Although the winter scenery differs greatly across Japan’s long archipelago, it is no less beautiful in the warmer south than the snowy north. From delicious seasonal foods to wintery views, from shimmering holiday light displays to roaring waterfalls, each region has its own charms and its own perfect winter escape for when the hustle of life in the big cities don’t jive with the cozy vibes of the season.
Whether you’re an adventurer interested in climbing stunning snow-capped peaks or a creature of comfort who prefers soaking in a steaming onsen (hot spring), our list below has a vacation spot for everyone. Read on for some of the best winter spots across the country, from north to south!
Shikotsu-Toya National Park (Hokkaido)
Nestled in the southwestern corner of Hokkaido, Shikotsu-Toya National Park stars its namesakes, Lake Shikotsu and Lake Toya. As Japan’s second deepest lake with a depth of 360m, Shikotsu is also famous for its high degree of transparency. Due to its depth, this lake doesn’t freeze in the winter months and makes for a beautiful sight to take in while snowshoeing around its edges. Lake Toya, meanwhile, hosts a Winter Fireworks Festival in February, which lights up the sky above the lake and nearby Mount Usu, an active volcano. Be sure to stop by Toyako Onsen Town for their outdoor hot springs, which allow you to bathe at the same level as the lake.
Akiu Great Falls (Miyagi)
Together with Tochigi’s Kegon Falls and Wakayama’s Nachi Falls, Miyagi Prefecture’s Akiu Great Falls is considered one of Japan’s three most beautiful waterfalls. Measuring 55m tall and 6m wide, these falls are best viewed in the winter when pristine snow blankets the slopes on either side and the tops of rocks in the basin below. Around a 20-minute drive from the Great Falls, you’ll find Taoya Akiu Onsen Village, which packs in plenty of public and hotel hot springs, local dining options and the natural beauty that Tohoku is known for.
Lake Okushima (Gunma)
Known for its mesmerizing Shima blue water with its high transparency and intense cobalt hues, Lake Okushima is a treasure in Gunma Prefecture’s Joshinetsu Kogen National Park. While the most popular time of year for visitors tends to be in May when snowmelt from nearby mountains flows down to the lake, winter is also fantastic due to the increasing transparency of the water. Contrasted with the gray skies, snowy tree tops and mountain peaks, the vibrancy of the lake’s blue only heightens and the temperature drops. For a break from the icy elements, head to Shima Onsen for outdoor hot springs in a snowy wonderland.
Iiyama City (Nagano)
Located far to the north in Nagano Prefecture and with a population of only 20,000, Iiyama City is a remote destination offering ski resorts, hot springs and unique restaurants serving local foods. Togari Onsen Ski Resort is one of four hot spring resorts in the area and is perfect for visitors looking to hit the slopes, try Japan’s first trails designed for snow bicycles and soothe weary bodies in outdoor baths. If you want to try some regional cuisine in a picturesque environment, check out Restaurant Kamakura Village opening in January 2024. Savor noroshi nabe, a miso hot pot packed with local produce and pork, while sitting in a traditional Japanese snow hut.
For centuries, Miyajima, Matsushima and Amanohashidate have been considered the Top Three Scenic Places in Japan. Situated in northern Kyoto Prefecture, Amanohashidate is a 3.6-kilometer sandbar populated by 5,000 pine trees across Miyazu Bay. Head over to the Amanohashidate Viewland in the winter and see the terrain transformed with snow and ice.
Try taking in the scene via a unique viewing position called mata nozoki. Turn your back to the sandbar and look at it upside down through your legs; it will look like a snowy dragon flying through the sky.
Horikawa River Tour (Shimane)
The Horikawa River in Shimane Prefecture offers breathtaking views throughout the year. However, during the winter season, from early November to early April, you can embark along the river via the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat, featuring a special touch—a kotatsu powered by a charcoal briquette warmer. This unique experience allows you to explore three distinct vistas along the river.
Firstly, you’ll delve into the region’s rich history, marked by the awe-inspiring Matsue Castle, a national treasure. You’ll then encounter Matsue’s blend of retro and modern architecture. The journey also treats you to winter nature scenes, with the sky, forest and water creating a serene backdrop accompanied only by the soothing sounds of nature, occasionally interrupted by birdsongs.
Sanuki Manno National Park (Kagawa)
With a total area of about 3.5 square kilometers, Kagawa Prefecture’s Sanuki Manno National Park is the only state-run park on the island of Shikoku. While the park boasts several seasonal flowers all year round, it saves the winter months for its largest annual festival: Winter Fantasy. From the end of November to the beginning of January, the opening hours are extended into the nighttime and nearly 32,000 square meters of the grounds are illuminated in a sea of colors.
Additional installations, such as a champagne glass pyramid, are also brought out for the occasion making for a festive atmosphere on a chilly night.
Mount Aso (Kumamoto)
While Kyushu may not come to mind when you think of winter with its scorching summers, don’t underestimate the natural wonders of the south. Aso-Kuju National Park covers over 700 square kilometers across Oita and Kumamoto prefectures and features Japan’s largest active volcano, Mount Aso.
In winter, grab a warm pair of hiking boots and hit one of the many trails to catch glimpses of the many snow-capped peaks. If you can head to Mount Tsurumi, the 1,375m volcano looming over Oita’s hot spring paradise, Beppu, you’ll see the mountain awash in delicate rime ice.