Our natural inclination might be to stay indoors during winter, but Japan offers such a wide range of cold climate destinations, from skiing off piste in Hokkaido’s Niseko to soaking in onsen in Nagano. Here’s a selection of locations well worth the trek.
Skiing and snowboarding
Niseko, in southwestern Hokkaido, is blanketed each winter by over 15 meters of snow, making it a prime location for ski resorts. The area has a wealth of options with more than 50 runs, almost 40 lifts and around 50 km of groomed slopes, not to mention vast swathes of back-country awesomeness.
The 1998 Winter Olympics put Nagano Prefecture and Hakuba on the map for snow sports and they remain a top skiing destination. Located in the Northern Japan Alps, Hakuba is one of the most popular resort areas in the prefecture with nine resorts and about 200 different ranging from advanced mogul runs to easy slopes for kids.
About an hour’s drive northwest of the prefectural capital of Morioka, Appi has seemingly got everything: spectacular views, abundant snow, efficient lifts, fabulous food, stunning designs, hundreds of rooms and friendly, English-speaking staff. All of these features attract skiers from around the world.
Fukushima’s Mount Bandai tends to attract families and all levels of skiers who enjoy its variety of runs and proximity to its luxurious resort hotel. Nekoma is tailored to challenge more advanced skiers with some challenging mogul runs, steep slopes and tantalizing jumps.
Yamagata’s Zao resort is a colossal skiing and snowboarding area tucked away in Tohoku. The mountain used to be maintained by several companies, but now visitors only need one pass to access all of the lifts. Keep an eye out for the famous juhyo snow monsters, snow-covered pines that hold great dollops of crystallized rain, creating fantastical shapes.
While Nagano and Hokkaido seem to steal most of the winter sports spotlight, there are still plenty of worthwhile options in Gunma and Niigata prefectures, appealing to both veteran snowboarders seeking back-country powder and amateur snow bunnies.
Wintertime in Sapporo brings numerous snow- and ice-themed events, including the famous Sapporo Snow Festival. Usually taking place in early February, the festival attracts about 2 million visitors to the city who want to see the huge snow sculptures that turn Sapporo into a winter wonderland.
While you can’t climb Mount Fuji outside of summertime, winter is the best time to see it due to clearer skies and a guaranteed snow-capped peak. Easily accessible by bus or rail from Tokyo, the Fuji Five Lakes area offers plenty of angels for travelers and photographers to enjoy.
This traditional Japanese village in Gifu Prefecture is enjoyable year round but is most popular with travelers when the town’s famous thatched roofs are covered in snow. You should plan to stay overnight at one of the farmhouses to see the historic hamlet, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, lit up at night.
Aso has long been associated with relaxation and recovery; its oldest inns and hot-spring establishments date back to the late 1800s. Besides viewing the active volcano covered in snow, millions of visitors come to Mount Aso each year to sample its newer treats, including eating ice cream, yogurt and steak at Aso’s many dairy farms.
Meaning “the end of the Earth” in Ainu, the Shiretoko Peninsula is a 70-km-long finger of land that is one of the wildest and most remote areas of Japan. Wintertime sees the Sea of Okhotsk choked solid with ice and along with a chance to catch a glimpse of sea lions in this World Heritage Site.
Tokyo isn’t the only city in Japan with major illumination celebrations. Other popular spots include Osaka’s Festival of Light, Kobe’s Luminarie, Tochigi’s Flower Fantasy at the Ashikaga Flower Park and Nagasaki’s Kingdom of Light.
Located southwest of Tokyo, Hakone is famous as a hot-spring heaven. Dozens of onsen are sprinkled throughout the area with a few standouts including the Sounzan Onsen located at the top of a mountain; Yumoto Onsen, the oldest and largest in the area; and the sulfurous water at Gora Onsen.
This ancient spa in a remote Nagano valley has kept true to its origins and resisted the temptation to become just another stereotypical stretch of glitzy hotels and souvenir shops. The mineral baths of Bessho have been attracting travelers for at least 1,000 years with a variety of options to choose from.
Aomori, Iwate, Akita, Yamagata, Miyagi and Fukushima are places to get away from it all, to experience nature and relax at one of the region’s numerous onsen. The region has a myriad of hot springs including Sukayu, a ski lodge famous for its “1,000-person bath.”
There are many onsen options in Shimosuwa, including ryokan, bath houses and private houses. Guarded by a statue of the town’s famous Kanayaki Jizo, the public bathhouse, known as Yusen House, is by far the largest and busiest of the public onsen.