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During winter, cold air masses from Siberia blow towards Japan, picking up moisture from the Sea of Japan in the process. The wet cold air collides with the mountains along the Sea of Japan coast, resulting in heavy snowfall. Some areas experience extreme amounts of precipitation with snow depths of three to six meters.

Fittingly, Japan offers many popular destinations for snow seekers. While most of Japan's major cities, including Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, receive only small amounts of snow, locations offering snow experiences are readily accessible from them. The snow season in Japan is long and in some places begins as early as November and lasts into May, with the peak being in February.

The following is a list of places of interest where you can experience snow:

Onsen in Snow

Onsen (hot springs) are great places to spend a relaxing time. The experience is enhanced when dipping in the therapeutic waters of an open air bath that offers snow scenery as well. Below are some onsen where you are likely to be able to enjoy such an experience in winter:

Manza Onsen••

Manza Onsen is a hot spring resort town located 1800 meters above sea level, high up on the slopes of Mount Shirane. The mountain provides the onsen town with the country's most sulfuric waters. Large amounts of snow in the winter make the town one of the best places near Tokyo to enjoy an outdoor bath in the snow.

Minakami Onsen

Osenkaku, the one ryokan of Takaragawa Onsen of the Minakami Hot Springs, has some of the largest and most famous rotenburo (outdoor baths) in the country. The mixed gender baths are along a river and take on a different character through the changing seasons. A women only outdoor bath is also available. Takaragawa Onsen is one of the closest mixed bathing hot springs from Tokyo.

Snow Festivals

Winter festivals involving snow and ice are held in cities and towns across the snow-rich regions of Japan. They present a fun way to enjoy the season for tourists and a pleasant distraction from the inconveniences caused by the snow for the locals. Below are some of the more famous winter festivals:

Sapporo Snow Festival••

The Sapporo Snow Festival is held during one week every February in Hokkaido's capital Sapporo. It is one of Japan's most popular winter events, featuring spectacular snow and ice sculptures. Some of the festival's sites also offer other forms of entertainment like snow slides and snow rafting.

Otaru Snow Light Path••

This festival is held for ten days every February in Otaru, during which the city becomes decorated in lights and small snow statues. The combination of the snowy town and the glittering lanterns creates a very pleasant and romantic atmosphere.

Winter Wonders

The arrival of winter brings along with it several natural occurrences that create lasting impressions:

Ryuhyo (Drift Ice)

The Sea of Okhotsk coast of Hokkaido is the northern hemisphere's southernmost region to see drifting ice. The ice originates from the Amur River in Russia and reaches Hokkaido typically in mid January to early February before disappearing again around mid March to mid April. The coast around Abashiri and the western coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula receive the biggest amounts of ryuhyo.

Cranes in the Kushiro Marshlands

Kushiro Shitsugen National Park in Hokkaido was created in 1987 in order to preserve the country's largest wetland and marsh habitat that supports the only known population of endangered Japanese cranes in the country. Although the park does not receive much snowfall, it offers nature viewing, in particular of the Japanese cranes that appear here in numbers during winter.

Ski Resorts

There are over 500 ski resorts across Japan, which vary in size from large resorts with dozens of runs to small one-lift slopes. The best resorts and snow conditions are found in northern Japan (Hokkaido and Tohoku) and in the mountains along the Sea of Japan Coast (especially Niigata and Nagano). For those who are interested in experiencing snow, but who do not wish to ski or snowboard, most resorts have play zones designed for families with small children. Here are some recommended ski resorts:

Niseko

Niseko, a spectacular snow resort town in Hokkaido, is probably the most visited ski resort by foreign travellers and is very English friendly. The almost guaranteed powder snow and fantastic views of Mt. Yotei make this a very popular destination. Although a day trip from Sapporo is possible, Niseko is best enjoyed over a few days.

Shiga Kogen

Shiga Kogen in Yamanouchi has the biggest skiable area in Japan. The resort area consists of over 20 resorts, most of which are linked up by ski courses. One pass allows access to them all and offers a huge amount of variety as well as generally excellent snow conditions.

Hakuba

Hakuba is a popular ski and snowboard town located in the northwest of Nagano Prefecture. Happoone resort was host to downhill events in the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics and the general scale of the resorts in Hakuba is impressive.

Yuzawa

With excellent snow, hot springs and over twenty ski resorts, Yuzawa is a great destination for those interested in snow sports. Virtually all the resorts in the area are accessible by public transportation and offer kids' play parks. Yuzawa is just a 80 minute train ride from Tokyo, with one resort connected directly to a shinkansen station, making it the most convenient ski town for a day trip from the Tokyo area.

Karuizawa

Opening in early November, the Karuizawa Prince Ski Resort is one of the earliest resorts to open, although the snow is often man made. Karuizawa is an upscale mountain getaway for wealthy Tokyoites, and as such there is excellent shopping, including an outlet mall next to the resort.

Snowscapes

Below are some locations that offer particularly appealing winter landscapes:

Biei

Biei in Hokkaido is reputed to have one of the most photogenic landscapes in Japan. The small town is surrounded by gently rolling hills and vast fields, giving off a lovely countryside charm. It offers beautiful rural landscapes around the year, especially during the green and colorful summer and autumn months, and during winter when everything is covered under a deep layer of snow.

Okunikko

Nikko is a good place to experience a mixture of snow and culture. The shrines and temples in the town center do not see much snow, but in the higher Okunikko region around Lake Chuzenji you can usually see some snow and frozen waterfalls.

Snow in Spring

Visitors who arrive after winter but would still like to experience snow may consider these attractions:

Shin-Hotaka Ropeway

Shin-Hotaka Ropeway, with its unique two-storied gondolas, whisks tourists up to an altitude of 2150 meters in the Northern Japan Alps. Around the ropeway's upper station, snow can usually be encountered into June. However, activities around the upper station are limited to enjoying the views from the observatory and taking a few steps in the snow. Down in the valley, the Okuhida region attracts visitors with beautiful open air hot spring baths.
Page last updated: September 22, 2013