Visions of Japan in winter can take many forms: snow monkeys warming up in Nagano's natural onsen, winter sports enthusiasts shredding the world's best powder, and glittering light displays that'll make your heart flutter.
According to the traditional Japanese calendar, the winter season starts with a shift called rittou, which historically falls between November 7 and 21 and ends in February. In modern times, however, it's not uncommon for winter weather to extend into March. While the country's peak seasons are fall and spring — namely for its fall foliage and cherry blossoms — Japan residents have endless ways to enjoy the winter months. In every region, the season brings magical sights, sounds, and landscapes you'll see nowhere else.
You're strongly encouraged to go outside and brave the elements, whether that's dashing down slopes or checking out Japan's Christmas illuminations. In some places, you'll even find outdoor skating rinks. Check out some of the most popular ways to go out and make the most of the season.
See Japan's Impressive Winter Illuminations
Illuminations are some of the most anticipated winter events. These are not your average Christmas lights display; they are grandiose, extravagant, and well worth a detour.
Marunouchi Bright Christmas 2023
Disney fans rejoice. From November 16 to December 25, 2023, Tokyo's Marunouchi area will light up with illuminated displays inspired by the upcoming movie Wish to celebrate the company's 100th anniversary. Die-hard fans and collectors should also be on the look out for limited-edition Christmas goods only available in Marunouchi during this event.
Tokyo Mega Illumi
One of Tokyo's biggest illumination events, Tokyo Mega Illumi is held every winter at Oi Racecourse (also known as Tokyo City Keiba). Outdoor displays recreate scenes inspired by Japanese countryside or even installations reminiscent of other seasons, like a beautiful Wisteria tunnel where the purple flowers have been replaced with lilac lights. Pop-up stores and shows featuring Sanrio characters Cinnamoroll and Hello Kitty are also scheduled.
Hirakata Park Flowering Illumination
A stunning display transforms Osaka's Hirakata Park into a sea of glittering stars on select nights from early November through April. It remains a top pick for families and couples year after year because of its affordable price, especially compared to other theme parks in the region. Rides stay open after hours during the event, giving visitors a sky-high view of the glittering Christmas trees and decorations below.
Southeastern Botanical Gardens Illumination
Although illuminations are typically a cold-weather activity, those wintering in Okinawa can enjoy this nighttime wonderland from October to May. During this period, the Southeastern Botanical Gardens are decorated with lights inspired by the flora and fauna it houses.
Pro tip: Major Japanese cities will have tons of free illuminations to soak winter magic. In Tokyo, tree-lined spaces around Shibuya and Roppongi stations are good for grabbing some coffee and enjoying the lights with plenty of warm indoor spaces nearby.
Go Down Some of the World's Best Slopes
Japan is one of the world's snowiest countries, so it's no surprise it's a go-to destination for winter sports enthusiasts. Central and northern Japanese prefectures are home to most of the country's 565 ski resorts. You've got a lot of options, but here are our favorite destinations for skiing in Japan.
Slopes with intense inclines attract skiers and snowboarders from around the world. It's the most accessible ski and snowboarding area if you're coming from central Tokyo, a one-way trip averaging about three hours from Tokyo Station. Hakuba offers small-town charm and a laid-back energy popular with Japanese athletes.
First time in Nagano? Check out our foodie guide to Japan's winter wonderland.
In Hokkaido, Niseko's cold winds and high latitude make it a great place to clock in some slope time. The snow in this area has a lower water content, which some say is the secret to its being one of the best powders in the world. The area offers many amenities, including luxury accommodations and retreats. Niseko and surrounding resorts offer ultra-luxe travel experiences and gourmet cuisine, making it a popular place for celebrities and high-profile travelers to retreat.
Zao Onsen in Miyagi Prefecture offers rarer experiences and fewer crowds. It's also home to snow monsters. No, really! Zao snow monsters are largest at the end of winter, from mid-February into March. Trees covered in three months of snow are completely transformed into beautiful beasts that decorate the slopes of Mount Zao.
Shiga Kogen in Nagano Prefecture is the largest combined ski area in Japan. It's also a fantastic place for groups who aren't devoted to spending all their time dashing through the snow. With enough variety to satisfy anyone, from beginners to well-seasoned snowbirds, those looking for a thrill can enjoy the slopes while the rest of the party chills out.
When you're not hitting the slopes, slurp on some soba or sip on local sake. Signing up for a food tour ensures you get a bite of everything that's good. See byFood's Nagano food tours.
Partake in Christmas and Japanese New Year Celebrations
Winter in Japan is when some notable holidays occur: Christmas, New Year's and Valentine's Day.
Christmas is a romantic holiday in Japan, so it's common to see couples at many of the aforementioned illumination events. In addition to dates, Japan also has its own version of Christmas-y food: fried chicken and Christmas cake.
It's well-known that KFC is the Christmas meal of choice in Japan, but you don't need to limit yourself to the colonel's seven herbs and spices. Take advantage of multi-pack deals of Famichiki and other konbini fried chicken, which are only available around Christmastime. You'll also find Christmas campaigns at select restaurants and hotels that feature rotisserie chicken and other holiday staples reminiscent of North American traditions.
For dessert, treat yourself and your date to a Christmas cake. There are many options for you to choose from, but the classic cake for this time of year is strawberry shortcake.
Make your Christmas date extra special by making your very own strawberry shortcake. Sign you and your partner up for this baking experience in Tokyo.
Japanese New Year
Japan celebrates the New Year on January 1 though preparations and celebrations start from the end of December and generally extend until January 7. If you're visiting or traveling to Japan during this time, see how you can join the festivities. No matter where you are in the country, there are certain traditions and observations you can partake in. These include eating toshikoshi soba, eaten on December 31 to promise a long life, and hatsumode, or the first shrine visit of the year.
Hatsumode is practiced even among Japanese families who don't regularly visit shrines or temples. Some will visit on January 1 after midnight, while others will go sometime between January 1 and 3. During hatsumode, medium-sized and big shrines will have yatai selling hot food and drinks. After praying, be sure to line up for an omikuji and set your best intentions for the new year.
Meiji-Jingu Shrine and Senso-ji Temple are the most popular shrines to visit for hatsumode in Tokyo, but they will be packed, and you can expect to wait a few hours in the cold. Instead, consider popping by lesser-known shrines. We recommend Gohyaku Rakanji Temple in Meguro or a small, local shrine near you. If you're okay with the crowds and queuing up, consider visiting one of Japan's most spiritual shrines or temples, like Hakusan Shrine in Ishikawa Prefecture or Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture.
In the first week of the new year, many Japanese households eat osechi ryori, which consists of multiple tiers of luck-bringing dishes. Due to its ceremonial nature and the fact it's only eaten during New Year's, osechi isn't exactly something you can just order at a local restaurant on a whim. Still, you should try it if you can.
There are two reliable ways to get osechi: order it from a specialty store and have it delivered, or head to the supermarket and assemble it yourself from pre-lined-up ingredients at the very end of December. Come January 2, convenience stores will even offer their versions half-off!
Valentine's Day & White Day
Valentine's Day and White Day are notable winter events, especially for stores and restaurants. Christmas is seen as a romantic holiday in Japan, but romantic and platonic relationships are celebrated on February 14. Traditionally, women give chocolate to the men in their lives on Valentine's Day, but nowadays, they give chocolate to their friends and classmates. Men return the gesture on March 14, or White Day, giving chocolates and other small gifts.
FAQ: What To Expect if You’re Visiting Japan in the Winter
What is the coldest month in Japan during the winter?
January is generally the coldest month, but changing climate patterns frequently see freezing temperatures cross into February. In northern Japan, a winter chill lasts well into March.
Does Japan receive a lot of snow each year?
The pervasive imagery of Shirakawago covered in snow and Kanazawa's rope-supported trees likely sparks fears in the hearts of potential visitors asking, "Just how cold is Japan in the winter?!" Fortunately, Tokyo's winters are relatively mild, with notable snowfall only every decade. Osaka and Kyoto are slightly colder on average than the capital, with enough snow to make the food and cultural capitals picturesque during this season. Northern Japan has harsher winters with lots of snow, whereas Okinawa remains warm enough to wear out your favorite T-shirt. (Though the ocean might be too cold to bathe in the winter.)
With decreased daylight and notable humidity in many areas, Japan's winters tend to feel particularly intense. Below is a simplified guide to expected snowfall, temperatures, and weather, organized by major travel destination.
Niseko receives between 12 and 17 meters of snow on an average year. The temperature is generally humid and overcast, with lows ranging between -11°C and -8°C and highs between -5°C and -2°C.
Sapporo gets about 5 meters of snow and has humid, snowy winters with average temperatures between -8 °C and 0°C.
Kanazawa sees about 3 meters of snow annually and humid winters with daily precipitation and wind. Temperatures can drop as low as -2°C (though they usually stick around 0°C) and as high as 10°C on some days.
Hakuba receives about 11 meters of snow every winter. Lows are between -10°C and -7°C, whereas highs are between 1°C and 5°C. Winters in Hakuba are humid and often overcast.
In Tokyo, winters are usually sunny and dry compared to other regions. Lows fall between 2°C and 4°C, and highs hover between 10 °C and 12°C.
Nagoya winters are similar to those in Tokyo. Highs range between 8°C and 12°C, and lows are between 0°C and 3°C. Winters here are windy and mildly humid, with some snow and occasional sleet.
Kyoto experiences a wave of temperatures throughout winter. Highs are between 9°C and 11°C, and lows are between 1°C and 3°C with little snow.
In Osaka, winter temperatures reach 13°C and go as low as 3°C. Winters here have little snow.
Kobe winters see highs ranging between 9°C and 12°C and lows between 3°C and 5°C. These are generally rainy and windy winters with warm and cold periods and average humidity.
Winter days in Hiroshima can get as warm as 12°C and as cold as 2°C. Winters here are dry winters with little precipitation and often overcast.
Fukuoka winters see highs between 9°C and 12°C and lows between 3°C and 5°C. The Kyushu city experiences short-term cold shocks with light snow, generally cloudy and relatively mild.
Okinawa is the warmest region in Japan during the winter months. Temperatures can go as high as 22°C and as low as 15°C. Winters here are humid and generally synonymous with bad weather.
What are some typical Japanese winter foods?
Christmas and New Year's holidays have their own food traditions. What else do you eat during the winter months in Japan? Hot pot dishes like oden, sukiyaki and motsunabe are especially popular. In rural areas, hearty game comes into season, while coastal regions enjoy fatty fish such as buri (amberjack), katsuo (skipjack tuna), and crab. Adventurous diners can enjoy winter specialties like creamy shirako (spelt) and kanimiso (crab-paste). For desserts, look to warm zenzai (red-bean porridge) with chewy shiratama rice dumplings or kuromame (sweetened black soybeans).
Want a more comprehensive list? Check out our winter foods post for more foodie inspo.
What activities do most people do indoors during the winter in Japan?
The kotatsu is synonymous with the winter season in Japan. Many homes lack central heating, so snuggling up under a blanket with a good book, manga, or handheld game is the best way to stay warm. Alternatively, take this season to perfect your karaoke performances or check out art exhibitions near you.
Don't sleep on visiting Japan in the winter. There's magic in the air, delicious winter foods, and plenty of activities regardless of whether the outdoorsy type or a homebody. byFood hosts a range of experiences to take your trip to the next level. Book a food tour, visit a sake brewery ('tis the season!), and get out there to see a side of Japan only those who brave the cold and see.