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With world-class resorts and enviable powder conditions, Japan is a mecca for ski-lovers. In fact, we’d wager that it’s the best place in the world to take to the slopes. But maybe treating mountains like enormous adult slides isn’t your style; you’d rather celebrate the snow from a hot tub, steaming sake in hand with views of the mountain from afar.
Or perhaps you are all about the slopes – too much if anything. You want to go skiing every January (forever), but could do with a bit of a cultural counterpoint. Japan’s got you. Here are just a few of the best things to do in winter instead of (or as well as) skiing.
1. Try snowshoeing
Want to get up close and personal with the white stuff, at a steady pace, with plenty of chance to take in the view? Give snowshoeing a go. Trek around small villages, breathing in that crisp mountain air, and learn about local culture – such as traditional satoyama farming. It’s skiing’s friendly, less adrenaline-fuelled distant cousin.
2. Meet the snow monkeys of Yudanaka Onsen
The macaques of Jigokudani National Park live in some very chilly climes, a raw end of the deal as far as monkeys go. It can be a hard life, but they’re a canny bunch, and have found an optimistic way to embrace the cold – taking a dip in the onsen (hot spring bath). As temperatures drop, they ease the shivers by sinking into nature’s own hot tub. It’s not all bad, then.
3. Eat (and drink) at an izakaya
Adjust your eyes to the low lighting and warm up with a few hours at a lively izakaya (Japanese pub). With extensive tapas-style menus, there’s nothing to lose by taking a chance on everything to find your favourite dish. With plentiful sake on offer, you may not even feel the cold when you leave…
4. Admire snow-covered castles
Japan is home to beautifully preserved castles offering an entrance to a bygone era. Climb storeys of stairs to the top and, once there, look out over your estate below and to the horizon beyond; just as residents would have done hundreds of years ago. Whether it’s crossing the vermilion bridge over the icy moat of Matsumoto (the “Black Crow” castle), or exploring Himeji Castle’s elaborate gardens in the snow, in winter a castle visit can be particularly magical.
5. Step back in time in quaint villages
There are places in Japan where it seems that a clock rang its final chime and time simply stood still. Takayama is a case in point. Stroll down narrow streets with low wooden-framed shops, and step beyond the noren curtains to pick up a souvenir, learn about crafts, or fill up on local feasts.
It might feel like the olden days, but don’t forget your camera. Not only does it have quaint little streets (without a car in sight), the countryside is dotted with thatched houses, all framed by vast snowy mountains – when the roofs get frosty or snowflakes start to fall, the whole place is pretty as a postcard.
6. Visit temples (without the tourists)
Everyone knows that Kyoto temples are a must-see in Japan but, as the worst-kept secret, you can expect crowds in peak season. Go in winter for more space to explore, take photographs and indulge in a snowball fight (although, if it is really really quiet, it might be a little one-sided).
7. Stay at a ryokan
Staying at a ryokan is a lovely experience, whatever the weather. But there’s nothing quite like whiling away time in an onsen (hot spring bath), and sleeping soundly under bundles of bedclothes on a cosy futon in winter.
8. Learn a new skill
Spend some time inside to learn a skill that you could only master in Japan. Noodles are a big part of Japanese cuisine, and there are endless varieties. One of the most popular types is soba – filling, delicious and versatile. Learn how to whip up a dish at lunchtime, then chow down your creations to fuel the rest of the day’s sightseeing.
9. Go on public transport! (You may just see Mount Fuji)
Japan’s infrastructure is second to none, and their shinkansen (bullet train) is world-renowned for its speed and efficiency. As well as being the perfect way to traverse the length and breadth of the country in no time at all, when travelling between Kyoto and Tokyo in winter, Mount Fuji often emerges from behind the clouds! It regularly succumbs to shyness at other times of the year.
Another way to see some of the loveliest sights, while doing nothing at all, is on the Highway Bus from Matsumoto to Takayama. It wends its way into the Japanese Alps past rivers and dams, all through the path of snow-dusted firs.
10. Take part in a tea ceremony
Dating back to the 12th century, tea ceremonies are an important and revered part of Japanese culture. A lesson in this elaborate ritual will see you preparing powdered matcha green tea with a master, or even a geisha. These considered movements will leave you more mindful of your cuppa than ever before. In winter, a carefully crafted mug of the green stuff will also warm you up no end.