10 magical places to see winter in Japan

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With ancient temples, immaculate gardens, crystal lakes and thick forests, there’s no shortage of magical places to see winter in Japan. Add a dusting of snow and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a winter wonderland.

Shirakawago, Gifu/Toyama, Honshu

Shirakawago in winter

Deep the heart of the Hakusan National Park, Shirakawago with its gassho-zukuri farmhouse buildings, is picturesque all year round. But when a warm glow escapes from under the blanket of snow and out of each window, the village is akin to an old-fashioned Christmas card.

Visit Shirakawago on Traditional Japan Self-Guided Adventure.

Yudanaka Onsen, Nagano, Honshu

Snow monkey in Yudanaka Onsen, Nagano, Honshu

Onsen (hot spring) bathing is a popular past-time in Japan. While in most parts of the country there’s strict etiquette and protocol to follow, the residents of the Jigokudani Monkey Reserve in Yudanaka seek respite from their snowy surrounds in the warm waters with fewer rules.

Visit Yudanaka Onsen on Japan Unmasked Small Group Tour.

Ritsurin Garden, Takamatsu, Shikoku

Ritsurin Garden in winter, Japan

The carefully manicured Edo period Ritsurin Garden took 100 years for Feudal lords to construct. Peppered with chestnut trees, lotus ponds, red bridges, a craft museum and teahouses, as well as Mount Shiun as a backdrop, it’s a lovely place to stroll through, whatever the weather (but it sure does look magical with a sprinkling of snow).

Visit Ritsurin Garden on Secrets of Shikoku Self-Guided Adventure.

Matsumoto Castle, Nagano, Honshu

Matsumoto Castle in the snow

Despite wars, earthquakes and fires, the current incarnation of Matsumoto Castle, with its quintessentially Japanese tiered roof and pretty red bridge, has survived for 400 years against the odds. While also known as the ‘Black Crow’ castle due to its black exterior, during winter it often sparkles with the pure white snow.

Visit Matsumoto Castle on Hands On Japan Small Group Tour.

Nikko, Tochigi, Honshu

Nikko shrine in the snow, Japan

Nikko draws visitors from far and wide to see the famed autumn leaves, but the area’s elaborate shrines take on an otherworldly quality in the snow, and the waterfalls and crystal Lake Chuzenji become a frozen world.

Visit Nikko on Northern Highlights Self-Guided Adventure.

Zao Onsen, Yamagata/Miyagi, Honshu

Zao Onsen snow monsters, Japan

Contrary to how it looks, this isn’t a picture of some unfortunate souls stuck in the snow, or creatures escaping from the depths; these are Zao Onsen’s “snow monsters”, trees warped with ice and snow. See them at their most spectacular (or eerie) at night, when they’re illuminated, casting shadows on the landscape.

Visit Zao Onsen on A Northern Soul Small Group Tour.

Mount Koya, Wakayama, Honshu

Mount Koya in the snow

Few places are as special in Japan as Mount Koya. This secluded retreat in the mountains has ancient Buddhist temples, traditional Japanese lodgings and a huge cemetery filled with stupas.

Visit Mount Koya on Pilgrim’s Paths Self-Guided Adventure.

Lake Shikotsu, Chitose, Hokkaido

Lake Shikotsu ice festival illuminations, Japan

As Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido is a great deal colder than anywhere else, but even in the darkest depths of winter, Lake Shikotsu does not freeze over. While you won’t find ice in the lake, there are no shortage of ice sculptures at the spectacular illuminated ice waterfall festival.

Explore Hokkaido on Wild Hokkaido Self-Guided Adventure.

Tsurui Ito Tancho Crane Sanctuary, Tsurui, Hokkaido

Kushiro Shitsugen National Park

Wake early and wrap up warm to watch nature put on a show in Hokkaido’s Tsurui Ito Tancho Crane Sanctuary. The tancho, or red-crowned crane, mating dance is well worth setting your alarm for.

Visit Tsurui Ito Tancho Crane Sanctuary on Winter Highlights Small Group Tour.

Rausu, Nemuro, Hokkaido

Rausu, Japan in winter

Take a cruise from the small fishing town of Rausu in winter to crash through thick layers of drift ice and spot some of the area’s incredible wildlife, including dolphins and the Stellar’s Sea Eagle.

Visit Rausu on Wild Hokkaido Self-Guided Adventure.

To start planning your trip to Japan, head to our website, download our brochure or get in touch with our Japan travel experts.

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