Kenrokuen, Ishikawa1/5
Photo: Sean Pavone/DreamstimeKenrokuen in Ishikawa
Shirakawago Winter Light-Up2/5
Photo: Supparuj Taechatanont/Dreamstime
Zao Snow Monsters, Yamagata3/5
Photo: Kaedeenari/DreamstimeZao Snow Monsters in Yamagata
Nabana no Sato Illuminations, Mie – cropped to fit4/5
Photo: Vichaya Kiatyingangsulee/DreamstimeNabana no Sato Illuminations, Mie
Ginzan Onsen5/5
Photo: Sean Pavone/DreamstimeGinzan Onsen in Yamagata

9 most beautiful winter destinations in Japan

From snowy mountains to a white onsen town, there are plenty of places to make the most of the chilly season

By Kaila Imada
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Sure, Japan is popular for spring cherry blossoms and colourful autumn foliage, but don’t pass up the winter season. Come the cooler months, Japan has many magical spots boasting some of the country’s best scenery.

Whether you prefer to spend your time at a sprawling ski resort, a snowy onsen town or to catch a stunning ice festival, there’s so much to see when the weather cools down. And don’t worry about the cold – you can always warm up after an outdoor excursion by dipping into a hot spring or slurping up a hearty bowl of ramen. If you’re looking for a new place to explore this winter, add these gorgeous destinations to your itinerary. 

BE SAFE: Before you go, read our guide on how to go out safely, as well as the new domestic travel guidelines

Japan's winter wonderlands

Zao Snow Monsters, Yamagata
Zao Snow Monsters, Yamagata
Photo: Kaedeenari/Dreamstime

Zao Snow Monsters, Yamagata

The Zao Hot Springs Ski Resort is home to these chilling ice monsters otherwise known as juhyo. These natural formations are actually evergreen trees that become enveloped with snow and make for a stunning winter sight. For the ice monsters to appear, specific climate conditions have to be met, meaning there’s only a limited number of places and times that you can see this natural phenomenon.

Nabana no Sato Illuminations, Mie
Nabana no Sato Illuminations, Mie
Photo: Vichaya Kiatyingangsulee/Dreamstime

Nabana no Sato Illuminations, Mie

This festival may not be snow-related, but the light-up at Nabana no Sato is one of the best winter illuminations in Japan. This botanical garden on the small island of Nagashima in Mie prefecture turns into a brilliant display of winter lights, showcasing millions of sparking LEDs forming iridescent rivers, waterfalls and more. The illumination continues all the way through to May, so there’s plenty of time to stop by and see it.

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shirakawa go
shirakawa go
Photo: pen_ash/Pixabay

Shirakawa-go, Gifu

The immaculately preserved Japanese village of Shirakawa-go is a sight to behold during the winter. Also designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site, the village is made up of numerous gassho-zukuri thatched-roof farmhouses that have been converted into hotels, restaurants and museums. The houses are designed to withstand heavy snowfall and make for a whimsical sight when covered in fresh snow.

Kenrokuen, Ishikawa
Kenrokuen, Ishikawa
Photo: Sean Pavone/Dreamstime

Kenrokuen, Ishikawa

Kenrokuen in Ishikawa prefecture is considered one of Japan’s three great gardens. The well-manicured space is a popular spot to visit year-round, but during the winter, it’s particularly special. When snow falls, a blanket of white covers the grounds and turns the landscape into a truly serene space. The garden is often lit up during winter evenings and sometimes mini concerts are even held at the on-site Uchihashi-tei teahouse.

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Ginzan Onsen
Ginzan Onsen
Photo: Sean Pavone/Dreamstime

Ginzan Onsen, Yamagata

Once a former silver mine, Ginzan Onsen has since been turned into one of the most picturesque onsen resort towns in all of Japan. As a reminder of the past, it’s name literally means ‘silver mountain hot spring’ and the area features numerous ryokan (traditional Japanese inns), which line the river that runs through the town. Ginzan Onsen really is a stunner in winter when fallen snow collects on the rooftops and streets. Best of all, the town centre is pedestrian-only, so you can meander through this picture-perfect spot at your own pace.

Snow Monkey
Snow Monkey
Photo: Lim Chee Wah

Jigokudani Monkey Park, Nagano

Head to this park to meet the Japanese macaques, better known as snow monkeys, who lounge around in its steamy hot spring waters. You’ll find this winter retreat inside Joshinetsu Kogen National Park in Nagano prefecture.The monkeys often bathe in the onsen year round, but if you’d like to catch them with snowy surrounds, head up to the park between January and February.

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Misotsuchi Icicles, Saitama
Misotsuchi Icicles, Saitama
Photo: Kou2301/Photo AC

Misotsuchi Icicles, Saitama

Heading up to see the Misotsuchi Icicles in Chichibu makes for an ideal day trip from Tokyo. Best seen in January and February, this natural phenomenon is the result of spring water from the Arakawa River being frozen to the surface of rocks. The icicles are also worth a visit in the evening as they are lit up in different colours to add to the mystical atmosphere.

Shiretoko National Park
Shiretoko National Park
Photo: Yamaoyaji/Shutterstock

Shiretoko National Park, Hokkaido

Hokkaido’s sprawling national park lies along the Sea of Okhotsk and, come winter, you can see drift ice that floats down from Russia's Amur River. From January through to April – peak drift ice season – there are numerous activities available including drift ice cruises and ice walking tours. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to catch a glimpse of some of the wildlife living amongst the drift ice, such as seabirds and spotted seals.

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Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, Toyama
Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, Toyama
Photo: Navapon Plodprong/Dreamstime

Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, Toyama

This spectacular route through the Japanese alps stretches from Toyama all the way to Nagano prefecture and offers some pretty impressive scenery. Most notable is the staggering snow corridor, where the buildup of snow can reach as high as 20 metres. Due to the danger of collapse, the snow corridor is only open from spring onwards, but you could fool anyone into thinking its winter with a few photos from this spot.

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