3 Magical Winter Destinations in Japan

Japan is an all-year round travel destination, with plenty of natural beauty and city adventures to enjoy whatever the weather, but winter is a particularly magical time to visit. We have three very different but equally exciting winter destinations to inspire your future travel plans to Japan. 

Whether you prefer to hit the slopes in snowy Hokkaido, take in the festive atmosphere in busy, buzzy Tokyo, or experience a slower pace of life in the picturesque region of Shirakawa-go, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Or perhaps you have enough time to take in all three destinations, for a truly unique Japanese winter travel experience.

Snow Festivals and Skiing in Hokkaido

Hokkaido is Japan’s northernmost island and has so much to offer visitors, especially during winter, and it’s easier to get to than you may think. From Tokyo the speediest way to reach Hokkaido’s capital, Sapporo, is by air, with flights taking around 90 minutes. If you want a more leisurely and scenic travel experience, then you can reach Sapporo in around eight hours by shinkansen (bullet train) to Hakodate, and a connecting train from there. 

Sapporo is a great base for a winter trip to Hokkaido. Explore the Christmas Markets during the festive season or visit the annual Sapporo Snow Festival in Odori Park, which will amaze you with intricate sculptures carved from ice – some of which are over 15 metres tall! 

Experience the sculptures lit up by dazzling multi-coloured light displays set to music, as well as ice-skating, snow slides, snow rafting, and plenty of delicious food and drink too. It’s a unique experience that attracts visitors from all over the world each year, and is definitely not to be missed if you’re in Hokkaido during February. 

Sapporo snow festival by annintofu: https://flic.kr/p/r52mKt

Otaru’s Snow Light Festival runs for ten days, usually at the same time as the Sapporo Snow Festival, making it easy to visit both if you’re in Hokkaido during February. Explore the city after dark and soak up the romantic atmosphere as you wander along the canal which is illuminated by lanterns and lined with snow sculptures.

Otaru snow light path by WU Haoxiang: https://flic.kr/p/QQp85h

If it’s relaxation time you’re after, then head to Noboribetsu Onsen, a hot spring town in Shikotsu-Toya National Park. Checking into one of the town’s ryokan (inn style lodgings) and bathing outdoors in the soothing, thermal waters is a winter experience like no other. 

Hokkaido gets lots of snow during winter, making it the perfect destination for those who want to hit the slopes. Niseko is easily accessible from Sapporo and is officially Japan’s #1 snow resort, with plenty of powdery snow and amazing views of Mt. Yotei.

Ski Niseko by Miki Yoshihito: https://flic.kr/p/T1yky9

City Lights and Christmas Markets in Tokyo

A trip to Tokyo during December will immerse you in an atmosphere which can’t fail to put a smile on your face and get you in the festive mood. Shop til you drop in one of the best shopping cities in the world, soak up the festivities in a charming Christmas market, or gaze starry-eyed at the sparkly winter illuminations lighting up the streets as you explore. 

Wherever you are in Tokyo, you won’t be far from the sparkly lanterns lighting up trees and buildings, and dazzling light displays. There are a myriad of places to enjoy the illuminations, and two of the best are Tokyo Dome which also has an amusement park, and Tokyo Midtown where you can go ice skating too.  

Tokyo midtown by annintofu: https://flic.kr/p/2hZwVzH

Christmas markets are popular in Germany and neighbouring countries, and since 2015, the Tokyo Christmas Market in Hibiya has been bringing a little bit of Europe to Japan’s capital. 

The Tokyo Christmas Market runs until 25 December and has a cosy, festive atmosphere, with twinkly lights, festive decorations, hand-crafted products, mulled wine and other tasty food and treats. You’ll even get to feast your eyes on a huge pyramid-style Christmas tree which was brought to Tokyo all the way from Germany. The Roppongi Christmas Market is also popular, and was inspired by the Stuttgart Christmas Market in Germany. 

If you’re a fan of Disney then Christmas at Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea is not to be missed, with festive parades, fireworks, lights displays and performances from Mickey and Friends to enjoy. 

Tokyo Disneysea by nagi usano: https://flic.kr/p/8Z8iWP

Winter Wonderland in Shirakawa-go

For a completely different experience, away from the bright lights and busy streets of Tokyo, why not step back in time and head to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Shirakawa-go and nearby Gokayama?

Surrounded by mountains, the region’s picturesque villages are particularly photogenic during winter, as snow settles on the rooftops of the gassho-zukuri farmhouses. The design of these traditional farmhouses is unique to the region, and has been developed over generations to feature large, arched, thatched roofs supported by wooden beams, which cope well with the heavy snowfall during winter. 

Shirakawa-go by Robert Walch: https://flic.kr/p/9mGvbZ

You can enjoy a traditional rural experience by staying overnight in a gassho-zukuri, some of which are almost 300 years old. These minshuku lodgings are similar to ryokan (Japanese inns) but are more simple in style. They are run by friendly hosts who often share their knowledge about the area and provide visitors with delicious, rustic meals made from locally produced ingredients. 

Although not accessible by train, Ogimachi is the region’s largest and most popular village and is situated between Kanazawa on the coast, and Takayama in the mountains. Winter here is much quieter than in spring and autumn, so it’s the perfect time of year to get a taste of traditional Japan and beat the crowds. 

Shirakawago by Koichi Hayakawa: https://flic.kr/p/2iT8y1b

We’d love to find out whether you’ve visited any of these beautiful winter destinations in Japan. Let us know in the comments below!

Header image: Otaru canal by Dongki: https://flic.kr/p/qjxazA 

Words by Emily Lovell