InsideJapan Tours’s Mark Johnson, knows his stuff. Having lived in rural Yamaguchi for a few years, travelled the country from top to toe and worked with the Japan travel specialists for over ten years, it’s fair to say that Mark is a Japan travel expert. Winter in Japan starts around late November and runs through until around early March but is SORELY underrated as a time to travel. Mark spills the beans and tells us more...
A WINTER WONDERLAND
One of the questions I get asked the most as a Senior Travel Consultant is when is the best season to travel to Japan. Everyone loves cherry blossom and the pretty amazing autumn leaves, but in my opinion, one of the best seasons to travel is winter…and here’s a few reasons as to why….
COLD IS GOLD
Winter is a great time to explore the country, provided you're prepared to travel in cold weather and a bit of snow. The winter weather is generally cold, but skies are often incredibly blue. In fact, statistics suggest that the colder weather and clearer skies mean that you are much more likely to get a peek of the peak of snow-capped Mt. Fuji during winter than in any other season. You can never not be impressed with a glimpse of the sacred mountain as you whizz pass on the Shinkansen, fly over the top in a plane, or admire it from a ryokan next to one of Fuji’s five lakes. Though the cold weather can initially put some people off, winter is generally much cheaper. It also means that compared to the busy cherry blossom and autumn leaf seasons, it is a lot quieter and feels like even more of an adventure.
(JR Tadami Line)
Some of the major sites in Kyoto get quite busy these days, but if you head there in winter, there is likely to be less people which means less queuing for the very popular sights and a more atmospheric experience at temples and gardens. A sprinkling of snow on Kyoto’s famous Kinkakuji is celebrated by locals and looks beautiful. And if you are not a fan of the freeze, then you can always jump on a flight to the subtropical islands in Okinawa for some snorkelling in Ishigaki or perhaps jungle adventure in Iriomote.
LET IT SNOW
If it is snow you want, snowfall is pretty much guaranteed in the north and at higher elevations. The northern island of Hokkaido has ideal conditions for winter sports with some of the best powder snow on earth at popular resorts like Niseko and Furano – Niseko gets an average of 14 metres of snow dumped on it each season which is huge. There are also some great resorts on mainland Honshu in the Japanese Alps. Hakuba is perhaps the most famous, but Nozawa Onsen is one of our favourite resorts in Japan and where winter sports and culture meet. After a day on the slopes, take advantage of the après ski, Japan style – ease those aching muscles in a traditional hot spring bath, eat good food, drink good sake and belt out some karaoke. This is how ski season should be done. Not far away, 1300m up in Shinhotaka, try something different and clip on your snowshoes for a hike and views across the Chubu Sangaku National Park. Getting to Shinhotaka itself is an experience with the double decker Shinhotaka cable car which climbs over 1000m.
OPEN AIR BATHS
Yes that’s correct. Getting into your birthday suit and jumping into one of Japan’s naturally fed hot springs or ‘onsen’…outdoors. The onsen culture is a deeply entrenched part of Japanese life and there is nothing quite like braving sub-zero temperatures to sit in a outdoor bath or ‘rotenburo’, with an impressive mountain backdrop or garden, enjoying the warmth of the water and the snow fall around you. There are hundreds of onsen across Japan. Some traditional Ryokan guest houses have onsen baths you can use also as part of the cultural experience. Picture postcard scenes can be found in famous hot spring towns such as Kinosaki Onsen north of Kyoto and Ginzan Onsen in the northern Tohoku region or at famous resorts such as Hakone, not far from Tokyo and in the shadow of Mt Fuji.
People love the so called, ‘snow monkeys’ that sit in hot spring baths in the town of Yudanaka in the central alps – not far from Nagano. Head to the Jigokudani monkey park and you will usually find the Japanese Macaque bathing in hot spring pools and grooming each other. In case you are wondering, no you can’t share the baths with the monkeys. Although the monkey park is open all year round, it is most atmospheric when there is snow on the ground…and they aren’t ‘snow monkeys’ without snow.
There are some pretty impressive winter festivals in Hokkaido especially. The Sapporo Snow festival (7 days in February) attracts visitors from all over the world and showcases impressive snow sculptures, often 20 metres high and 30 metres wide. There are lot of other smaller winter festivals around Hokkaido around the same time and with less visitors. The Asahikawa Winter Festival, the Sounkyo Waterfall Ice Festival and the Otaru Lantern Festival are all impressive in their own way, but all celebrate the white stuff that Hokkaido is renowned for. Back down in Nagano in the Japanese Alps, the week long Tomyo lantern festival is held in February when the historic 1400 year old Zenkoji temple – one of our favourite places to stay in the city – is brought to life with dramatic lighting effects. Just one more example of impressive winter celebrations.
Winter creates some pretty amazing scenes in Hokkaido, but the wildlife makes it even more impressive. The majestic red crowned cranes found in in the Kushiro Shitsugen National Park put on an elaborate display that could easily be choreographed. Over towards the Shiretoko peninsula, keen birders may catch a glimpse of the rare Blakiston Fish Owl. Off the peninsula on the Sea of Okhotsk, jump on an ice-breaker cruise and cut through the drift-ice where you’ll find gathering White tailed Sea Eagles and Stellar Sea Eagles as they hunt and feed.
WARMTH OF HOSPITALITY
When the cold gets too much, retreat to the comfort of your own room and relax under your Kotatsu - a low heated table found in many traditional inns – enjoying a hot cup of green tea or warm sake. If sake is your thing, you're also going at exactly the right time, as winter is the only time sake can be made and you're getting it at its freshest. After an onsen bath and your room-served traditional dinner, observing the snow through the window of your warm ryokan room is maybe one of the best ways to enjoy the winter, not just in Japan, but in general.
Memories waiting to be made.