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Think of winter in Japan and you’ll likely imagine snow-dusted mountain peaks, dancing red-crowned cranes, freezing icebreaker cruises, or easing into a steaming hot onsen to warm up at the end of a frosty day – but hiking? Maybe not.
We sent Lily, one of our Japan specialist travel consultants (and an avid hiker), to explore what the country’s winter months have to offer for keen walkers and ramblers who’d like to visit at a quieter time of year.
Her take in a nutshell? Pristine, peaceful perfection.
From isolated trails to distant interactions with curious wild macaques, here are our favourite things about hiking in winter in Japan.
You’ll have national parks almost to yourself
“Each season in Japan has it charms, but it’s hard to undersell just how quiet you’ll find the national parks and trails if you visit in winter”, Lily said.
“I’ve hiked around the world, and the Kumano Kodo trails are some of the best I’ve ever experienced. The thought of being on these magical pathways – where ancient history bristles with every footstep, you’re passing little shrines, and you know thousands of pilgrims have walked before you – is gold-dust stuff for anyone who loves hiking.
“The hamlets along the way are organised to provide shelter and food to pilgrims, and you’ll walk through winding paths and up steep, cobblestone steps shaded by leaves just on the turn, all without seeing another soul. It doesn’t get much better than that for just soaking it all up.”
It’s the only time of year you can dig your own riverbed onsen
“Something that’s absolutely unique about hiking in winter in Japan is that it’s the only time of year you can visit Sennin-buro and dig your own hot spring bath in the riverbed.
“It’s essentially a huge outdoor hot spring bath, created by blocking the flow of the Oto-gawa River. You’ll be given a shovel to move pebbles out the way, and the hot spring water will rush in – creating your own personal pool.
“Because the days are shorter in winter, and the sun goes down around 4pm, you can do this in the dark, surrounded by lanterns, and just lie back to look at the stars. It’s the most magical experience, and unlike anything you can do elsewhere in the world.”
You’ll get to feel like you’re really experiencing Japan
“I’ve lived in Japan, and I’ve spent lots of visits going back and trying to recapture the feeling of really experiencing Japanese life. Hiking in winter is one of the experiences I felt really allowed me to do that, because while it’s intuitive and all very well laid-out, you still feel independent and like you’re making decisions about the paths you take.
“I found it really relaxing to hike on my own and embrace the forest-bathing culture that Japan is so famous for. It was very spiritually refreshing.
“Because things are so quiet, you’ve also got a good chance of spotting some shy wildlife. A family of macaques crossed the path ahead of me – which initially made me jump! – but I continued up the trail slightly and watched them playing and interacting from a distance. It felt quite special.”
The festive spirit is second-to-none
“Japan in winter is probably most famous for the Sapporo Snow Festival or the winter illuminations that light up Tokyo – both of which are great for creating quite a high-energy festive atmosphere.
“What I found while hiking, though, was something really different.
“I was walking along a part of a trail and heard a noise playing softly through the trees – it took me a few minutes to realise that this little farmhouse, totally isolated in the middle of the wilderness, was playing Silent Night on the radio.
“Not something I expected, but totally and utterly charming.”
Everything is still open
“The final thing that’s great about hiking in Japan in winter is that, even though it’s so much quieter, nothing is overly affected in terms of service. There are still artisanal coffee shops along trails, cafes are open, and Japanese people around who are happy that you’re there experiencing nature.
“That’s true regardless of the level of hike you carry out, too. You can find gentler strolls along stretches of paved paths (though there’s usually elevation involved!) or choose to take routes where you’ll be scrambling up cobbled slopes or dirt tracks that are rugged with roots.
“Make sure you’re prepared in advance though, as, while everything’s open, it can be a long stretch between places where you’re able to buy food or water. The accommodation that I stayed in really helped me to prepare – with tasty lunchboxes and snacks – which I definitely felt the benefit of.
“All in all, I think there’s something for everyone when it comes to hiking in Japan in winter, and I’m excited to help clients plan some great trips with the benefit of first-hand experience.”
Lily visited Wakayama and Nagano on her trip. If you’re interested in hiking in Japan in winter, we’d love to help you plan the perfect experience. Get in touch.