Unusual Things No One Tells You About Winter in Japan | The Invisible Tourist

“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.” ~ Billy Connolly. 

Not a huge fan of onsen and not planning to ski? So why should you bother visiting Japan in winter, and what are the things no one tells you beforehand? Buckle up, have I got some things to share with you when planning a trip to Japan for this season!

Growing up in Australia, I can deal with some cold, but am not accustomed to the kind that brings snow. When overseas, I’ll be the only idiot outside frolicking in frozen tundra when everyone else is holed up cosy indoors. 

As I recently learnt, besides the skiing opportunities and onsen (hot springs), there are so many things to do in Japan in winter that it is still absolutely worth the trip during this time. But there are some things I wish I knew first! 

Some advice I’m about to share will be quite obvious if you reside in a country that receives regular snow during the wintertime (hello North American, Scandinavian and Russian friends), so feel free to take what I say with a grain of salt. 

But for my fellow mild-climate folks who consider snow a novelty, there are some things you may not have thought of and may surprise you, as they did me. 

From the best destinations, things to see and do, what to pack and tips for keeping warm, if you’re interested in finding out all the things no one tells you about winter in Japan, read on for more!

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11 Things no one tells you about winter in Japan

The best time to see Mount Fuji is in winter

Did you know beloved Mt Fuji is only visible around 80 days in the year? The crisp, clear days of winter means it’s the best time to visit Japan to catch a glimpse of the country’s most sacred mountain. 

Maximise your chances for the perfect viewing opportunity of one of the most famous landmarks of Japan, and take a trip to visit during the winter time!

TIP: Planning your honeymoon? My Japan honeymoon itinerary is lovely for winter (and all seasons in Japan, really!)

Winter in Japan is the best time to see Mt Fuji
I took this prized photo of Mt Fuji from a bullet train travelling 300km/h between Tokyo and Kyoto

Winter is the one of the best times for fewer crowds in the cities

Unpopular opinion alert: Over the past decade summer in Japan has been my favourite season to visit for many reasons, but one of them is because there are fewer crowds.

With the exception of Christmas & New Years crowds, from my experience the winter visitors in Japan are fewer in the cities outside of those times. This makes winter ideal for exploring popular sights without the usual amount of visitors or issues created by overtourism in Japan.

TIP: Fewer crowds in winter obviously can’t be said for the snow resorts, however, where this is their peak visitor season.  

Nijo Castle Entrance, Kyoto
Pretty much had Himeji Castle & Kyoto’s Nijo Castle all to myself during my Japan winter visit

The dry air is bad for your nose

Apologies in advance if this is a bit graphic, but one thing about Japan winter weather that took me by complete surprise was having a bloodied nose. 

The low humidity and going in-and-out of heating means the dry air caused some of my delicate nasal passage membranes to rupture. Again as someone from a warmer climate, I was not expecting that!

TIP: Make sure to have some tissues on hand to save you.

As an added annoying bonus, your skin may become so dry it makes your face appear older than usual and skin may flake on your hands. Well, this is what happened to me at least!

TIP: Bring along your favourite face cream to help add some moisture back into your skin. Aloe vera gel worked the best for me.

Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto in winter

Ninenzaka at night in snow

The snow is perfect, even for non-skiers

Do you want to see some snow during your winter Japan trip, but don’t want to ski or snowboard? There are a few places you can go to experience snow in Japan without having to purchase ski passes or end up on your backside. 

Down the page I’ll share my suggestions for the best winter destinations in Japan, so read on for more.

Views from Gala Yuzawa Snow Resort, Niigata

Views from Bell of Love Observation Deck, Gala Yuzawa

For skiers, Japan is one of the best places in the world for powder snow 

If you do wish to ski, Japan is home to the softest, fluffiest snow I’ve ever seen anywhere, even in my time in Switzerland and living in New Zealand. Locals nickname it “Japow,” short for Japan Powder.

As freezing air from the Siberian Arctic passes over the Sea of Japan, it collects moisture from the sea before hitting the Japanese mountains.

Apparently, snow in Japan only contains about 8% moisture, which makes it very light and also dry. The sub-zero temperatures help preserve this texture and the result is perfectly fluffy snow. 

On my flight home from Japan, I was seated next to a very seasoned traveller who has skied all over the world. Even he admitted he struggled to acclimatise to the fluffy texture of the snowfall in Japan at first. 

If you do plan to hit the slopes, snow resorts in Japan popular with my fellow Aussies are:

  • Hakuba, Nagano
  • Iiyama, Nagano 
  • Furano, Hokkaido
  • Niseko, Hokkaido

TIP: From mid-April, it’s possible to see walls of snow along the roadsides of the famous Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route. Towering above the cut out road below, the 18 metre-high snow walls showcase just how much snow can fall in this region of Japan!

Gala Yuzawa Snowfields, Niigata

Diligence Gondola at Gala Yuzawa Snow Resort

Some cities are ill-equipped to deal with an abundance of snow

Although I’ve spoken about how fantastic the snow is in Japan, the beauty of it proved to be a double-edged sword during my stay.

While cities that regularly receive snow can usually cope just fine, I learnt that if there is a snowstorm from the likes of Siberia, other southern cities tend to struggle as heavy levels are not the norm for them. During my trip, inside Kyoto Station was slammed with snow, which wasn’t a great experience for visitors.

Of course that may seem obvious, but the next morning I was a little surprised to see people during a Kyoto winter attempting to drive their cars on a thick layer of black ice, spinning their tyres at traffic lights and even the buses were without snow chains and sliding around.

Having never experienced this before, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it felt a little apocalyptic (yeah I know, I hear you laughing in Canadian, Russian and Scandinavian, haha). I made a day trip to Kobe that day, and locals there described what I’d witnessed in Kyoto as identical for them too. 

Bullet trains were either cancelled or delayed by around 40mins due to ice and heavy snow on the tracks.

TIP: If you encounter similar conditions during your trip, expect delays and make sure to allow for plenty of extra time to navigate around the city either by foot or public transport. 

NOTE: I’ve shared some videos of what it was like in Kyoto when the blizzard hit here on my Instagram.

Bus caught on black ice in Kyoto, Japan
This Kyoto bus kind of gave up in the middle of the road. Check out the icicles on it!

Inspiring winter festivals and night illuminations will delight

Sure, Japanese winter does shorten the daylight hours. But there is an added benefit to that – winter festivals and night illuminations!

Winter in Tokyo and Hiroshima brings famed winter illuminations in the city streets, whereas some places of worship are known for their lantern and snow festivals. 

My winter visit to Japan coincided with the Mt Wakakusa Fire Festival in Nara, so I made sure to shuffle my plans around it. I also finally ticked off an illuminated visit to Huis Ten Bosch Japan, a Dutch theme park dedicated to the special trading relationship between Nagasaki & Holland during colonial times.

TIP: Nagasaki quickly became one of my favourite cities in Japan. Find out my in my detailed 2 Days in Nagasaki Itinerary: City of Million Dollar Views

Why not see if any of these events will coincide with your trip?

  • Huis Ten Bosch Kingdom of Lights Illuminations: Nagasaki, late December – early April
  • Mt Wakakusa Fire Festival: Nara, last Saturday in January
  • Sapporo Snow Festival: Hokkaido, early – mid-February
  • Hirosaki Castle Snow Lantern Festival: Aomori, mid-February
  • Zenko-ji Lantern Festival: Nagano, mid-February

Mt Wakakusa Mountain Fire Burning Festival, Nara

Winter Illuminations at Huis Ten Bosch, Nagasaki

Rain Illumination at Huis Ten Bosch, Nagasaki

Lunar New Year

Japan winter season also coincides with the Lunar New Year, so you can expect to see the country’s three major Chinatowns in Yokohama, Nagasaki and Kobe heavily decorated with colourful lanterns and figures symbolising prosperity for the year ahead.

I loved the colours of Japan in January!

Meganebashi "Spectacle" Bridge, Nagasaki

Winter in Japan is ideal for experiencing onsen

Perhaps you’d like to soak away the day in the warmth of an onsen (Japanese hot spring)? There is no better time than in winter, of course!

While I love the idea of onsen, they are not for me personally but if you’d love to try for yourself,  I can recommend you stay at a ryokan with shared or private onsen, experience sento (public bath houses) or even free footbaths on the streets and parks in seismic areas such as Hakone or Niigata. 

Some towns are also known as onsen, as they have built up resorts around natural springs. I’ve covered some of the most well-known in my guide to onsen in Japan, but for reference they include:

  • Ginzan Onsen, Yamagata
  • Kinugawa Onsen, Tochigi
  • Kinosaki Onsen, Hyogo
  • Gero Onsen, Gifu
  • Kusatsu Onsen, Gunma

Always carry an umbrella

As I never grew up with snow, I kind of always thought it gracefully floated down and there wouldn’t be much need for an umbrella. That was my experience when exploring Switzerland in winter, anyway. My winter Japan trip truly opened up my naïve eyes very quickly!

I’d never seen snow come down as hard as torrential rain, but it did in Japan. So this is where the umbrella comes in handy to help shelter your face so you can at least attempt to see where you’re going. 

One caveat however… the umbrella will become almost useless if you happen to get caught in a once-in-10-year Siberian blizzard as I did, but it was better than nothing!

Anow bunnies at Okazaki Shrine, Kyoto

The snow monkeys stay put in the hot spring

When planning a Nagano itinerary, it wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the famous snow monkeys, right? While the walk itself is exceptionally beautiful, I learnt something no one really talks about when I visited Jigokudani Snow Monkey park in summer

The monkeys can be seen year round. And during summer, the monkeys avoid the onsen as it’s too hot. Instead they run around and play, their curious babies exploring the entire park.

However, from what I’ve researched in winter, it’s so cold in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture in the Japan winter months that the monkeys are reluctant to leave the warm hot spring. Remaining confined to one spot, this would make it difficult to see them as crowds would all be huddling around the hot spring to get photos. 

If it will be difficult to see the monkeys during a Nagano winter, you may need to assess if the 1 hour walk in the snow there and back again will be worth it to you?

onsen in japan

It’s not too difficult to stay warm when you visit Japan in winter

Had enough of the cold outdoors? Head inside and warm up with a hearty bowl of ramen or drink some local nihonshu (sake) in hot or cold form (it will warm you up either way, I promise!) Why not sample as many sake as your heart desires at Echigo Yuzawa’s sake vending machine wall?

Some locations in hot spring areas will have free outdoor foot baths to warm your toes, I’ve seen them in Hakone and Echigo Yuzawa. 

Worried about cold hands in Japan during winter? Purchase some battery operated hand warmers from Daiso and pop them in your pockets, or find the heated vending machines that dispense warm drinks and soups. 

Ponshukan Sake Vending Machine Wall in Echigo Yuzawa, Niiagata
Try all the sake your heart desires in Echigo Yuzawa

You can also stay warm by enjoying the countless indoor activities such as the Cup Noodle Museum in Yokohama, teamLab Planets in Tokyo, unbeatable views over Tokyo from Shibuya Sky, Ohara Museum of Western Art in Kurashiki, Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima, Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Samurai & Ninja Museum in Kyoto, 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa… the list goes on! There is bound to be a museum or two to suit your interests. 

Best winter destinations in Japan

I would say any destination is a wonderful place to visit during Japanese winter months, but there are a few that really stand out for different reasons.

Gala Yuzawa, Niigata

Having only heard about the perfect snow day trip a few weeks before my visit, I took a chance and made the journey – and it was so worthwhile! Gala Yuzawa has to be one of the easiest Tokyo winter day trips.

Located just 1 hour 50mins northwest of Tokyo on the Joetsu shinkansen (bullet train) lies a winter wonderland called Gala Yuzawa Snow Resort.

In addition to the usual amenities for beginner skiers, Gala Yuzawa offers sightseeing chairlift rides and an epic observation deck with sweeping panoramic views over the mountain range, 900 metres above sea level. I’ll let these images speak for themselves! 

TIP: Read my detailed guide to visiting Gala Yuzawa from Tokyo (plus the sake vending machine wall in nearby Echigo Yuzawa, to!)

Bell of Love Observation Deck, Gala Yuzawa, Niigata

Panorama of Gala Yuzawa Ski Resort, Niigata

Shirakawa-go, Takayama

While Gala Yuzawa is lesser-known of the ski resorts amongst foreign tourists not planning to ski, the stunning UNESCO World Heritage site of Shirakawa-go is insanely popular.

If you’re hoping to experience the grasso-thatched farmhouses blanketed in snow, be sure to plan ahead and stay the night to avoid the crowds of day-trippers. 

TIP: If you prefer to avoid a Shirakawa-go winter but would like a similar experience, head to Hida no Sato (Hida Folk Village) in Takayama. Just 15 mins by bus from the city centre, this open-air museum features the same 200+ year old farmhouses as Shirakawa-go, but without the tourist crowds! Read my guide to Hida no Sato for more.

Shirakawa-go, Japanese Alps

Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, Nagano

The famous snow monkeys of Nagano frequently appear on a Japan winter itinerary for many foreign visitors. It’s definitely one of the most popular day trips from Tokyo in winter. 

Not all is as it seems, as I shared earlier, I personally think winter may not be the best time to make the trek to see them, but of course it’s up to you to assess what it means to you.

Jidokudani monkey park in summer

Mt Inasa, Nagasaki

Voted as one of the top three “10 Million Dollar Night Views” in the country and more recently, in the world (alongside Monaco and Shanghai), Mt Inasa in Nagasaki is perfect to visit during winter in Japan.

The cool, dry air of winter means exceptional visibility from 333 metres above sea level, the panoramic views over the entire city, harbour and nearby islands are guaranteed to take your breath away!

TIP: Read the unique things to do, where to stay and more in my 2 days in Nagasaki itinerary

TIP: For the best experience, head up an hour before sunset and have dinner at the Itadaki restaurant (best to reserve if you’re part of a group, otherwise there are unreserved places for solo visitors). 

Panoramic View from Mt Inasa, Nagasaki

Huis Ten Bosch, Nagasaki

As I mentioned earlier, Huis Ten Bosch is renowned for their night illuminations. It’s absolutely worth braving the chilly evening to witness the main square burst into an array of white lights, fireworks and snow machines to boot!

I also recommend staying at a hotel within Huis Ten Bosch such as the JR Okura, so you don’t have to venture far to the warmth of your room afterwards.

Winter Illuminations at Huis Ten Bosch, Nagasaki

View of Huis Ten Bosch at night from the White Ferris Wheel

Mt Fuji, Fuji Five Lakes

Remember earlier I mentioned the best time to see Mt Fuji is during winter? Check the weather forecast before your visit and definitely head to the Fuji Five Lakes region as a day trip from Tokyo or for an overnight stay to see Japan’s beloved mountain.

After 5 visits to Mt Fuji, it was during an early spring trip I finally laid eyes on her without a cloud in the sky, and I highly recommend the journey! I used this itinerary for a Mt Fuji day trip by bus from Shinjuku to explore areas surrounding the mountain, and I’m sure you’ll love it too.

TIP: If you’re hiring a car to drive yourself around instead, make sure to tick the “studded tyres” option, as the Fuji Five Lakes area is known for black ice on the roads.

One of the most famous landmarks in Japan: Mt Fuji

Snow in the cities

Want to see snow in the preserved Edo-era cities instead? Head to Kyoto, Takayama, Nagano, Gujo Hachiman, Nikko, and the stunning gardens of Kenroku-en in Kanazawa.

Of course, there are more northern cities such as Aomori and Sapporo, however I haven’t visited them just yet. But you can bet I will someday and share my findings here!

Kamogawa River, Kyoto in winter

The cold weather in Japan isn’t so bad with the right clothes

I did see in a Japan travel forum a visitor complaining they didn’t want to go outside their hotel and explore the city as they felt much too cold. You don’t want this to be you.

Famous Scottish fellow Billy Connolly once quoted, “In Scotland, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes,” and I absolutely agree. I personally dislike the cold, so do everything I can to ensure I don’t really feel it. 

As with most cold destinations, in Japan you’ll need to layer up. It can get quite warm indoors with the heating, and then you’ll need to remove a layer to cool off.

What to wear during winter in japan

  • Stock up on Uniqlo’s Heattech brand of thermals for your torso and legs. So cosy. 
  • Cropped finger gloves so you can still use your phone for directions.
  • Ear band, ear muffs or beanie to keep the cold from biting your ears.
  • Thick woollen scarf to keep your neck cosy.
  • Waterproof boots.
  • Cosy jumpers/sweaters and pants to wear on top of thermals.
  • Puffer jacket with a hood and fur-like trim to stop snow getting in your eyes.
  • Merino wool socks (this may be more of an Australia/New Zealand thing, but they work a dream and help regulate your temperature!)

TIP: My detailed guide to what to pack for Japan has other suggestions you may not have thought of, so be sure to take a look!

Frequently asked questions about winter in Japan

When is winter in Japan?

The winter months blanket Japan in December, January and February. Typically it feels like winter from about mid-December to early March (the famous cherry blossoms start from mid-late March).

What are the winter temperatures in Japan?

The climate throughout Japan varies wildly, from the tropical and mild islands of Okinawa in the south to the frigid scenery of Hokkaido winter in the country’s north. 

On average, during December to February you can expect the Tokyo region to experience highs of 14°C and lows of 2°C. The average daily temperature in January, the coldest month, is around 6°C.

Does it snow during winter in Japan?

As I’m sure you saw in my photos above, yes, it absolutely does snow during winter in Japan!

When I was visiting Japan in January, I experienced snow in the major cities such as Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Himeji, Kobe, Nagasaki and also in smaller Arita. It snowed a little in Tokyo during that time as well. 

However, in the Japanese Alps and Hokkaido, it’s a completely different story! These regions of Japan experience some of the highest snowfall in the entire world, thanks to weather patterns dancing over from Siberia in Russia. 

Here’s an idea of the annual average snowfall by region in Japan.

  • Hokkaido: 1,524cm / 600 inches
  • Nagano (Japanese Alps): 1,016cm / 400 inches
  • Tokyo: 5cm / 2 inches
  • Kyoto: 28cm / 11 inches
  • Hiroshima: 13cm / 5 inches
  • Nagasaki: 4cm / 1.5 inches

Concluding a winter holiday in Japan 

There you have it for what it’s like travelling during the winter season in Japan! If you’ve ever wondered, “Is Japan worth visiting in winter?”, I hope you can now see that while the temperatures can get very cold, the benefits of visiting in winter are plentiful.

From fewer crowds and different ways to keep warm to incredible scenery throughout the country, don’t let the cooler months put you off planning your perfect winter trip to Japan. Now you know exactly what to do in Japan in winter to have an unforgettable trip, too.

I’m sure you’ll agree from all my images above, winter in Japan can be truly breathtaking, especially if you’re from a country where snow is not a common sight. I hope you found all my travel tips helpful!

What are your thoughts on travelling travelling to Japan in winter? Or would you rather enjoy spring in Japan or summer in Japan instead? Did I miss any tips for how you keep warm? Let me know in the comments below. 

While you’re here, why not take a look at my itineraries for 2 weeks or 3 weeks in Japan to help plan your trip, do’s and don’ts of Japanese etiquette, learn some basic Japanese phrases for tourists with my free cheat sheet, and even the best Japanese souvenirs to bring home – I have every step of your Japan planning journey covered from my multiple visits!

Feeling social? Come and join me on Facebook, Pinterest, TikTok and Instagram for more Japan travel inspiration!

Until next time,

The Invisible Tourist


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4 Comments

  1. I wrote down the lantern festivals! I love to hear about what’s going on around the country. I’ll be going to Osaka in November for some autumn leaf viewing and hoping for mild temperatures. I went to Osaka in December near New Years before, and I was freezing the whole time despite wearing thermal leggings, two pairs of wool socks, two fleeces over my sweater and カイロ(kairo) in all my pockets And shoes. I highly recommend the カイロ and also a drink called ホットレモン (hot lemon?) that is available in many vending machines and conbinis, but of course none of that is guaranteed to actually keep you warm. In Japan, somewhere near 1,000 people can die in an average winter of hypothermia, (many of them older citizens) so it’s best to take cautions and go to a heated area when you get too cold, especially if you have risk factors such as low muscle tone, underweight, neuropathy, low blood sugar, or anemia. If you get really cold though, you should just give up and come to Okinawa of course. 😉

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your insights, Cory! Sorry to hear you were still cold despite all your layers, that’s no good.
      But your ideas for keeping cosy are great! Hopefully you can visit Japan again sometime in the warmer weather 😊

  2. Thanks Alyse, that is all super helpful, I’m off to Japan next February with my husband, my first trip there FINALLY!! (he’s been there on business years ago). We hadn’t planned on going in winter, but we had a flight credit to use up by the end of Feb, so winter it is! TBH, I’d go any time of the year, Japan looks spectacular in all seasons. Everyone wants to see the cherry blossoms but I can’t wait to see the autumn colours!

    1. Hi Bron, it’s super exciting your Japan trip can finally happen after so long!
      You’re right, the distinct seasons in Japan make any time the perfect time to visit.
      I honestly LOVED having sights in Kyoto such as Nijo Castle almost all to myself, and to witness snow at Kiyomizu-dera without huge crowds.
      I hope you have an absolutely amazing time and enjoy your Japan winter trip, thanks for your comment!

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