Move over cherry blossom – take a hike autumn leaves; winter is actually the best time to visit Japan. Here’s why...
11 Reasons Why Winter is the Time to Visit Japan
1. Fewer crowds
Let’s get this straight: Japan is crowded, no matter what the season. With so many people crammed into so little space (Japan is over 70% mountainous, so most of its population lives in the other 30%), crowds are just part of the Japan experience – especially in big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto. But head to Japan in the winter and you’ll find far fewer people than at any other time of year – in fact, you might even have some sights to yourself.
Like we said, Japan is overwhelmingly mountainous – which means it’s a paradise for snowsports. Hit the slopes in world-class Niseko on Hokkaido Island, swoosh down ex-Olympic runs in fantastic Hakuba, or opt for old-world Japanese charm at the lovely Nozawa Onsen. Plus, there’s no better apres-ski than soaking in a hot spring bath after a long day on the slopes.
3. Snow monkeys
Even if you know little about Japan, you’ve probably heard of these adorable residents: the snow monkeys of Jigokudani Monkey Park, near Yudanaka Onsen. These resourceful macaques have discovered that the best way to stave off the winter cold in the mountains is to soak in the natural hot springs that bubble up through the rocks here – and they have no objection to you paying them a visit.
4. Warm sake
You’ve probably had mulled wine – perhaps even mulled cider – but have you tried warm sake? It’s not to everyone’s taste, but this quintessential Japanese beverage is warming in more ways than one, and we love it.
5. Onsen hot spring baths
Hot spring baths are one of the best things about visiting Japan – at any time of year – but there’s simply nothing like a long, hot soak in winter. Get your kecks off and shuffle outside in the snow before sinking into the steamy water, snowflakes drifting around you: the perfect end to any day.
Ever heard of a kotatsu? Once you’re tried one, you’ll be wondering why everyone doesn’t have one. A kotatsu is basically a low table fringed with a thick quilt with a heater underneath it. Sit cross-legged with the quilt over your knees to warm your toes, or lie down beside it for a lovely warm nap. Some Japanese bars even provide kotatsu so you can sit outside and be toasty warm in winter. Delightful.
7. Sapporo Snow Festival
If you’re heading to Japan in February, it’d be a crime not to visit the Sapporo Snow Festival – called Yuki Matsuri in Japanese. Held in the city of Sapporo on northerly Hokkaido Island, the festival is celebrated by building giant sculptures out of ice and snow – not to mention plenty of festive food, drink, games and fun. Ever wanted to see a giant replica of the Great Pyramids in snow? Now you can.
8. Red-crowned Cranes
A little-known but utterly enchanting sight, the mating dance of the red-crowned cranes in Tsurui, Hokkaido, has to be one of the world’s most beautiful natural displays. Red-crowned cranes were once thought to be extinct in Japan, but here they are performing their astounding, choreographed mating ritual every winter – and you can be privy to it.
No-one does winter illuminations quite like Japan. As soon as the Halloween decorations are out of the shops, every tree, building and shop front is festooned with twinkling lights in every conceivable color, and some parks and gardens put on truly incredible spectacles using millions of bulbs. Tokyo Midtown in the capital, the Sagamiko Resort Pleasure Forest in Kanagawa, and the Nabana no Sato Winter Illumination near Nagoya are all particularly good.
This beautiful, chocolate-box-worthy village in the Japanese Alps is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and it’s never more beautiful than when cloaked in a blanket of snow, its steep-pitched wooden farmhouses looking like the gingerbread house out of Hansel and Gretel.
11. You can actually see Mount Fuji
Last but not least, winter is your best chance to catch a glimpse of the notoriously camera-shy Mount Fuji. Japan’s iconic mountain sits stubbornly behind a thick haze for most of the year, but the cool, crisp winter air means fewer clouds and a much better chance of seeing one of the most beautiful sights in Japan.