Japan in winter is a must for everything from skiing in Hakuba to visiting Nagano’s snow monkeys, best visited between December and March. Other essential things to do in Japan in winter include seeing the deer in Nara, staying in a traditional ryokan, relaxing in an onsen, slurping curry soup in Furano and sipping local `atsakan’ warm sake anywhere.
Since Japan fully reopened to international travellers this month, the Japanese tourism industry has been reporting strong interest in Japan for the winter season. As we’ve only been to Japan in spring and autumn, we thought we’d consult a local friend and Japan insider for local tips to travelling in Japan in winter, especially for winter sports lovers.
Avid snowboarder and skier, Australian Peter Schellenberger and his Japanese wife Shiko have lived in Hakuba, Japan’s premiere winter sports destination, for many years. There they run a cafe-pub and the super comfortable, and especially cosy-in-winter accommodation, Hakuba Downtown Apartments which get exceptional reviews.
Now is the time to book your winter in Japan, as there are great deals everywhere. For instance, Luxury Escapes – the site that offers luxe holidays and hotels for a lot less than you’d normally pay – has a 5-night Japan ski escape with daily breakfast, ski lift pass and onsens from $1,299 per person, and an 8-day tour taking in Tokyo, Hakone, Takayama, Hiroshima, Miyajima Island, Himeji, and Kyoto for $3,129 per person.
Peter’s local guide to winter in Japan is next in our Local Knowledge series of local guides to places, launched in 2010 when we launched Grantourismo with a mission to promote slow, local and experiential travel, which we believe are more meaningful and memorable forms of travel.
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Japan in Winter – Local Guide to Where to Go in Winter in Japan and Winter Sports Tips
Q. Why should travellers experience Japan in winter?
A. No one ever says “let’s go skiing in Vail and experience American culture”. There is so much more to a skiing trip in Japan – from the food and temples to the mega cities, and even Disney. On top of that, you get some of the best skiing on the planet. Japow!
Q. What’s it like in Japan in winter?
A. Japan is huge – from Okinawa in the south, which is tropical in winter, to Hokkaido, which can be blasted by Siberian winds. In Japan’s Northern Alps, in Nagano Prefecture, especially here in Hakuba, it can mean a metre of snow overnight, which we LOVE.
Last season, we had 50cm from 9am to 4pm! If you are on a winter ski holiday, that’s awesome. If you are a local living in Hakuba, it means a lot of snow clearing before an epic day of skiing.
Q. Best places to go in Japan in winter?
A. For me, the best place to go in Japan in winter is the Northern Alps, in particular Hakuba. I loved it so much, I moved here. For first time travellers to Japan in winter – and many times after for lots of travellers who keep returning year after year – Hakuba is the perfect winter family holiday destination. It’s fantastic for groups.
Hakuba is affordable, English is widely spoken, there’s a wide range of off-snow activities, the skiing is incredible, and you can also do a day trip to the snow monkeys, which is a must-do in winter. The best time of year to visit the snow monkeys is December to March when they spend most of their time huddling together or in the onsen to stay warm. The snow monkey are in Nagano, an hour by train from Hakuba.
Of course, no trip to Japan is complete without a stop in Tokyo. For the kids, there is Disneyland and so much more. Night time, wandering down the small lanes of Omoide Yokocho to eat yakatori and drink beers with the salarymen, kicking on in Shinjuku’s small bars and clubs, then walking that off after breakfast the next morning in one of the many beautiful parks. It’s a sensory overload in the best way.
It’s a must to go to Nara to see the deer, and that’s just the start. In Nara, stay in a traditional ryokan and enjoy an onsen before dinner, after dinner and before breakfast. The dinners at ryokans are superb. Ask for the local `atsakan’ which is form of sake.
Q. Best way to get around in Japan in winter?
A. Travel in Japan in winter is super easy. Trains are king in Japan, whether longer distances over the incredible Shinkansen network or local trains when travelling through and around any of the large cities.
In some places hire cars can be useful in Japan. But things to consider when hiring a car in Japan is the need for an IDP and an effectively zero blood alcohol content, so you are better off walking or taking a train or taxi when going out for dinner.
Q. Best places for snowboarding and skiing in Japan?
A. Hakuba is the best winter ski destination in Japan for beginners through to those wanting the steep back country adventures only the mountains here can provide. With 10 resorts spread along the valley, and with so much terrain choices, it’s perfect for families, groups and individuals wanting an easy affordable ski trip to Japan.
Niseko is great for those wanting a more Western-style upmarket holiday. The skiing in Niseko is great for beginners and intermediates, with some limited advanced terrain on resort. In the last ten years there has been significant development and the old-time charm of Hirafu has been replaced with the glitz you see in larger US and European ski resorts, which some travellers love.
Further afield, for those looking for alternatives to Hauka and Niseko, we really love Furano in Hokkaido. The actual town is a short distance from the ski resorts but is our pick to stay in for a winter ski trip. Make sure you try the famous Japanese curry soup there.
Nozawa Onsen in Nagano prefecture is unique in that it’s possible to bounce between free public onsens throughout the village which is a great way to relax after a day’s skiing there.
Q. Do snowboarders and skiers need to bring their own gear?
A. To avoid lugging ski gear many guests rent ski equipment here. In the larger places such as Hakuba, Niseko and Furano there are now ski rental shops that specialise on inbound guests, carrying a wide range of sizes and new and near new equipment.
If you do want to bring your own ski equipment, it’s possible to send it direct to your accommodation from the airport, but you need to allow a couple days for it to arrive. Many guests take advantage of that and spend their first few days in Tokyo before heading up to the Alps.
Q. Your packing tips for Japan in winter?
A. Bring layers, both to ski in and for getting around town. For being on the mountain, a base layer, mid layer and shell is the best way to dress. With so much powder, a jacket with powder skirt or wearing bibs is a must.
I like my snow gear slightly oversized so that no skin is ever exposed to the snow. At night time, leave your ski jacket with lift pass at home and wear something warm and water repellent. Beanies, gloves and good shoes are a must.
Q. Tips for recovering after a day on the slopes?
A. After a day on the snow nothing beats an onsen. Just make sure you read up on onsen etiquette. Ask if tattoos are ok, if you have any. In places like Hakuba, it’s not an issue but in places more further afield tattoos will preclude you from entry into onsens.
A Japanese massage is another great way to end the day, especially for tired and sore legs and feet. Often, I keep massages to down days. but they are awesome after an onsen.
Drink, eat and chat about your day. Nothing beats sitting with family and friends, old and new, and recounting what a great day you had.
Q. Tips for Japanese food and drink to warm up?
A. Enjoy some Japanese beer – for tap beer, it’s hard to go past a Kirin, but many places also stock a good selection of craft beers and wine. My favourite drink is atsakan, which is warm sake. Always ask for the local atsakan. If there is more than one, you can guess what my next advice is… coupled with some karage, Japanese fried chicken, it’s the perfect way to warm up in winter in Japan. Kampai!
Q. Best way to meet locals in Japan in winter?
A. One of the highlights of travel is meeting people, particularly locals, and the best way to do this in Japan is to go into small local shops and buy from small local businesses, bars and restaurants.
The chairlift is also a great place for meeting locals in ski resorts in Japan. One tip is if you are skiing with a group, break up a bit and offer to share your chairs with locals. With some broken English and Japanese, you may meet a new friend for life.
Q. A quintessential souvenir or gift from Japan?
A. Omiyagi is different for everyone, whether it’s a kimono for a niece, some obscure manga for a nephew, or some local arts and crafts for other family members, there is always a wide selection of gifts. Popular gifts also include hats, shirts, and even beer cozies!
Images courtesy of Luxury Escapes
Do you have any tips to add to our local’s guide to Japan in winter based on your experience? We’d love to get your Japan tips in the comments below.