Many people think of Japan as a place to visit in the warmer months. But Winter in Japan shouldn’t be missed either. There are some great winter vacation spots and each has their own unique celebration of the season. Several areas of Japan are known for winter activities, but these five really stand out.
Sapporo is located on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido and was the site of the Winter Olympics in 1972. Sapporo gets very cold in the winter and has one of the highest snowfalls in the nation. It’s popular with winter sports enthusiasts, and its proximity to three major ski resorts make it especially popular with skiers and snowboarders. Another huge draw is the week-long Sapporo Snow Festival (called Sapporo Yuki Matsuri), held every February. The festival features a snow-sculpting competition that draws competitors from all over the world. Held in Sapporo Odori Park, the festival is one of the largest of its kind in Japan and sculptures can be over three stories high!
In 1998, Nagano was also the site of the Winter Olympics. The region is known for its high annual snowfall and light, powdery snow, making it a popular skiing destination. In fact, Nagano is located in what is known as Japan’s “snow country”. But Nagano is not just limited to skiing. It has many other unique winter festivities to enjoy. One of the most popular is the Matsumoto Castle Ice Sculpture Festival held every January. Not only can you see international teams compete in ice sculpting, you can visit the castle, which is deemed one of Japan’s national treasures. The castle also hosts other fun activities throughout winter, and includes things like sledding and winter illuminations. Another scenic spot to check out is the Shirakawa Ice Pillars, which are massive icicles created when the water flowing down Mt. Ontake freezes.
Also located in Japan’s snow country, Akita is famous for its winter kamakura fesitval. Kamakura are made of snow and shaped similar to an igloo. At the Yokote Kamakura Festival in Yokote, kamakura are set up throughout the city. Flickering lanterns often light the paths to the kamakura, and inside, visitors enjoy roasted rice crackers and sweet rice wine heated by charcoal grills. The festival is held annually in February, and has been a tradition for over 450 years. It’s a fun way to experience traditional Japan and interact with locals. Another great winter option in Akita is to visit an onsen. Onsen are naturally heated hot springs and their waters are said to have healing properties. There are many onsen in the area, but one of the most relaxing is Furusawa Onsen. In addition to the soothing baths, you can stay in a Japanese-style room and have fresh, regional cuisine. The onsen menu features a local favorite called kiritanpo-nabe, which is a hearty stew made with spring water as its base. And if that’s not reason enough, the onsen has the most adorable staff ever. In addition to the very friendly caretakers, two cute Akita dogs named Hana-chan and Haru-chan will welcome you.
This next recommendation involves cold weather and a lot of snow, but isn’t technically a winter activity. Toyama is known for its scenic landscape year-round, but one of the most popular activities happens in April and May. Because Toyama typically gets a huge amount of winter snowfall, several routes going through the mountains get closed for the Winter. When Spring comes, the route gets cleared, and the plowed snow creates a massive corridor with walls that can get almost 65 feet (about 20m) high! Called Yuki-no-Otani, these massive snow walls have become popular with visitors on the “Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route”, which runs between Toyama and Nagano and is open April 15th-November 30th.
Located about 1.5 hours from Tokyo by bullet train, Miyagi is a favorite of Tokyoites who want to get away for a winter weekend. One of the most scenic spots is Mount Zao in Yamagata, which is home to a hot spring and ski resort. Not only can you ski at Zao, the area is famous for its snow monsters, though it’s not what you think. Snow monsters are created when towering trees get completely covered in snow. Another draw of the area is its amazing seafood. Winter is prime time for fresh seafood here and a local favorite is oyster sourced from Matsushima, known as kaki ryori. In fact, oysters are so popular that there are several all-you-can-eat oyster restaurants and there’s an annual oyster festival in the beginning of February. If you don’t like raw oysters, a great dish to try is kaki-don, which is grilled oysters in a rich, slightly sweet sauce over rice.
So if you find yourself in Japan in Winter, or just love winter activities, check out one of these great travel destinations!
Video: bit Co’s “Alpine Route Yuki-no-Otani” (2017)
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