The best things to do in Japan in winter include savouring steaming hotpot and soaking in hot springs in onsen towns, dining at Tokyo’s best restaurants, when it’s easier to get bookings, and sipping new season sake. Winter in Japan is also the best time for cultural experiences such as trying your hand at pottery or ikebana, taking Japanese cooking lessons, and experiencing a tea ceremony.
Since re-opening, Japan has become one of the hottest destinations during its coldest time of year. As readers loved this local guide to Japan in winter by Hakuba resident Peter Schellenberger, a snowboarder and skier who, with his Japanese wife Shiko, owns the stylish, comfy Hakuba Downtown Apartments, we thought we’d share more tips to travelling Japan in winter.
This time we’ve got a guide to things to do in Japan in winter from another Japan insider, Jane Lawson, a food and travel writer, culinary tour guide, and cookbook author whose book Zenbu Zen – Finding Food, Culture and Balance in Kyoto is one of the very best Japanese cookbooks. (You can get a taste of Jane’s butaniku no kakuni recipe here.)
The lovely Jane has travelled Japan for 40 years, living in Kyoto and Tokyo, and hosts small-group Japanese food and culture tours through her business Zenbu Tours. Jane’s trips offer deep dives into Japanese cuisine and crafts, with plenty of immersive experiences and loads of opportunities to connect with locals in the places you explore.
Jane is currently in Japan (you can follow Jane on Instagram) preparing for upcoming winter tours (and she still has a few spots left!) and a delicious 12-day Kyo-ryori Kyoto cuisine and culture tour in May 2023, which Jane is co-hosting with iconic Australian chef Peter Gilmore, of two of Sydney’s best restaurants, Quay and Bennelong.
If you can’t get to Japan in winter, our friends at Luxury Escapes, an online travel agent offering luxury holidays for a lot less than you’d normally pay, also have a 10-day Japan tour on offer from May 2023 to April 2024 including flights, accommodation, breakfasts, some other meals, a Shinkansen bullet train trip from Kyoto to Mt. Fuji, and lots of other experiences, from $4,299 per person.
Before we share Jane’s guide to the things to do in Japan in winter, I have a favour to ask. Grantourismo is reader-funded. If you’ve enjoyed our travel guides, itineraries, stories, or recipes, please consider supporting Grantourismo by using our links to book accommodation, rent a car or campervan or motorhome, buy travel insurance, book a tour on Klook or Get Your Guide, or a trip on Luxury Escapes (link above). We may earn a small commission but you won’t pay extra.
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You could also shop our Grantourismo store at Society 6 for plenty of great gifts designed with Terence’s photography. Here’s Jane’s insider guide to the best things to do in Japan in winter.
Things to Do in Japan in Winter – An Insider Guide to What to Do, See, Eat and Drink
Q. What’s Japan in winter like?
A. Cool, crisp air in most parts – colder, with a lot more snow up north, less so down south. I prefer travelling in Japan in cool weather – lugging yourself around in the heat of summer is exhausting, which is one of the reasons why most of my Japan tours run during winter.
They’re also often Kyoto-based as the atmosphere is so sublime at that time, cloaked in pristine alpine air from the mountain ranges which encircle it. It’s also a great escape from hot humid summers in other parts of the world!
Q. The best way to travel around Japan in winter?
A. Honestly, the best way to travel around most of Japan is by train. Their public and private railways network is phenomenal. You can even move from one island to the other, for example, from Hokkaido to Kyushu by the Shinkansen (bullet train) network.
Taking trains is much easier and quicker than attempting to drive, which I don’t recommend unless you are visiting certain regional areas (like Aichi prefecture and parts of Kyushu), where it’s more convenient and interesting to drive and there’s a lot less traffic. Don’t even think about driving in Tokyo.
Q. Best kind of accommodation to check into in Japan in winter?
A. One of the quintessential things to do in Japan in winter is to experience a ryokan or traditional inn, which usually includes a sumptuous dinner and breakfast as part of the package, and an in-house onsen or public baths for soaking and relaxing.
In ryokan, you sleep on futon on tatami floors. Although ryokan owners are embracing the western bed concept. People usually only stay a couple of nights, really enjoying the facilities. They range in styles from rustic to very high end.
Alternatively, if luxe floats your boat, try to choose a five-star hotel that also has an air of traditional style, such as Kyoto’s Hyatt Regency and The Okura Tokyo. We’ll stay at both during my early 2023 cuisine and culture tours.
Another kind of accommodation to check into in Japan in winter are machiya or old shop houses which have been converted into contemporary lodgings and are suitable for couples, small families or close friends.
They are ideal for travellers who really want to enjoy a truly local experience. They’re easiest to locate in Kyoto neighbourhoods, but are also popping up in Kanazawa and smaller, atmospheric regional areas.
Q. Best places to experience Japan in winter and things to do there?
A. Some of the best things to do in Japan in winter are cultural experiences and activities like trying your hand at pottery, attending a tea ceremony, doing an ikebana class in flower arranging, or taking some regional Japanese cooking lessons.
Winter is Japan is also the best time to visit some of the many incredible museums, art galleries and design spaces or attend a musical or dance performance.
Another of my favourite things to do in Japan in winter is soak in the hot springs in onsen towns like stunning traditional Kinosaki, not far from Kyoto, or Beppu in Oita in Kyushu, which have plenty of natural hot springs for relaxation and rejuvenation.
Taking photos in Japan in winter is a real joy. Photography lovers should settle into Kyoto or Kanazawa, both of which are a photographer’s dream for the temples and the traditional gardens under snow.
Q. Japan is even more serene in winter, isn’t it?
A. Definitely. There are less people around during winter in Japan, allowing for a truer, quieter appreciation of special temples and gardens. Japan is noticeably less rushed, more peaceful and relaxing, even in the cities, such as Tokyo.
Q. Best local things to do in Japan in winter?
A. The winter environment is perfect for diving into cosy cafes, reading that book you never got around to, sipping new season sake, and just wandering and taking it all in – perhaps embracing the starkness of a winter garden or lingering in the sunshine on temple decks.
Q. Winter in Japan is the best season for food, right?
A. Absolutely. One of the best things to do in Japan in winter is to eat! Winter is the best season for food, particularly the country’s beautiful seafood, and it’s easier to get into the best Tokyo restaurants in winter.
Q. Best Japanese specialties and drinks to savour during winter in Japan?
A. The first Japanese dish to try is katsu kare, which is super popular in Japan in winter. Crumbed and friend pork loin or fillet is deep fried to perfection, sliced, and served with rice, a rich Japanese curry sauce over the top, and addictive pickles. In some regions, like Gifu or Aichi prefecture, a deep red (aka) or brown (hatcho) miso sauce is preferred.
Another one of the most delicious things to do in Japan in winter for food-lovers is to experience nabe (hotpot), named for the nabeyaki cooking vessel or hotpot. This is quintessential Japanese winter fare.
Hotpots include a meat of your choice, fresh veggies and/or tofu, and noodles or rice are added to the broth at the end. Every household or restaurant has a different variation, adding local miso or other seasonings.
A must-try drink in Japan in winter is yuzu-cha, a hot drink made with a kind of yuzu jam and hot water, sometimes with honey or fresh grated ginger, or a splash of sake or shochu!
Q. Best ways to meet locals in Japan in winter?
A. Simply hang out in cafes or bars – locals who are confident enough with their English skills may strike up a conversation for practice. Or wander craft markets or streetscapes of areas where people live or study. Kuramae, Shimokitazawa or Kichijoji in Tokyo spring to mind.
Explore regional areas, where people are usually a bit more interested in why you are there and more likely to chat. Those passionate about their village or region sometimes offer to guide you freely around their town.
Joining a Japan tour that goes deeper into Japanese culture is a great idea. For example, we’ll travel to Mie prefecture on my January tour where we’ll meet some Ama octogenarian female pearl and abalone divers who will regale us with their stories of the sea while they barbecue our freshly fished lunch.
Q. Packing tips for Japan in winter?
A. It depends what part of Japan you visit and what part of winter you’re travelling in, but note that February is peak winter time. Layers are super important, as indoors are often well heated. So if you are carrying around a coat when in a shop, for example, you’ll want to make sure it’s warm but lightweight.
Comfortable walking shoes or boots need to be easy to take off, too, as the Japanese don’t wear shoes indoors, particularly in traditional buildings, including temples. Warm hole-free socks are important for the same reason.
Take gloves, scarf and a beanie or similar if you really feel the cold. In the southern part of Japan some days can be quite warm, so again, layers are important.
If you’re spending a lot of time outdoors you might want to consider thermals. Thermal tights and under shirts are easily available at Uniqlo in Japan if you find you need them.
Also, it’s easy to find hand or pocket warmer packs in 100 yen stores or supermarkets. They’re great for those who really feel the cold as you can crack them open any time!
Q. Quintessential winter souvenirs from Japan?
A. A beautiful indigo scarf from a local artisan, a vintage kimono, or a stunning handmade ceramic cup to have your morning coffee at home… reminding you of your time in Japan.
Images courtesy of Luxury Escapes
Do you have any suggestions to add to our insider guide to things to do in Japan in winter? Feel free to share your Japan tips in the comments below.