Winter in Japan – a Complete Guide to Wintertime in Japan

Wondering what the best season to visit Japan might be? You may be surprised to find winter in Japan is quite the spectacular travel destination. Read on and find out what awaits.

Photo credit: hans-johnson via flickr cc

Photo credit: hans-johnson via flickr cc

Japan in winter is a fantastic place to be. The islands are awash with activities, festivals, foods and more, all ready for you to discover and enjoy. There are a few things to take into account before visiting Japan in winter, however, most pressingly the weather. Accordingly, in this, our comprehensive guide to Japan in winter, we’ll run you through what to expect from the season’s weather before moving on to the fun stuff like food, activities and festivals. 

Winter Weather in Japan

map Japan

Winter in Japan is varied, with your experience depending massively on where you are. The islands that form Japan stretch an impressive length (ca. 24° north latitude to 146° east longitude) and are therefore subjected to very different meteorological conditions. The four main islands from north to south are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, but Japan also includes the southward extending Ryukyu Island chain of which Okinawa is the most famous part.

Hokkaido

Long, cold winters with plenty of snow and temperatures dipping well below 0°C are the norm on Hokkaido. The northernmost island plays host to Japan’s most extreme winter weather so prepare accordingly.  

Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu

Honshu is generally more temperate than Hokkaido with a mainly warm, oceanic climate. However, in winter, when freezing Siberian winds blow over the Sea of Japan the west of the island does experience significantly low temperatures and heavy snowfall. The same can be said of the small island of Shikoku and Kyushu.  

Winters in this climate zone are medium to short in length and rather low in intensity. Exceptions aren’t uncommon, however, so bear this in mind when packing. 

Weather report on NHK - 02/09/2011

Weather report on NHK – 02/09/2011

Ryukyu Island Chain

The Ryukyu Islands are in a humid, subtropical climate zone which means there is no snowfall in winter. The temperature does drop and the surrounding Pacific Ocean is not warm enough to go swimming, but Okinawa is Japan’s winter escape plan. 

Dangers in Winter

Winter weather in Japan is certainly not as volatile as in other regions, but with snow and frost come dangers such as avalanches, slippery roads and snow storms. Be aware that weather can always surprise you and make sure to check weather forecasts and warnings on television and radio regularly.

For more information on Japan’s climate, weather and dangers, check the Japan Meteorological Agency’s Website.

Winter Food in Japan

There are some delicious winter foods Japan traditionally serves up during the cold season only. Of course, recent tourist requests have been heeded and you can eat most of the mentioned delicacies all-year round, but they do hold a special place in the heart of Japanese for being comfort winter foods.

Nabe and oden are two of the really popular ones. Nabe literally means “pot” and is a soup dish with lots of vegetables, tofu, noodles and meat that is eaten around a table with friends and family. There are several variations to choose from so go ahead and try several different ones if you get the chance. Oden is often sold in convenience stores and food stands and is also a soup dish with potatoes, vegetables, noodles, fried tofu and more. These two dishes are great to warm you up from inside out.

Another great winter dish that will warm your hands while you eat it is nikuman (meat buns), which you’ll find in all convenience stores in winter. Supermarkets also sell them frozen for warming up in a microwave at home. Grab one to go if you’re feeling peckish and cold – there’s nothing better! Also, they come in many variations, so if you’re not a meat-eater, pick a pizaman (pizza bun) or a chiizuman (cheese bun) instead.

There are also plenty of seasonal fruits in winter which you can buy at supermarkets. Most prominent are the delicious native mandarins that you can buy for something like 200 yen for a bag of 6. 

Besides the above-mentioned foods, there are plenty of regional specialties in winter you should definitely keep an eye out for. Banners and sale signs will guide you to them in supermarkets and television will show you where the most delicious morsels can be bought. Check out our Hokkaido Food Guide for delicious meals in the north.

Winter Festivals in Japan

Japan holds many traditional festivals in winter. Those in Hokkaido that are essentially a celebration of snow and are spectacular.

Sapporo Yuki Matsuri

Photo credit: iyoupapa via flickr cc

Photo credit: iyoupapa via flickr cc

Sapporo’s Snow Festival is famous for its spectacular larger-than-life statues and buildings made entirely from snow and ice. The illuminations at night are particularly popular and live events are held daily throughout the festival. Check out the official page of the snow festival for recent information and show times as well as the temperatures and how long the statues might remain.

Fireworks in Winter

Photo credit: tetu via flickr cc

Photo credit: tetu via flickr cc

Summer firework festivals in Japan are supremely popular but we should be careful not to neglect the winter version. The icy winter sky is the perfect backdrop onto which Hokkaido festival organizers paint beautifully clear fireworks every winter. Should you be in the mood for some excitement, you should definitely check out the firework festivals. We’ve got one particularly good recommendation below:

Asahikawa’s Winter Festival on the banks of Ishikari River.

Winter Traditions in Japan

Japan has plenty of traditional events and rituals to enjoy in winter. Here are a few of the best:

Mizukaburi

Winter Fashion Inspiration from Japan's #yonekawa #mizukaburi.

A photo posted by Yoshi Coryne (@obese_and_illiterate) on

Famous for its strangeness, the Yonekawa Mizukaburi (米川水かぶり) tradition is held each winter in Miyagi Prefecture. The tradition involves dowsing houses, and in many cases oneself, with water amidst the freezing temperatures. The tradition is age old and said to bring health and good luck to old buildings. 

Onsen

Photo credit: Yosemite [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Yosemite [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Having a dip in one of Japan’s many onsens in winter is one of the nation’s all-time favorite past-times and definitely worth trying out. If the water isn’t for you, watch the bathing macaques in Jigokudani, Nagano Prefecture. The monkeys relaxing in the hot bath are one of Japan’s signature images, so go have a peek.

Map to Jigokudani Monkeypark

Christmas and New Year

Unlike the West, Japan celebrates Christmas as a romantic holiday, meant for couples and maybe friends rather than family. New Year’s, on the other hand, is an extremely traditional event where many people travel home to the countryside hundreds of miles away to be with family. Hatsu hi no de, or the first sunrise of the year, holds deep meaning and millions across the country visit temples during the three days between the 31st of December and the 2nd of January. 

Setsubun no Hi

Gif credit: sawamur via flickr cc

Gif credit: sawamur via flickr cc

Setsubun no Hi involves throwing beans at oni (demons 鬼) to chase them away. Sometimes, people will dress up as demons and run around the rooms of houses and in front of temples as a target for the bean-throwing masses. This tradition is quite huge to Japan and is celebrated nationwide on February 3rd in honor of the start of spring. 

Winter Sports in Japan

Photo credit: Kikuko Nakayama via flickr cc

Photo credit: Kikuko Nakayama via flickr cc

Japan is also a great place for skiing, sledding and snowboarding – albeit quite crowded in places. Due to mountainous terrain covering large parts of Japan, you have quite a range of skiing destinations to pick from in the northern part of Honshu and Hokkaido. Getting it right will leave you with great weather, few people and some spectacular slopes, so have a look at our article below on skiing in Japan. Again, keep an eye on the warnings and changing weather always.

Skiing in Japan a Comprehensive Guide

Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto in Winter

We’ve researched three of Japan’s cities for you and found plenty of events, festivals, places to visit and all round perfect spots to be in winter. Have a look at our articles on things to do in winter in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto below:

Tokyo Winter – Things to Do in Tokyo in Winter

Osaka Winter – Things to Do in Osaka in Winter

Kyoto Winter – Things to Do in Kyoto in Winter

Other Destinations

Especially in Hokkaido, there are beautiful natural spectacles to be enjoyed during winter. Check some of our articles below for more references on things to do in winter in the northern part of Japan.

Kushiro Shitsugen National Park Travel Guide

Shiretoko National Park Travel Guide

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Samantha Khairallah

Samantha Khairallah

Originally from Switzerland, currently studying in Tokyo. With a wide array of interests, including travel, I'm passionate about what I write here at Compathy Magazine.



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