blossoms – Ume Matsuri
The cherry blossom season in March and April is deservedly famous, but not as many people seem to know about the earlier plum blossom season which can be just as beautiful.
Japan has just as many plum trees as cherry trees and they come in hundreds of varieties, with pink, white, yellow and red blooms.
The plum blossom season is also much longer than that of the cherry blossoms. Cherry blossom season lasts a couple of weeks only and this makes planning a trip around it difficult as the dates vary each year.
Plum blossoms start to come out in late December – we saw some in bloom on New Years’ Eve in Kyoto (above). They’re at their peak later in winter, usually in February, but you can catch them throughout January and into March in certain places.
A plum blossom festival called Ume Matsuri is held in some towns; very similar to the festivals during cherry blossom season. Tokyo has plenty of places to see plum blossom; try Hanegi Park (a few stops from Shibuya) in February.
You can travel a little way out of Tokyo to Odawara which has over 30,000 plum trees with all different sorts of blooms. You’ll find plenty of festive activities to get involved with too. The best part of it is the views of Mt Fuji behind the trees – if you get a clear day that is!
Another good place to see plum blossoms is at the seaside hot spring town of Atami, a short 50 minute train journey from Tokyo. You can kill two birds with one stone here – visit the plum blossoms and soak in the onsen!
Get a glimpse of Mt Fuji
Those clear skies in December may allow you to see Mt Fuji in all her glory. Most days of the year, Fuji-san is shrouded in clouds, with only glimpses of the peak possible. So it’s extra special when she decides to show off, and December is when you’ll have the most luck!
You can see Mt Fuji on the bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto (pictured, and we also saw it clearly on our journey to Matsumoto from Tokyo) but for a closer look you can stay near the mountain.
Hakone is a great choice; there’s lots to see and do here. It’s possible to see the best of Hakone on a day trip from Tokyo, but I’d recommend at least one night in the area.
You can bathe in onsen as it’s well known for its hot springs, or perhaps you’d like to take the cable car over the steaming sulphurous volcanic area known as Owakudani? After your Hakone ropeway trip, sail in a pirate ship across Lake Ashinoko where, if you’re lucky, Mt Fuji can be clearly seen.
An alternative to Hakone is Fuji Five Lakes (Fujigoko) which is a little closer to the mountain than Hakone. This is where you’ll find the lovely viewpoint of Fuji and the stunning Chureito Pagoda, but there are more things to do around here than admire the view. There are onsen, kimono museums (Kubota Museum), shrines, and even a white knuckle theme park (Fuji Q Highland).
As with Hakone, Fujigoko really needs more than one day to visit, but again you can easily take a day trip from Tokyo if you’re pressed for time.
Japan goes all out with its winter illuminations, which usually begin in November and December. Most finish after the New Year but you’ll be able to visit some of the larger displays all the way through to spring.
Many cities have areas which are lit up every year, and you’ll always be able to see them in December. Tokyo has plenty of them; some are tree lined streets with lights around the trees and others are displays set up especially for the season that put on a bit more of a show, like at Shiodome.
Elsewhere, Nabana no Sato near Nagoya is one of the most famous winter illuminations in Japan and it runs throughout the whole winter. Nabana No Sato’s illuminations are held in a flower park of the same name, which of course has amazing flower displays in the summer. But from mid October to early May, you can catch winter illuminations here as well as flowers. As Nabana No Sato is near a large theme park and onsen, Nagashima Spaland, it makes a good day trip from Nagoya.
You’ll also find a large display at Kobe, the Kobe Luminarie, which is one of Japan’s best winter illuminations. This display was originally dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Kobe earthquake in 1995, and now it’s also a symbol of regeneration in Japan. The Kobe Luminarie typically runs for 10 days in early to mid December.
Snow festivals (Sapporo Yuki Matsuri)
Sapporo Snow Festival needs no introduction! This week long festival is held in Hokkaido’s biggest city and draws millions of people from all over the world.
The main draw at Sapporo Snow Festival are the enormous, exquisitely moulded snow sculptures of famous buildings as well as smaller sculptures. The sculptures are illuminated every night of the festival so it’s worth seeing them both in the day and at night.
As well as the snow sculptures in the main Odori Park area, you can also see ice sculptures at Susukino. And just outside of the town centre at Tsu Dome is a winter playground for kids and adults where you can toboggan down giant snow slides!
You may also be interested in the nearby Otaru Light Up which is a series of light trails and events in a neighbouring city, and which overlaps slightly with the Sapporo Snow Festival.
There are of course other snow and winter festivals, but Sapporo is the biggest and best of the lot. Alternatives include Asahikawa’s snow festival, which is a smaller version of Sapporo’s.
Japanese New Year (Shogatsu)
New Year in Japan is celebrated much more than Christmas, and is the most important holiday in the calendar. It’s best to be prepared though, as many shops, attractions and restaurants close for at least a day or two. Public transport is still working through, as we took a shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo on the afternoon of the 1st. Of course, all temples and shrines will be open so just plan your sightseeing carefully.
Japanese New Year is not a noisy affair; most people visit a shrine or temple at midnight to hear the bells being rung. We visited Kitano-Temmangu shrine in NW Kyoto (pictured) where there were lots of stalls set out selling food and drinks, lucky charms for the next year and more.
On January 1st, many people visit the shrine again for hatsumode, the year’s first visit to a shrine. People pray at the shrine and buy lucky charms for that year (often throwing away the previous year’s charms).
New Year Sales
Away from the shrines and temples, New Year is a great time for shopping. January sales are a huge thing in Japan as well as in the West, and the best thing about Japanese New Year Sales is picking up sealed bags full of goodies from your favourite department store.
These bags are called fukubukuro, and they’re priced well below the retail value of the contents. However you might not get what you’re looking for – fukubukuro actually means “unlucky bag.” Only a limited number are available, so you’ll have to get in line sharpish!
Kyoto is a great place to spend New year in Japan – read our 3 day Kyoto itinerary here.
What to do in winter in Japan by month
What to do in Japan in December
Parks and gardens in Japan in December
In early to mid December you might be lucky enough to catch the end of the koyo, or autumn leaf viewing season. The weather in the Tokyo area is still quite pleasant and you’ll get some nice sunny days.
You might be surprised to see that Japan isn’t as barren as the UK in winter – we saw plenty of winter flower displays and evergreen trees are everywhere so gardens are still worth visiting. You’ll also notice plenty of camellias and other winter flowers so don’t skip those gardens!
Shinjuku Koen in central Tokyo was a good place to see last minute autumn leaves (and the tropical greenhouses here are nice to warm up in too!).
Japanese winter illuminations in December
Winter illuminations will be in full force and there are several good spots in Tokyo that we managed to get to. Shiodome puts on a large LED display which flickers in time to music. It gets very crowded here as everyone waits for showtime!
If you’re going to be in the Shibuya neighbourhood (well, of course you are) take a stroll away from the famous Shibuya crossing and go to the Blue Cave illumination.
There are more illuminations down in Odaiba at Decks Tokyo Beach – the illuminations here have the city and the Rainbow Bridge as their backdrop which sets them off nicely.
Of course, if you want to make a really big thing out of the illuminations, consider a trip to Nabana No Sato if you’re near Nagoya.
What is Christmas in Japan like?
Christmas time in Japan can be surprisingly festive. We saw Santa images everywhere in shops, and of course everywhere was lit up and festive. We definitely didn’t feel as though we’d missed out on the Christmas spirit by spending Christmas in Japan.
One thing we’d been looking to escape was the incessant Christmas music played in the UK – well, we got more of the same in Japan, just slightly different (and possibly worse) versions.
There’s also a large Christmas market at Roppongi Hills in December, with all sorts of decorations, German food and drinks, although we didn’t manage to get here.
Christmas is not really celebrated in Japan though, so while there are plenty of Merry Christmas signs, Christmas trees and the like, Christmas Day is not a holiday and life carries on as normal. A slightly odd Japanese Christmas tradition is for couples to go on dates on Christmas Eve, and to eat KFC buckets. I guess turkeys get a pass here.
We got our kids to write to Santa before we left for Japan telling him where to find us on Christmas Eve (Takayama), which they thought was great as he’d obviously got their letters! We booked a traditional Japanese dinner at our ryokan, which made our Christmas dinner special.
What to do in Japan in January
New Year Celebrations in Japan
Head to a nearby shrine on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day to see how the Japanese do it. Bring some money for snacks and wait your turn to make a wish for the year ahead.
Some of the most famous shrines are the most popular, so Meiji Jingu in Tokyo and Fushimi Inari in Kyoto will be packed. Try a quieter, more out of the way shrine for a less crowded experience.
And of course, go shopping on the 2nd for those lucky (or unlucky) goody bags.
Emperor’s New Year Greeting
On January 2nd, the Emperor makes an appearance at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. It’s one of only two days in the year that the inner palace grounds are open to visitors, so if you want to see the grounds, this is the time to do it!
January sees the first sumo tournament of the year! It’s held in Tokyo’s famous stadium, Kokugikan, and tickets go on sale in December.
If you happen to be in Japan for a sumo tournament it would be a real shame to miss it. There are six tournaments every year; three in Tokyo, one in Osaka, one in Fukuoka (pictured) and one in Aichi Prefecture.
Sumo is rooted in Japanese culture and religion and it’s completely unique to Japan. The aim is to either throw your opponent out of the ring, or to cause any part of their body, other than their feet, to touch the floor.
The wrestling can last all day although individual bouts are sometimes over in seconds. The stadium won’t be as busy early on but it will fill up as the day progresses. However even the early bouts are exciting and interesting to sumo novices.
If you’re not in Japan for a sumo tournament then you can still watch a morning training session at the sumo stables on a guided tour. Click here for more information.
What to do in Japan in February
Skiing and snow festivals
February is all about snow! Head to Hokkaido to experience Japan’s most famous snow festival in Sapporo. While you’re there take a look at some of the other winter illuminations in nearby Otaru and Asahikawa.
After you’re done admiring winter displays, travel to Japan’s premier ski resort and try out some of that legendary power for yourself.
Plum blossom festivals
February is also the best time of year to see plum blossoms and experience ume-matsuri. If you can’t get out of Tokyo to the previously mentioned Atami or Odawara, then there are lots of places to see plum blossom in Tokyo.
Some of the best spots in Tokyo include Hanegi Park, Shiba Park, Koshikawa Korakuen, and many temples have plum trees planted in their grounds. At lots of these spots you’ll find stalls selling plum flavoured foods, sweets and drinks (plum wine is a favourite of mine), as well as displays and crafts.
Catch the early Cherry Blossom Festival at Kawazu
The brief cherry blossom season is usually at the end of March/early April for most of Honshu. Unless you’re in Okinawa in January when you can see the cherry blossom much earlier than the rest of the country.
However, there is one place on the Izu Peninsula, not far from Atami, that has a cherry blossom festival from early February to early March. The cherry trees at Kawazu start to unfurl in late January to early February and take around a month to finish blooming – much longer than the later blooming varieties.
This means that you’ve got pretty much the whole of February to see these special cherry trees in flower. There’s an added bonus to this viewing too – bright yellow oilseed rape grows along the riverbanks underneath the cherry trees and flowers at about the same time.
Of course, there is an accompanying cherry blossom festival in Kawazu with stalls selling every cherry-themed item you can imagine. It’s a good idea to stay the night so you can see the cherry trees illuminated after dark.
I’d recommend spending a few days on the Izu Peninsula to see the plum blossom at Atami and then travel on to Kawazu for the early cherry blossom.
You can find more information here, on the Kawazu Sakura website.
Celebrate Chinese New Year at the Nagasaki Lantern Festival
One of the world’s biggest festivals takes place in February – Chinese New Year. While you might want to avoid travelling in Japan during Chinese New Year due to the amount of tourists, if you want to celebrate it too then there’s no better place in Japan than Nagasaki.
Nagasaki is on the island of Kyushu, in the far west of Japan. Due to its location, it has a large Chinese population who started the celebrations for Chinese New Year in Nagasaki’s Chinatown. This has grown into a citywide celebration called the Nagasaki Lantern Festival.
During the Festival you can expect to see parades of thousands of Chinese lanterns, as well as acrobats, Chinese musical performances, a Chinese dragon dance and much more.
The Nagasaki Lantern Festival takes place over 15 days in February. The date of Chinese New Year varies each year, so sometimes the festival will start in January.
Travel tips for visiting Japan in winter
As well as taking warm hats, gloves and scarves, make sure you’ve got good waterproof shoes (we bought these ones for the kids, and I lived in these). A waterproof and windproof coat is also a great idea.
Another handy(!) item to bring is these thermal pads which you can pop inside your gloves to keep your hands extra toasty!
There are just a couple more things to be aware of when travelling to Japan in winter:
Traditional homes and ryokans can be cold
A ryokan is a Japanese inn, and you’ll find them everywhere; staying in one is an essential Japanese experience. They’re traditional buildings, some hundreds of years old, and they’re made of wood with paper screens and windows. As these buildings are often so old they don’t always have central heating and so things can get a bit chilly in winter. Make sure you’ve got a warm jumper!
You’re often provided with a yukata (Japanese robes) to wear when staying in a ryokan, and in winter you’ll be offered a jacket to warm up with. I found that I was still cold in my yukata so you may want to bring some tights or thermal leggings to wear underneath.
However, the Japanese have some ingenious ways of keeping warm in cold houses. You’ll often be provided with an electric blanket to keep the chill away while you’re sleeping, but my favourite invention is the kotatsu.
The kotatsu is a heated tablecloth over a low Japanese dining table. You sit cross-legged with the hot blanket draped over your lap to keep your toes toasty. Bliss after a long day out in the cold!
Take warm clothes, especially socks, on your days out
Obviously you’re going to want to wrap up warm when you’re out and about sightseeing, but there’s one thing you should bring with you that you might not have thought of.
You probably know that wearing outdoor shoes in Japanese homes and ryokans is a big no-no.
The shoe ban also extends to many historic buildings, which often have open verandahs and no central heating. The wooden floors are going to be bone chillingly cold so make sure you’ve got some nice warm socks in your bag as the plastic slippers provided just don’t cut it!
Have I convinced you to visit Japan in winter? Which month would you pick? (After writing this article, my vote is now going to February!).