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Japan might be known for its beautiful sakura in spring and colorful leaves in autumn, but it is also very famous for light and fluffy snow which is suitable for skiing and snowboarding, sparkling illumination festivals and traditional onsen towns making it an ideal destination for winter as well. So why don’t we embrace the coldness and visit the most charming towns across Japan this winter?

otaru canal hokkaido winter destination japan

1. Hakodate, Hokkaido

The southern city of Hokkaido is a gateway that connects the island with mainland Honshu. Like other cities in Hokkaido, Hakodate has a lot of snow in winter which transforms the city into a winter wonderland. The main highlight of Hakodate is a panoramic view from the top of Mount Hakodate where you can see the beautiful city surrounded by the bay. The city in white snow contrasting with the blue ocean is a breathtaking view that you shouldn’t miss. You can also wait a bit for the sunset and see a different night view with lights illuminated by the city.

Hakodate is also known for Goryokaku, a star-shaped fort. You can walk in the fort and visit the nearby Goryokaku Tower where you can enjoy the top view of the entire fort which is one of the most famous cherry blossom viewing spots in Hokkaido in spring. You can also see colorful foliage in autumn and the fort entirely covered in snow in winter.

If you are a seafood lover, don’t miss the Hakodate Morning Market and eat plenty of fresh seafood like uni (sea urchin), oysters, hairy crabs and octopus. You should also try the famous salt-based Hakodate ramen and soft-serve ice cream made of dairy products in Hokkaido. They even have their own local burger chain called Lucky Pierrot whose Chinese Chicken Burger has once named the best local burger in Japan.

Bonus: You can also take a 4-hour express train to Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido where you can enjoy the city covered in snow as well as the beautiful Sapporo Winter Illumination and Sapporo Snow Festival in February. Around half an hour from Sapporo, Otaru is a small city with a canal area with preserved old buildings along the cobblestone road.

shirakawago snow town japan

2. Shirakawa-go, Gifu

If we are talking about one of the most scenic views in Japan, the one with triangular thatched roofs in the thick snow is possibly one of the most well-known views that we all can think of. This UNESCO World Heritage site is famous for its gassho-zukuri farmhouses dating back for several decades. 

Besides visiting Wada House, the biggest building in the village which now serves as a museum, you can also walk along the main street—Shirakawa Kaido—until you cross the bridge and reach Gassho-Zukuri Minkaen, an open-air museum with lots of farmhouses standing in the snow. You can also take a bus (or walk up the hill) to Shiroyama Viewpoint where you can see the entire village from the top. 

The main event of the village is Shirakawa-go Winter Light-Up highlighting the beautiful farmhouses against the white snow. However, due to the massive crowds in recent years, it is necessary to stay overnight at one of the farmhouses which is definitely one of a kind experience that you should not miss if you can spend more than a day in Shirakawa-go. 

Bonus: There are also many local buses in the area linked between the village and other towns. Takayama is known for its preserved old town Sannomachi which is filled with Edo-period buildings, crafts shops and restaurants where you can try the famous Hida beef. You can also go as far as Shinhotaka Ropeway and Matsumoto. 

kawaguchiko japan

3. Kawaguchiko, Yamanashi

Lake Kawaguchi is one of the most famous lakes among Fuji Five Lakes because it is very convenient to travel from Tokyo either by train or bus. The lake might be more famous in spring due to cherry blossoms or in autumn because of the beautiful foliage in Momiji Tunnel. However, as the sky is clearer in winter, the chance of seeing Mount Fuji and its snowcap is pretty high (we still recommend checking the weather forecast before going there).

There are retro sightseeing buses that run along the lake. You can drop by Mount Fuji Panorama Ropeway to see the scenic view of Mount Fuji and Lake Kawaguchi from above. The other popular stop is Kawaguchiko Music Forest Music where you can listen to the music from a gigantic organ and enjoy the European-style garden with Mount Fuji as a background. At the end of the red bus route, Oishi Park has a cafe with, of course, a Mount Fuji view as well as a big flower garden. Sadly the beautiful red kochia can’t be seen in winter.

There are several onsen places with a view of Mount Fuji you can enjoy. If you decide not to stay the night in the hotels or ryokans, there are still many day-use onsens you can dip in. After finishing the hot spring bath, you shouldn’t miss the local dish called Hoto—miso soup with flat thick noodles which can be found mostly only in Yamanashi.

best onsen destinations in japan

4. Ginzan Onsen, Yamagata

Ginzan Onsen is probably one of the most famous onsen towns among Japanese people as well as foreign tourists. The beautiful wooden ryokans and gas lamps spread along the river and give a nice atmosphere of an old Japanese town. Even though you can come here all year round, winter is the best season as the hot spring can warm your body and the snow-covered town can warm your soul.

You can easily go to Ginzan Onsen with JR Yamagata Shinkansen from Tokyo which would take around 3 hours to JR Oishida station before taking a 40-minute bus to the onsen town. Most onsens are reserved for guests who stay in town overnight. However, there are a few public baths that day-trip tourists still can enjoy.

Bonus: Yamagata really has plenty of onsen towns. The other recommended place is Zao Onsen whose spring water has a high acidity which is good for your skin. This onsen town is also famous for Zao Onsen Ski Resort which offers a wide range of difficulties for skiers and snowboarders. Moreover, you can take a ropeway to see Snow Monsters, snow-covered trees that look like monsters due to a rare natural phenomenon.

Check out: Best Tattoo-Friendly Onsen and Sento in Tokyo and Yokohama

5. Yuzawa, Niigata

Yuzawa is known as “yukiguni” or the snow country due to the heavy snowfall. It is one of the most famous ski areas in Japan which can be easily accessed from Tokyo within 2 hours. There are many ski resorts in Yuzawa where you can choose to either ski or snowboard on the various levels so it’s very convenient whether you are still a beginner or already a pro. Besides snow resorts, Yuzawa is also famous for sake and onsen where you can dip in a hot bath while watching the snowfall. 

Moreover, you should stop by Kiyotsu Gorge which is considered one of the most beautiful gorges in Japan. You can easily walk into the 750-meter tunnel to see the magnificent view from different platforms which are filled with lights and art installations. At the end of the tunnel, the artwork called Tunnel of Light is the highlight of the place as the stainless steel panels and the pool of water on the floor reflect the magnificent scenic view of the gorge.

6. Kyoto, Kyoto

The old capital is beautiful all year round and it is always flooded with local and international visitors. However, all the traditional buildings are even more beautiful when they are covered in snow. You can imagine how pretty and magnificent the gold pavilion of Kinkaku-ji or the red torii gates of Fushimi Inari Taisha looks against the white snow.

Kyoto also has so many events in winter. You can see colorful lanterns and illuminations on Togetsukyo Bridge and Arashiyama bamboo forest in December. You can also visit Kifune Shrine on snowy days to see the red lamps lit along the long stone stairs. Moreover, you can also enjoy plum blossoms at the end of February in many places such as the Kitano Tenmangu shrine.

Since it can be very cold in Kyoto, what is a better way to find the coldness than having warm local food. One of the most famous dishes in Kyoto (besides matcha, of course) is Yudofu or tofu boiled in just water and kelp. It might sound simple but the tofu is packed with a rich flavor. You can also try Kyoto-style tonkotsu ramen, saba sushi, conger eel and Obanzai—seasonal local vegetables served in various small dishes.

ishikawa snow in japan

7. Kanazawa, Ishikawa

The capital of Ishikawa is known to have the best sushi in the country as Kanazawa faces the Sea of Japan and has plenty of varieties of fish in the sea. You can enjoy fresh and delicious sushi at many conveyor belt sushi places at a very reasonable price. Moreover, you can try Kanazawa oden which is cooked with local products such as baigai whelk and a stuffed female snow crab called Kani-men. You can also try soft serve ice cream topped with gold leaf, which Kanazawa is famous for.

Besides delicious food, Kanazawa is also home to Kenrokuen Garden which is considered one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan. In winter, the pine trees in the garden are covered by Yukitsuri, a special technique to protect the trees from the snow which looks like a beautiful dome structure against the white snow that covers all of the parks. You can also visit at night to see the colorful illumination as well.

Kanazawa also preserves its long history through architecture. You can travel back in time to a samurai district called Nagamachi,  or check out cafes and shops in a former geisha district called Higashi Chaya.

onsen gunma snow town

8. Kusatsu Onsen, Gunma

Another famous onsen town is Kusatsu Onsen where its high-quality water spring is known for the healing ailment. The main water source comes from Yubatake in the middle of the town where hot spring water is cooled down before flowing down like waterfalls to various facilities in town. At night, this wooden Yubatake is also lit up which makes it beautiful in a different way.

Not very far from Yubatake, you can watch the show called Yumomi, a traditional dance to cool down the hot spring water with wooden boards which has been practiced for hundreds of years in Netsu-no-Yu. After a hot bath, why don’t you stroll around town and stop by local shops and restaurants where you can try onsen manju, the bun that is steamed by a hot spring?

Kusatsu Onsen also becomes a famous ski resort in winter. There are several slopes for everyone from beginners to pro players. The ski resort also provides night skiing and you can also see Mount Fuji if the sky is clear as well.

nagano monkey park

9. Jigokudani Monkey Park, Nagano

It is a bit hard to go to this “Hell Valley” but seeing the snow monkeys or Japanese macaques casually bathing in the hot spring is totally worth it. Even though the park itself opens all year round, the snow monkeys appear only in winter, especially between December and March.

Without your own car, you have to take a bus from Yudanaka or Nagano station. Once you arrive at the bus stop, you still need to walk around half an hour to Monkey Park. Along the way, you can enjoy the lovely village before entering the walking trail which requires proper walking gear in winter.

Bonus: When you take a bus to Monkey Park, you will pass Shibu Onsen, a historical hot spring town dating back more than 400 years. The most interesting thing about this town is that all 9 public baths in town are locked (the only exception for O-yu which day-trip guests can use). Only the locals and tourists who stay in the ryokans will receive the key to unlock all the doors. Each onsen is believed to have different healing powers so it is really fun to dip in all the (extremely hot) baths and collect the stamps from each place.

10. Nabana no Sato, Mie

Possibly one of the largest and most famous illumination events in Japan, Nabana no Sato is held in Kuwana, only half an hour from Nagoya by train. The event features millions of LED lights portraying the beauty of mountains, and flowers, as well as the whimsical tunnel of lights and many more illuminations you can enjoy.

Even though the event is held between October and May, this flower theme park is famous all year round due to its gigantic flower garden or botanical area which has various types of plants and flowers you can observe. It also has an onsen, outlet mall and restaurants as well. In the middle of the park, you can go up to Island Fuji, the observation platform that allows you the entire panoramic view of the park.

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With so many things to explore, are you considering living in Japan — perhaps to go to university or work? Enrolling at a Japanese language school might be the perfect option for you, as it will prepare you to get to your next goal.

If you are ready, let Coto School Finder assist you in finding the right program in the city of your choice and applying for a student visa — for free! Contact us by filling out the form!

Contact Us to
Get Started

With so many things to explore, are you considering living in Japan — perhaps to go to university or work? Enrolling at a Japanese language school might be the perfect option for you, as it will prepare you to get to your next goal.

If you are ready, let Coto School Finder assist you in finding the right program in the city of your choice and applying for a student visa — for free! Contact us by filling out the form!