Winter in Japan is a season of mystical natural views, wonderful scenery and heart-warming illumination festivals. If your trip to Japan is scheduled for the winter months and you are not so passionate about skiing, do not worry about what to do and where to go. From north to south there are numerous destinations whose highlights are best seen in the cold time of the year. In this article you will discover some popular as well as lesser-known exciting winter destinations in Japan. Dress warm and embark on a memorable winter journey!
The pastoral beauty of the farm village Shirakawa-go in winter
Shirakawa-go in Gifu prefecture is well known as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for its unique steep thatched-roof farm houses. The secret behind the peculiar roofs, which resemble hands pressed together for a prayer, is hidden in the severe snowfall that the mountainous valley gets every year. Only in winter you can see how the roofs of the farm houses withstand the snow. The picturesque view of snow-covered Shirakawa-go is best observed during the special light-up period held on selected days in January and February. The Shiroyama observatory located north of the village is most recommended for a wonderful panoramic view.
Feel like at the North Pole surrounded by Hokkaido’s drift ice
The drift ice of Okhotsk Sea in the north-eastern part of Hokkaido is a unique winter phenomenon that allows visitors to feel as if they are on an adventurous expedition to the North Pole. The ice comes from Siberia and flows down the Amur River in Russia to Hokkaido crossing the Okhotsk Sea. In January and February you can ride a sightseeing ice-breaker boat from Abashiri city and enjoy the mystical world of the drifting ice in the sea.
See the Snow Monsters of Zao, a rare and unique winter view
Zao Onsen in Yamagata prefecture is a hot spring town and a ski resort where something unique happens every winter. The heavy snowfall and the freezing winds collaborate to form peculiar shapes over the densely forested mountain slopes. The final result resembles fearful snow-made monsters in various shapes. This phenomenon is best seen around February and there is even a night-time illumination enhancing the spectacular impression.
Play with snow at the Yunishigawa Onsen Kamakura Festival
There are several places in rural Japan where traditional snow-made igloo-like houses called “kamakura” are erected during the winter months. While the most famous kamakura destination is Yokote in Akita prefecture, the closest to Tokyo is in Yunishigawa Onsen in Tochigi prefecture, not far from the famous town Nikko. From January until March, visitors can play with snow at the local snow theme parks during the day and experience dining in the romantic atmosphere of a snow-made kamakura house at night.
Japan’s nostalgic era revived at the scenic hot spring town Ginzan Onsen
Ginzan Onsen is a small hot spring town nestled deep in Yamagata prefecture’s mountains. What makes it different than many others are the retro streets with wooden inns and the nostalgic atmosphere of a bygone era expressed through efforts of preserving the traditional townscape. At Ginzan Onsen you can soak in an outdoor hot spring pool while watching the snow-covered landscape, or take an evening stroll around the old streets lit by gas lamps. This is one of the best destinations to experience traditional Japanese atmosphere!
Hokkaido’s abundance of snow festivals
Those who seek cultural experiences in winter should look no further than Hokkaido. The large island attracts thousands of local and international visitors every year with its numerous snow festivals. Travelers can choose between various destinations ranging from the international Sapporo Snow Festival to smaller and community-based celebrations such as the Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival. The highlights include giant snow sculptures, ice art, snow theme parks with slides, as well as night-time illuminations. February is the best timing because one can visit almost all snow festivals (in Sapporo, Otaru, Asahikawa, Lake Shikotsu) within one trip.
Unique illumination at Kyoto’s Kibune Shrine
Kibune Shrine, located in the forested valley north of Kyoto, is well known as a place for retreat from the summer heat and relaxation in the open nature. However, in winter nights this sanctuary offers a rare type of illumination: lights around the shrine and the stone staircase that leads up to the main hall are lit only when plenty of snow has piled up! The decision whether to produce the romantic illumination effect is taken every afternoon depending on the snow conditions. Don’t miss your chance to head towards Kibune Shrine if you happen to be in Kyoto on a snowy day!
There are so many things to do in Japan in winter!
Many more winter events and snow-related festivals are held in Japan during the cold months of the year. In addition to the ones listed above, you can experience outdoor activities such as riding a dog sled, smelt fishing in an ice-covered lake, or dining in a real ice-made restaurant. Explore Japan’s beauties in winter and discover wonderful sights that will warm up your heart!
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