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How to Plan a Japan Winter Trip

How to Plan a Japan Winter Trip

By Vicky LengUpdated Aug. 22, 2023

Winter (December to February) in northern Japan is like a white fairy tale world: white snow, colorful Christmas illuminations, and a relaxed atmosphere. Although Japan is cold in winter, it still attracts visitors with its unique winter experiences, fewer travelers, and cheaper costs.

Japan is a great place to spend Christmas holidays with your family: relax in an onsen (hot spring) in a traditional ryokan (inn) while appreciating the snowy scenery in Hakone, ski with your teenage kids at Hokkaido's best powder-snow ski resort, experience dreamy wintry lighting in Shirakawa-go, and see snow monkeys bathe in an onsen in Nagano.

In this article, we are going to look at how to plan a winter travel itinerary, which could be a memorable family holiday.

Do I Need a Visa to Go to Japan?

The Golden Pavilion covered with snow The Golden Pavilion covered with snow

Japan restored its visa-waiver system from October 11th, 2022. If your country is on the Japan visa exemption list, like Australia, Canada, USA, UK and almost all European nations, you can visit Japan for 90 days (in most cases) without applying for a visa in advance.

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4 Top Japan-in-Winter Experiences

Here are four top things to do that you should not miss in Japan in winter:

1) Relax in a Onsen in a Cozy Ryokan in Hakone

enjoy an onsen in a cozy ryokan Enjoy an onsen in a cozy ryokan

Staying at a ryokan with onsens (hot spring baths) is the most attractive experience to be had on a winter's day for many travelers from Japan and abroad.

Hakone is the home of onsens and has numerous natural hot springs, some of them are believed to have healing properties. A ryokan is a traditional-style Japanese form of accommodation where you can sleep on a tatami and enjoy high-class kaiseki (multi-course classical Japanese cuisine).

Nothing is better than to relax in an onsen with stunning snowy trees and mountains around you and your family to create unforgettable holiday moments.

Suggested reading: How Long Should I Spend in Japan

2) Ski with Your Kids in Hokkaido/Nagano

ski in Hokkaido with your family Ski in Hokkaido with your family

Japan has lots of family-friendly ski resorts offering quality powder snow, perfect surroundings, clear English signage, and excellent service. Japan has the best ski resorts in Asia, but it is still cheaper to ski there than in Europe.

Hokkaido's pistes are definitely some of the top Japan destinations in winter, where world-class ski resorts include Niseko and Rusutsu. Skiing in Hokkaido you can enjoy light and fluffy snow, icy mountain scenery, professional English-speaking skiing lessons for kids, teenagers, and families, and fresh seafood.

Nagano, just an hour and a half from Tokyo, is also a well-known ski resort. Once the main venue for the Winter Olympics, Hakuba Valley is Nagano's best family-friendly ski resort.

Suggested reading: How to Plan a Family Ski Holidays

3) See Charming Winter Lighting in Shirakawa-go

Winter Lighting in Shirakawa-go Winter Lighting in Shirakawa-go

Shirakawa-go is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a picturesque village known for its traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, which have steep thatched roofs that are named after ‘praying hands'. In recent years, Shirakawa-go has become popular with travelers for its beautiful countryside views and unique farmhouses.

These farmhouses are extremely charming when covered in snow and illuminated at night. The wintry lighting scenes can usually be seen from January to February, but the lighting-up time varies from year to year and stays require advance booking.

Contact our travel advisors and we can arrange it for you.

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4) Watch Snow Monkeys Soak in Onsens in Nagano

Snow Monkeys are bathing in a hot spring. Snow Monkeys are bathing in a hot spring.

Nagano is a city surrounded by mountains and is not far from Tokyo. It's well-known for its Hakuba Ski Resort and snow monkeys that soak in hot springs. It is a good place to go for family holidays in winter.

Monkeys (Japanese macaques) in Jigokudani Monkey Park are the only ones in the world who love to soak in hot springs in winter. Watching the snowflakes fall on the monkeys, each of them relaxing in hot springs to keep warm, would be a new and unforgettable memory of the trip.

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Winter Weather in Japan

snow-covered torii Snow-covered torii

Winter in Japan is from December to February and the weather is cold and dry.

  • In Sapporo on Hokkaido, the average daily temperature range is from 0°C (32°F) in the warmest part of the day down to -6°C (20°F) at night. While in Tokyo or Kyoto temperatures average above freezing, ranging from 2 to 10°C (36–50°F) on average.
  • The average rainfall per month in winter is low in Tokyo/Kyoto at around 58 mm (2 in), but the average snowfall in Sapporo on Hokkaido is a moderate 104 mm (4 in) — and more snow falls at Hokkaido's mountainous resorts.

December sees the beginning of winter in Japan, with clear skies, and colder and drier weather. Cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Sapporo get into the festive spirit when celebrating Christmas and New Year.

January/February is the best time to ski in the white world of northern Japan. The high-quality powder snow is the most important feature of ski resorts in Japan, which attracts many skiers to come and enjoy it.

Get more weather details about traveling in December, January, and February>>>

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Winter Itineraries in Japan: The Top 2 Options

family winter trip in Japan Family winter trip in Japan

Here are two winter itineraries that are hand-picked for families visiting Japan for the first time with two popular lengths of holidays (9 and 14 days), both including relaxing in hot springs, seeing snow-covered shrines, enjoying a cup of steaming Japanese tea, and the option to go skiing with your kids.

1) The 9-Day Classical Route: Cover Major Highlights in Japan and Ryokan Experience

  • Tokyo–Hakone–Kyoto–Osaka

This itinerary covers the top highlights of Japan: experience kid-favoured anime elements and an attractive Christmas atmosphere and illuminations in Tokyo, soak in onsens at a comfortable ryokan with snow scenery in Hakone, spend family time in Kyoto trying on kimonos and feeding friendly deer.

Here is a summary itinerary for you (contact us for more details):

japan travel guide
  • Days 1–3: Tokyo (samurai, make sushi, anime center, and Asakusa)
  • Days 4–5: Hakone (ryokans with onsens)
  • Days 6–8: Kyoto (snow-covered shrines, geishas, sake, and feed deer)
  • Day 9: Osaka and departure

It's also a great idea to spend an extra 2–3 days having a family ski time in Nagano, which is not far from Tokyo.

Suggested reading: 10 Days in Japan>>>

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2) 14-Day Best Winter Experience Route: Skiing, Snow Monkeys in Onsens, Wintry Lighting in Shirakawa-go

  • Sapporo–Otaru–Tokyo–Nagano–Shirakawa-go–Kyoto

You can get the best winter experience in Japan with this itinerary: ski and explore a famous chocolate factory in Sapporo — capital of Hokkaido, take a day trip to Otaru to enjoy a snowy view on the Otaru Canal, see the magical sight of snow monkeys soaking in hot springs in Nagano, and appreciate the wintry lighting in Shirakawa-go.

Here is a summary itinerary for your inspiration (contact us for further details):

  • Days 1–3: Sapporo (skiing, the most famous local chocolate factory and Sapporo Ice Festival)
  • Day 4: Otaru (Otaru Canal and exquisite glass)
  • Days 5–7: Fly to Tokyo (Tsukiji Market, Tokyo Tower, sumo, and anime)
  • Day 8: Nagano (snow monkeys soaking in hot springs)
  • Days 9–10: Takayama and Shirakawa-go (well-preserved townhouses and snow-covered gassho-zukuri farmhouses)
  • Days 11–13: Kyoto (geisha, tea ceremony, sake, ryokan with onsen, feed deer in Nara)
  • Day 14: Depart from Kansai International Airport in Osaka
Get your family to the heart of Japan's beauty:

Tips for Winter Travel in Japan

The Sapporo Ice Festival is an important winter festival in Japan The Sapporo Ice Festival is an important winter festival in Japan

To create a wonderful winter trip in Japan, here are some suggested tips to help you to avoid unnecessary hassles.

  • Christmas and New Year is one of the busiest times in Japan. It's better to plan ahead and book flights and hotels at least 6 months in advance to reserve your favourite hotel/room.
  • Winter in Japan is cold and snowy. You'd better take thick clothes to keep warm. We recommend you to bring a down jacket, gloves, and waterproof boots.
  • Most ski resorts in Japan have rental shops to rent or sell ski equipment, so you don't have to take heavy ski equipment to Japan. Of course, it's okay to bring your own equipment. You can pay for a delivery service that will ship your skis directly to the ski resort.

Just let us know your interests and requirements, and we can help make it happen.

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How Much Does a Japan Winter Trip Cost?

Japan rivals Europe both in terms of facilities and service standards, which means that travel in Japan costs more than in China or in Southeast Asian countries.

US$400 (and above) per person per day is the typical cost for a private tour with 4-star hotels, based on a group of 2–4 people. This includes a private guide, private car, full-day itinerary, tickets for attractions, and a local 4-star hotel. An extra US$100 or more per day is required if you're looking to stay in 5-star hotels.

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Get Inspired with Some Popular Itineraries

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