Winter in Japan

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Escape the crowds and experience winter in Japan. Tour leader Steve Parker shares his top tips for this magical season in the most recent issue of East, our in-house travel magazine.

Winter in Japan?

Winter might not spring to mind as the best time to visit Japan, but eschewing the cherry blossom crowds, humid summer and autumn leaf mania has it rewards. Only in winter can you watch rare birds dance, meet cheeky monkeys, take to the slopes on fresh powder snow and see the elusive Mount Fuji.

Mount Fuji: Spot the summit

Mount Fuji, Japan

Mount Fuji; this looming volcano is a symbol of Japan, it’s snowy summit always framed by cherry blossom, reflected in a lake or sloping down to a city below in photographs. It’s on a checklist for lots of visitors, but the highest mountain in Japan is also surprisingly shy. Due to cloud cover and rising humidity levels, it is often tantalisingly close, but completely hidden.

In January and February though, the clearest blue skies reveal the mountain behind the mist. You can get a bird’s eye view from the plane, see it from all angles through the window of a shinkansen or spot it in the distance from a Tokyo hotel window or high-rise observation deck.

Hit the slopes

Snowboarding in Japan

The glorious, reliable, too-powdery-to-make-a-snowball-with snow has made Japan a magnet for ski-lovers and snowboarders from the southern hemisphere. With a terrain that is 70 percent mountainous, and extremely cold Siberian airstreams that sweep across the sea creating copious fluffy drifts, Japan’s unique conditions provide the best of the white stuff.

There are a huge number of places to hit the slopes across the country, ranging from small mountain villages with a couple of runs, up to huge resorts with buzzing nightlife. The Japanese do love skiing but tend to go at the weekend, so between Monday and Friday you might hitch a ride in the ski lift and peer over the mountains without another track in sight.

Skiing in Niseko

Out of hundreds of ski resorts across Japan, there are three in particular that stand out. Niseko up in Hokkaido is known for off-piste skiing and challenging terrain, but with four main ski areas there are options for all abilities. The resort has a village atmosphere, so in the evening you can head to one of the many restaurants and bars.

The other two are down in Honshu. Hakuba is best known for hosting the Winter Olympics in 1998 and with more than 200 runs across 800 acres it is one of the largest resorts. Nearby Nozawa Onsen is a traditional, family-friendly option with no less than 13 public onsen for resting weary limbs. You can dip into nature’s own hot tubs at any resorts in Japan though; soaking in volcanic spring water, warm sake in hand while snowflakes float around you is very special.

Once fully refreshed, feast on crispy gyoza (dumplings), lightly-battered tempura, Japanese curry or okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake with your choice of toppings for après-ski with a difference. Tuck into a steaming bowl of nabe, Japan’s version of a hotpot, to really warm the cockles.

Meet the monkeys

Snow monkeys in Yudanaka - winter in Japan

While “Hell’s Valley” doesn’t sound like a pleasant place for a day trip, Jigokudani National Park in Yudanaka is worth a spot in any Nagano itinerary. The nickname derives from its rugged volcanic landscape and the ice formations that clutch its natural geyser in winter. But this thickly-forested park hides some very special residents indeed; “snow monkeys”. Over 100 of these celebrities live in the area and are renowned for coping with chilly winters by plunging into the onsen. The practice of monkeys warming up in this way is actually relatively new; after spotting locals bathing in the 1960s, the monkeys followed suit and were soon given their very own spa.

The national park adjoins an unassuming onsen town, so a day meeting the Japanese macaques can be tied in with a stay at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) and an onsen for humans. Start the day with a hearty breakfast from your hosts and put on sensible shoes to wend your way up the 1.6km woodland path. After crunching through the snow and past rock faces, you reach their pool; a demarcated space where they hang out, seemingly unperturbed by goggling tourists.

Snow monkeys in Yudanaka - Winter in Japan

Even as they nimbly climb the trees, or slink around the edges, all is calm and quiet save for the sound of flowing water. Observing the monkeys up close, you can appreciate their incredibly dexterous hands, the tender bond between mothers and their babies, the wide-eyed curiosity of the very young, the comical way that siblings groom each other and the boisterous playfulness of the infants.

Their reputation precedes them so do expect the clicking of a camera or two. If you’re staying at a nearby ryokan, walk up to see them earlier in the morning for a chance to avoid any crowds.

Sapporo Snow Festival

Tsudome at the Sapporo winter festival

Fierce concentration furrows the brows of focused residents, the Japanese military, and international visitors as they frantically hack away at giant hunks of snow. After gently chiselling out the finer details, these icy drifts take the form of anime characters, celebrities and famous buildings such as the Taj Mahal or Himeji Castle. These busy days before the Sapporo Snow Festival in February can be just as compelling as the main event when tree-lined streets become a veritable winter wonderland.

Every year, around two million people travel to Japan’s fifth biggest city to see these vast snow structures take their places in the skyline. They’re centre stage in Odori Park, the main festival site, while neighbouring Susukino plays host to intricate ice sculptures. Tsudome, the third location, has plenty of activities for the young (and young at heart); take a shuttle bus from the city to toboggan down icy slides, get lost in the snow maze and craft sculptures of your own.

Thick scents of street food stalls fill the air around Odori Park, a chance to try dishes from Sapporo’s well-established gastronomy scene. Local specialities include Hokkaido soup curry and fresh seafood such as grilled uni (sea urchin) and hotate (scallop) all washed down with a glass of Sapporo beer.

By night, up-lit illuminations can make the gargantuan structures look haunting (especially the year that Darth Vader was the main event), while projected animations make others come to life with the illusion of movement; cars grow wheels, trees light up around the White House, and girls dance in the windows of St Paul’s cathedral. In between these projected shows rock musicians, popstars and taiko drummers take to icy stages.

Dancing cranes

Cranes in Hokkaido

Four hours east of Sapporo in the heart of the Kushiro Marshland, two birds pass each other slowly, heads turned towards the sky as hot air escapes from their beaks. Backs arched, they pause to spread their wings, unravelling soft black and white feathers. An elaborate show ensues; wings aflutter they bounce from one foot to the other, push out their posteriors, dip their heads and swap places, this time with meaning. The snow-covered marshlands become their stage.

This synchronised duet in the tiny village of Tsurui in the east of Hokkaido comes from the tancho (red-crowned cranes). They are one of some 170 species of resident or migrant birds in the area, but with all this posturing, they have become the main attraction.

After the agricultural exploitation of the Meiji Period tancho were long believed to be extinct. Rediscovered in the early 20th century, frantic efforts were made to increase their numbers; work started to restore their natural habitat and feeding centres began providing food in winter. The population has now increased from just a handful to well over a thousand.

Rise before dawn to drive to Otowa Bridge – the best vantage spot to see these magnificent birds congregate in their natural habitat. Makoto Ando, a naturalist who recently accompanied Joanna Lumley in the region, along with other tancho experts, teaches groups about the fragility of this marshland ecosystem and often takes them to this spot. Tancho kip by the river, so as the sun rises the early morning mists part to reveal the flock embark on their early morning rituals.

It’s not unusual to spot rutting stags in the riverside areas around Tsurui, or a lone fox crossing a barren field, but experts like Ando can easily pick out a White-Tailed Sea Eagle or Steller’s Sea Eagle in the distance. If you want to see these raptors up close though, head east to Rausu on the Shiretoko Peninsula.

A frozen world

See birds in Rausu - winter in Japan

Rausu, a small coastal fishing town bordered by a mountain range wrapped in snow, is roughly 150km from Tsurui. In winter, the surface of the water here is covered with masses of tightly packed drift ice that has travelled hundreds of miles from the Amur River in eastern Siberia and through the Okhotsk Sea.

Each day groups armed with binoculars take to the deck of a sturdy vessel to see it crunch through these great sheets of ice. The Steller’s Sea Eagles gather in trees on the cliff-tops waiting for boats to leave the port; feeding time. A little encouragement in the form of rotten fish tossed from the vessel, and they put on a grand display of avian agility, swooping down over the ice to claw out breakfast. Put the camera to one side to take in the raw beauty of this frozen world; it leaves an indelible mark on the memory and a feeling that Tokyo really is on a different planet altogether.

Is winter worth it?

Sculpture from the Sapporo snow festival

Winter in Japan is like nowhere else on earth. One mountain await your skis while another prepares for its photo call, hardy and humorous wildlife adapt to the snow, and locals keep the streets buzzing with great food and lively festivals. I did forget to mention one thing though. If you need to thaw out, tropical Okinawa in the south boasts winter temperatures in the high 20s, but perhaps that’s a story for another day…

Winter in Japan really is something special. We’ve have a range of self-guided itineraries, small group tours, and exciting experiences to see the best of it. Wrap up warm!

This article featured in the autumn edition of East magazine. Sign up to receive your FREE copy through the post, three times a year.

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