Winter in Japan is a magical time of the year thanks to the soft, powder snow that covers much of the country. By embracing the cold and heading out of Tokyo, you are guaranteed to be rewarded with unforgettable experiences. Here are four must-do adventures to fill your weekends this winter.
Soak in an Onsen
Taking a bath, whether at home or in public, has been an integral part of everyday life in Japan for centuries. While ofuros (home baths) help to take away the day’s stress, nothing can beat soaking in a steaming mountain rotenburo (open-air onsen) with snowflakes gently falling all around you.
Located in the remote mountains of Gunma, Takaragawa Onsen is like a real-life folktale setting. Takaragawa translates directly to treasure river, a name that couldn’t be more apt for this picturesque place. Four rotenburos – three mixed-gender and one women-only – sit either side of a pristine, ice-cold river. Giant icicles hang like curtains from the wooden suspension bridges, and all throughout the valley there are graceful formations of untouched fresh snow that glisten under the sun. With 24-hour access to the baths, guests staying at Takaragawa Onsen Osenkaku are also free to enjoy peaceful early morning and late evening dips.
Address: 1899 Fujiwara, Minakami, Tone, Gunma Prefecture
Route: From Tokyo, take the shinkansen to Jomokogen Station (75 minutes). Take a public bus via Minakami to Takaragawa Onsen, or reserve Takaragawa Onsen Osenkaku’s courtesy bus (60 minutes).
Discover the Snow Monkeys
Deep in a secluded valley in Nagano live a remarkable troop of wild Japanese macaques. The only known monkeys in the world to live and thrive in such a cold climate, they escape the harsh winter chill by bathing in the area’s onsens.
In the 1950s, a local man discovered the monkeys in Jigokudani, a valley teeming with volcanic activity. They had lost part of their habitat due to the development of nearby ski resorts, so the Jigokudani Monkey Park was established to ensure they had a permanent home. Over the past 50 years, the park has become so famous that the snow monkeys are now considered one of the icons of Japan. Observing these creatures up-close without any barriers is an incredible experience. Oblivious to the human onlookers, cheeky monkeys chase each other and play in the snow just like little children, while others cling to the edge of the pool letting the hot water work its magic.
Address: 6845 Yamanouchi, Shimotakai, Nagano Prefecture
Route: From Tokyo, take the shinkansen to Nagano Station (85 minutes). Take an express bus bound for Shiga Kogen and alight at Kanbayashi Onsen (40 minutes). Follow the signs to the Jigokudani Monkey Park (35 minutes on foot).
Visit a Snow Festival
With towns such as Tokamachi receiving an average of over 10 meters of snow a year, southern Niigata is the definition of snow country. This harsh environment makes everyday life tough, but one particular event has been bringing color and excitement to the area for almost 70 years.
The annual Tokamachi Snow Festival is held on the third weekend of February. Similar to the Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido, it features amazing snow sculptures created around the town. Over 60 teams of professional sculptors as well as local residents transform compacted snow into beloved animation characters, scenes from famous movies or images inspired by world events. Over the three-day event, visitors can also take part in fun winter sports, watch beautiful kimono shows and try delicious local dishes. On the second night, the festival’s 15-metre-high masterpiece sculpture becomes the stage for a spectacular concert and fireworks show.
Address: 251-17 Asahi, Tokamachi, Niigata Prefecture
Route: From Tokyo, take the shinkansen to Echigo-Yuzawa Station (80 minutes). Transfer to the Hokuhoku Line and alight at Tokamachi Station (35 minutes).
Head to the Ski Slopes
As a result of weather systems that come down the Sea of Japan from Siberia, Honshu’s mountain ranges are blessed with an unbelievable amount of light, fluffy snow. Over the past decade, Japan has developed a solid reputation as a ski destination, with skiers and snowboarders from all over the world coming to experience the wonders of Japow (Japanese powder) for themselves.
Along the border of Nagano and Niigata, you’ll find one of Japan’s best kept secrets. The Madarao Mountain Resort gets an average of 12 metres of ‘Madapow’ per season. Around 60 percent of the runs are left ungroomed, and it’s one of the few Japanese resorts that permit tree skiing – there’s even a natural half pipe in the valley you can cruise down. The icing on the cake is it’s still largely off the international radar so you can expect short lift lines and uncrowded runs.
Address: 11492-321 Iiyama, Nagano Prefecture
Route: From Tokyo, take the shinkansen to Iiyama Station (110 minutes). Take the Community Bus Madarao Line to the Madarao Mountain Resort (30 minutes). Alternatively, take a night bus from Shinjuku direct to the resort and hit the slopes first thing in the morning.