Japan, at first glance, might not seem like the snowy winter wonderland of our dreams. Still, with the Japan Meteorological Agency predicting heavy snowfall this winter (thanks to La Nina), Santa might just pack up and move shop down south with Jack Frost nipping at his heels.
These winter towns will more than satisfy your chestnuts-roasting-on-an-open-fire fantasies, with most of this list featuring the real “North Pole” of Japan: Hokkaido, a cornucopia of winter ski resorts, hot springs, snowy tundras and Christmas-y feels that’ll make even Scrooge squeal with delight.
1. Discover Santa’s workshop in Otaru
It’s not too hard to see little elves tinkering with toys and trinkets for the little girls and boys in this serene winter town. Dubbed the “Venice of the north” for its winding canal, Otaru is filled with magnificent glassworks, including the much-visited Music Box Museum.
In Otaru, you can relive the nostalgia of Christmas mornings and create your own noel-themed music box. Once the snow starts falling, the town becomes even comfier with icicle-dipped roofs and a merry light festival in February that mirrors the snow festival of its neighbor Sapporo.
2. Fireworks every yuletide night in Hakodate
Along with Otaru, Hakodate also possesses piles of crafts, jewelry, glassworks and music boxes worthy of a German Christmas market in the Kanemori Red Brick Warehouses (you may even spot a Father Christmas or two).
Despite being in the south of Hokkaido, Hakodate still experiences heavy snowfall that coats the city and chills the bones. Thank goodness for Lucky Pierrot hamburgers and seafood-filled izakaya restaurants that warm the stomach. This picturesque, romantic setting is elevated by the annual winter festivities that shoot off daily fireworks behind a striking Christmas tree.
3. Melting drift ice in the Sea of Okhotsk
The incredible sights and sounds of drifting blocks of ice, reminiscent of the melting ice caps of Antarctica, can be found in Abashiri, Hokkaido. While you won’t see polar bears—or Rudolph from a Rankin/Bass Christmas special—floating along in the Sea of Okhotsk, you may be treated to plankton-eating whales, cheeky seals and sea butterflies.
In recent years, Abashiri is also feeling the effects of climate change, with the ice losing some of its substance. Nevertheless, the gigantic floes still enthusiastically flow in from the Amur River in Russia and remain a once-in-a-lifetime view to behold.
- Drift ice sightseeing cruise from January till April.
4. The geographic North Pole of Japan: Wakkanai
The floating drift ice in the Sea of Okhotsk can also be seen from the northernmost city in Japan, Wakkanai. Here, instead of reindeer, you’ll find dogs pulling Santa’s sleigh at their annual dog sledding competition.
Nearby at Cape Soya, you’ll be able to stand at the most northerly point in Japan and—if the weather is favorable—see Russia’s Sakhalin Island. While you’re in this area, visit Soya Hills, where the White Road isn’t covered in snow (except in winter) but crushed scallop shells. When Santa retires, he may even settle down in their train station nursing home.
- The National Dog Sledding Tournament in February.
- Soya Fureai Park Snowland also in February.
- Wakkanai Onsen Dome, the northmost onsen in Japan.
5. Spot Santa on the slopes of Niseko
Maybe you’ll spy a red and white blur skiing beside you in Niseko. Known for soft, white powder as far as the eye can see, Niseko’s six-month average snowfall makes it an ideal vacation for winter sports. The stunning Mount Yotei will be your backdrop as you tackle the many pistes of the surrounding resorts.
Prancer, Dancer, Comet and Vixen might even be in attendance during the local reindeer sledding, with many opportunities to meet the man himself around the resort area on Christmas Day.
- Reindeer sledding (check availability).
- Skiing, snowboarding and snow-shoeing.
6. `Tis the season for hot springs at Ginzan Onsen
The weather outside is frightful, but the onsen is so delightful. The stresses of Christmas can be felt by us all, including Old St. Nick. So where would he go to blow off some steam? Probably Christmas cake icing-covered Ginzan Onsen.
The lanterns hanging from wooden storefronts, snow-topped roofs, bubbling rivers, and all manner of onsen make Ginzan Onsen one of the ideal hot spring towns to visit during winter. Festivities throughout the year put an extra bow on the present and shouldn’t be forgotten.
- The free hot spring footbaths around town.
- Shiroganeyu, Kajikayu and Omokageyu public onsen.
7. Zao Onsen, Where the treetops glisten
Imagine a Lovecraftian ice creature left undiscovered on the North Pole, and I don’t mean Frosty the Snowman. You may be picturing something like the juhyo, or snow monsters, of Zao Onsen.
Don’t worry. While their twisted limbs may seem unnerving, they are only snow-covered trees, after all, with no chance of being devoured while you ski, snowboard and snowshoe through them.
Then, hop in a snowmobile at night and view up-close their sinister forms highlighted by psychedelic lights.
- The snow monsters at night.
- Rotenburo, outdoor hot springs, around the area.
8. Dash through the snow in Hakuba Valley
The Japanese Alps also provide us with the crystal clear mountain ranges of Nagano. However, Hakuba Valley takes the cake with undisturbed North Pole-style alpine vistas. If you go off-piste to explore the wild backcountry, remember to take a guide as good as Rudolph. Or, if that’s too adventurous, float in the sky with the Hakuba Mountain Harbor observation deck.
You’ll find Jigokudani Monkey Park home to the bathing Japanese Macaques not far from Hakuba. You won’t find these ‘snow monkeys’ in the Arctic as this is the furthest north they have ever ventured or any other non-human primate.
What are some of your favorite places in Japan to visit for winter wonderland feels? Let us know in the comments!