Winter vacation almost always conjures up images of sun-soaked beaches and palm trees blowing in the breeze. (And if that’s exactly what you’re after, check out our absolute favorite beach destination here!) There’s no disputing the appeal of basking in the vitamin D (and vitamin SEA – see what I did there?!), but there is also something romantic and charming about a true winter holiday, snow and all! So if you’re thinking of jetting off to a destination that’s a little different this winter season, keep reading…
I’m talking about walking through snow-capped pine forests, slurping up piping hot soup in a cozy noodle shop and soaking in a hot outdoor bath while snowflakes melt on your eyelashes.
With an impromptu week of vacation from our teaching jobs in Korea, we booked a cheap flight to Japan and hoped that it would be a decent choice for a trip in early February. Not only did Japan exceed our expectations, but traveling in the winter made it magical. I may be going out on a limb, but I am pretty darn confident when I say that Japan is a fantastic winter trip.
You might be surprised to hear Japan described as a cold weather destination, but we’re going to explain why, in fact, Japan makes a perfect winter getaway.
1. You can soak in an outdoor hot tub
Picture yourself soaking in a toasty pool of water under the stars. Steam billows up from the water as snowflakes kiss your shoulders. Sounds pretty magical, right? Oh, and I forgot one detail: you’re naked. Don’t worry – it’s seriously not as bad as it sounds. We jumped right in and got used to them in Korea, and found them to be pretty freeing actually.
Onsens are Japanese bathhouses that were once used as peoples’ main source of getting clean. But today, most onsens have morphed in to a relaxing, spa-like experience. Though you can visit these bathhouses year-round, you probably wouldn’t want to be submerged in steamy waters on a hot and sticky day in the summer months. In the wintertime, however, there are few things that sound better.
Do it yourself: There are onsens all around the country, but some of the best ones are in the Hakone region (near Mount Fuji). Prices vary depending on the view and the services offered. Hotel Green Plaza Hakone is known for having a fantastic view of iconic Mount Fuji. If you're on a budget and would prefer some privacy to cozy up to your honey, the Fuji Hakone Guesthouse offers a traditional ryokan experience and lets guests sign up for a time slot in the private onsite onsen so you’ll have it all to yourself. Check here for more great accommodation in Hakone.
2. It’s less crowded in the winter
With more than 13.5 million people living in Toyko alone (the largest city in the world), Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. The cherry blossoms in April bring in more than 1.5 million tourists each year and the already massive population swells to an obscene number, making it difficult (and expensive!) to book hotels and transportation.
Seeing the pastel flowers in full bloom would surely be an incredible experience, but those crowds may just drive me mad. You’ll likely have to fight through selfie sticks and wait hours for restaurants to clear out. Hotel prices skyrocket and booking last minute transportation can be near impossible. Oh, and imagine exploring the highest populated city in the world (aka Tokyo), rubbing shoulders with passersby in the sweltering heat of summer. Go when the crowds are fewer and the temperatures don't mean all day armpit sweat. Trust me, traveling Japan during the less crowded winter definitely has its benefits.
3. You can see snow monkeys! ‘Nuff said!
If you’ve Googled “Japan in the winter,” you’re almost guaranteed to see pictures of the famous snow monkeys of Jigokudani Monkey Park. They appear to be peacefully soaking in their very own onsen (or natural hot tub) and are sprinkled with flecks of snow. Well, this is one attraction that looks just like the pictures. And sure, you could visit the macaque monkeys in the summer, but they’re nicknamed “snow” monkeys for a reason. Just another reason to the Land of the Rising Sun in the winter months!
When we arrived to the trail entrance in early February, the park was an absolute dream. Snow covered the ground and fluttered lazily from the sky as we walked through a pine forest and past a babbling stream. It was pure magic. When we actually entered the part, the monkeys strolled alongside us, almost asking to be photographed. The best part was seeing them splash in the water as the young ones played tag with each other and the elders relaxed their old bones.
Do it yourself: From Tokyo, take the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen to Nagano Station (fastest 85 minutes). Then hop on the Nagano Dentetsu Line Limited Express train to Yudanaka Station (38 minutes). From there take a local bus to Kanbayashi Onsen bus stop (15 minutes). Then walk through the snowy forest (wear proper shoes) for about 35 minutes, and you'll arrive to at Jigokudani Monkey Park.
Budget Tip: If you are going to be visiting more places than just Tokyo and Nagano, it will be significantly cheaper to buy a JR Rail Pass. Find out how to book your JR Rail Pass before you arrive in Japan to save money on transportation!
Ethical Travel Tip: Please, please, please don’t feed these wild animals. They are fed by the park reserve to keep them healthy, but they can be very aggressive around any other food. There were some, shall we say, stupid teenagers who ignored the signs and brought a bunch of bananas and video cameras. Well, the result was not a pretty one and ended with blood speckling the snow. For more anecdotes and information on animal tourism, we've got the article just for you!
4. See snowy Mount Fuji
Oh, elusive Mount Fuji... She is a shy mountain who likes to hide behind clouds. But when she does show her face, oh boy, you’re in for a treat. If you’ve read our 1-week in Japan itinerary, you’ll know that we sadly reached her base on a day she wasn’t feeling so sociable. That b*tch.
The thing that really stung was our time in Japan was limited so we couldn’t stay an extra day. And it was on that day that the clouds parted and Mount Fuji’s peak was glistening in all her glory, I’m sure. It seems to always happens like that, doesn’t it?
The winter is a great time to see Mount Fuji because no other time of the year will she be sprinkled with a shiny white cap. When we go back to Japan, I want to return again in the winter with hopes to see her snowy peak.
But even if you can’t glimpse the iconic mountain, the small nearby towns in the Hakone region are surrounded by pine tree forests that are especially picturesque when dusted with glistening snow. Oh, and as I mentioned above (#1), the onsens are reason enough to make a trip to the Hakone region.
Do it yourself: The JR station nearest the Hakone region is Odawara Station. Thankfully, with the JR Pass, Tokyo to Odawara is just a short 70-minute free trip. However, to enter the Hakone region, you have to purchase the Hakone Free Pass, because there are no JR lines with the region. The Hakone Free Pass is the most cost-effective package that includes all bus tickets in the area, a (super touristy but kind of fun) pirate ship ride, and a gondola ticket that brings you up close and personal with the famous mountain. If you’re on a budget, we’d recommend staying at Fuji Hakone Guesthouse, which is a traditional ryoken-style accommodation with a private onsen. If your budget allows, Hotel Green Plaza Hakone looks absolutely fabulous (and we’d love to hear about it!).
5. Enjoy amazing skiing
Did you know that Japan boasts some of the best skiing and snowboarding in the world?! Yeah, me neither. With over 500 resorts sprinkled throughout a country that is smaller than California, you really don't have to go far to find good – no, GREAT – slopes. Some of the better mountains are in the northern regions like Hokkaido and Tohoku, but we have been told it's pretty killer, man all over Japan.
We've met some friends who are ski instructors during the winter in Japan and when the season closes there, they travel to Australia to start their season all over again for their winter. Pretty sick gig, right?!?
6. Slurp up hot yummy goodness
There is nothing better than escaping frigid temps than entering a cozy noodle shop and being welcomed by steaming hot pots and glorious smells. Oh, the smells. Everyone in the place will be belly up to the noodle bar, faces hovering over a sweltering bowl of steamy deliciousness. Join them and slurp up your new favorite wintertime dish. (Fun fact: slurping your noodle soup is considered polite in Japan, so go for it!) Visiting a noodle shop (or twenty!) is a must when in Japan – especially in the cold winter months. It’ll warm your tummy, your heart and your Rudolph nose!
Do it yourself: This is an easy one. Enter a shop. Order soup. Eat. Well, actually it can be a bit more complicated. On some areas of Tokyo for instance, there are no noodle shops for blocks and blocks, while other streets are teeming with so many that it’s a daunting task to choose one. For starters, check out this article that explains some of the best noodle shops in Tokyo – it does a great job of breaking down the atmosphere and specialties offered at each restaurant.
The other tricky part of this is that at some shops you’ll have to order your soup from a vending machine. You might have to decipher the menu by looking at the picture on the buttons (or ask someone friendly to help), inserting your yen, tapping your choice, and boom – it will print your receipt. Hand the receipt to a worker, find a seat and in less than 5 minutes you'll have your steaming bowl of piping hot noodle soup.
7. Mild temps
When I think of winter, I think of back home where we have huge mounds of snow, black ice on the roads and weather forecasts of -10 degrees F/-20 C (Man, I love Minnesota). But that’s not at all the case for winter in Japan. We traveled there in the dead of winter – beginning of February – and it got cold enough to snow in the mountains, but it didn’t stick to the ground. In the cities, the temperatures hovered between 40-50 F (5-10 C), so we were comfortable with just a light jacket outside.
8. Snow Festival
We literally missed this festival by 2 days. TWO DAYS. If you followed our journey while we were teaching in South Korea, you know that vacation days are not very flexible, and the fact that we got an entire week off after already taking a 17-day trip to the Philippines is really rare. We felt pretty lucky and decided not to push our luck.
But I have rambled… My point is that the Sapporo Snow Festival (which takes place annually usually in the beginning of February) looks so cool (literally!), we may just have to make a trip back to Japan specifically for this festival!
Taking place in the northern island of Hokkaido, snow and ice sculptures consume more than 1.5 kilometers of a busy downtown parkway. Festival lights turn on soon after dark and you can enjoy the ice slides, international food stalls, ice skating rink and, of course, giant snow murals!
If you’re lucky enough to be in Japan for this festival OHMYGOSH I would be SO jealous! Please tell us about it.
Do it yourself: Check out the Sapporo Snow Festival's English website for more details on what to do and the schedule of events.
Want more Japan Tips, Itineraries, Budgets and Resources?
If you’re planning a trip to Japan, be sure to check out our other resources. We have a complete 1-week itinerary, so the only planning you have to do is booking your flight! Plus, we’ve shared the breakdown of our budget and our favorite must do experiences in Japan. Are you a foodie? Then you can’t miss our list of foods to try in Japan! And don’t forget to read up on the Japan Rail Pass and how to book yours before your trip. We love Japan and would like nothing better than to help you plan your trip there!