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Winter in Japan is stunning.
The temples, mountains and bamboo forests that amaze visitors through the warmer months take on a whole new personality when the temperature drops and the snow falls; their magic and serenity – already abundant – is amplified ten times over. Steam rises from bubbling natural springs, and the vibrant orange of Japan’s torii gates stands out brilliantly against the white, while across the country dazzling winter festivals and thrilling snow-sports take place. Winter in Japan is the quietest season for tourism, but for those in the know, it can be the most beautiful time of year.
And, as luck would have it, we are in the know. Here are some recommendations from our travel experts…
Admire the garish garms of Coming of Age Day
Every year, on the second Monday of January, all of Japan celebrates ‘Seijin no Hi’, or ‘Coming of Age Day’. For over 1300 years the holiday has been a celebration of all young people reaching the age of adulthood in the previous year (20), supposedly beginning when a young prince rocked a new outfit and hair-do to mark the occasion.
On this day in the middle of Japan’s winter, millions of young people in cities and towns across Japan get dolled up in outrageous outfits. Think explosively colourful kimonos and gigantic fur scarves – and of course, as with any fashion event, the one-upmanship is always strong. This year’s Coming of Age Day is the 13th of January – so if you’re looking for a slice of wintry elegance, take to the streets to view the garish costumes. After the traditional adulthood ceremony, the newly-dubbed adults, dressed in all their finery, head out to party. Hehey!
View rare eagles from the prow of an icebreaker boat
In one of the northernmost points of Hokkaido are the sweeping views of Shiretoko Peninsula; from here you can board an icebreaker for a cruise on the freezing Okhotsk Sea. From your boat you’ll be able to appreciate the wild scenery, and perhaps even get up close to a flock of Steller’s sea eagles as they congregate on the ice floes. These magnificent birds are the heaviest eagles in the world, as well as one of the most impressive in appearance, with their bright yellow beaks and enormous wingspan.
The icebreaker boat is an experience all by itself – it’s hard to describe quite how other-worldly and alien the sea looks when it’s covered by ice flows as far as the eye can see. Stand on the prow and watch as the boat’s powerful engines propel you out into the frozen sea, scanning the horizon for signs of rare wildlife. A real treat for the senses, this one will thrill those adventurers seeking to escape the bustle of the city.
Throw beans at evil spirits at Setsubun
Also known as the bean-throwing festival, Setsubun is a festival marking the end of winter in Japan. On the 3rd of February in 2020, crowds will gather at Buddhist temples from Hiroshima to Toyko to pray and to ward off evil spirits in spectacular fashion. In the 13th century this warding-off was done by setting great pyres of burning wood, burning dried fish to give off a strong smell, and pounding drums to overwhelm the senses of the evil spirits. Today things are much simpler: simply grab a handful of roasted soybeans and hurl them in the devil’s big red face. After, eating the number of beans that matches your age is considered good luck.
You can catch this chaotic, giddy event everywhere in the country, and in many cities Setsubun has grown into a huge public event. In family homes Setsubun is also practised, with many children’s fathers donning devil masks and scaring their children, only to be peppered into submission by a hail of low-flying soybeans. Light-hearted, wholesome fun; a must-see.
Whiz downhill at Madarao Kogen
When it comes to snowsports resorts, it doesn’t get much better than Madarao Kogen. Ideal for beginners and powder-hounds alike, Madarao is highly praised for its excellent powder, minimal crowds, and pretty treeline skiing. The slops are so well cared for, in fact, that the ideal number of trees and the spacing between them has been carefully calculated by a computer algorithm. This tree layout provides skiers with all thrills of off-piste skiing coupled with the increased safety of piste.
Nicknamed ‘Madapow’ for its excellent quality powder, the ski resort is still reasonably free from crowds, and on clearer days, skiers can enjoy views of the vast Mt Myoko. If you opt to visit Madarao Kogen for a few days, a short jaunt to the nearby city of Iiyama – with Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines – can be a fun day trip.
Trek through snowy mountain villages near Takayama
The streets of traditional wooden houses in Takayama make for a quaint winter’s stroll. If you’re after something a little more pioneering however, head out into the nearby countryside for a snowshoeing adventure. Tanekura is a tiny hamlet surrounded by rice terraces where the ancient ‘satoyama’, or ‘mountain village’ farming lifestyle lives on to this day. From here, local guides will take you out into nature, strapped into a pair of hardy snowshoes for a trek through the village and its striking surroundings. Physically, snowshoeing is only a light workout, even for complete beginners, and provides a wonderful opportunity to experience a side to rural Japanese life that very few visitors ever see.
There is, of course, far more to love in Japan’s winter than we could ever detail in one article. Here are just a few of the winter activities on offer elsewhere in Japan!
- Feel dwarfed by the giant sculptures of Sapporo Snow Festival
- Observe the mating dance of red crowned cranes at Hokkaido
- Watch the bathing Japanese macaques bathing in the Japanese Alps
- Visit the famed sights of Kyoto without the growing crowds
- Hang out at the Naked Man Festival
- Snap gorgeous photos at the Nabano No Sato illuminations