Six Reasons to Visit Northern Japan in Late Winter

Six Reasons to Visit Northern Japan in Late Winter

Northern Japan 北日本

Greg Goodmacher

Most travelers to Japan do not venture into northern Japan, and they are missing areas of unforgettable scenic and cultural wonders.

My favorite time of year is winter when the heavy snows of February and March decorate the landscape with pure white beauty, presenting visitors with jaw-dropping scenery, winter sports and festivals, and artworks that spring from the snow.

Here are six reasons to rush to Japan to enjoy the winter before the snow melts.

World Championship Snowball Fight in Koide.
World Championship Snowball Fight in Koide, Niigata Prefecture.

1. Join Mind-blowing Festivals

The World Championship Snowball Fight in Koide, Niigata, attracts serious snowball fighters with a penchant for cosplay.

All teams wear costumes while competing. Humor, funny costumes, and tenacity with snowballs are the qualities that the judges look for in this small-town festival that attracts teams from around the world.

Be there in February. The festival takes place in 2017 on February 12.

Tokamachi, Niigata (Feb. 18 and 19), and Sapporo, Hokkaido (Feb. 1-12) are both homes of world-class snow sculpture contests and exhibitions.

Although, Sapporo's festival is more famous and much larger, there are many reasons to visit Tokamachi. First of all, Tokamachi is a traditional center of silk kimono craftsmanship. Besides famous singers and dancers, Tokamachi's ending night ceremony includes a kimono fashion show on the world's largest stage constructed of only snow.

Enjoying Kusatsu Onsen in winter.
Enjoying Kusatsu Onsen in winter.

2. Soak in a Hot Spring in the Snow

Bathing is an integral aspect of Japanese culture. Over three thousand Japanese onsen towns exist across the multitude of islands that are Japan, and soaking in baths with friends or strangers is Japanese custom.

You are never more than an hour from a therapeutic and relaxing hot spring, wherever you are in Japan. But bathing surrounded by snow or snow-covered mountain vistas is exhilarating.

Japanese-bath connoisseurs rank Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma Prefecture as one of Japan's best traditional hot springs to visit.

Try the outdoor bath at Sainokawara Onsen, where the hairs on your head might freeze while you are comfortably soaking in the natural thermal waters. Enjoy the sensation. Take a hike through the snow to bathe surrounded by snowy trees in Fukiage Onsen in the mountains of Tokachidake, Hokkaido.

If you dare, create the figure of an angel in the snow with your steamy body, or scrub your body clean with snow before entering the heated mineral water again. You will feel alive. With deep snow and plenty of volcanoes, northern Japan is a pleasure zone for winter-loving hot springers, who can choose baths ranging from small public ones to private ones in the rooms of first-class hotels.

Huge plate of Japanese crab.
Huge plate of Japanese crab.

3. The Best Seafood in Japan

Ask a Japanese gourmet when the best time to eat seafood is, and almost invariably the answer is winter. Why? Fish tend to get fatter and their bodies produce tasty oils in cooler waters. And the further north you go, the colder the water becomes.

Salmon still swim up the rivers of many prefectures in northern Japan. Winter is the season for harvesting and consuming oysters and crabs. The winter oysters of Iwate, Miyagi, and Hokkaido are famous throughout Japan.

Try oyster sushi or eat them just open with lemon juice. Salmon, oyster, and crab are also delectable when cooked in traditional Japanese seafood stews, called nabe in Japanese.

Nothing beats being warm in a Japanese ryokan (traditional inn with tatami flooring and futon beds) and looking out the window at winter scenery while sharing a hot nabe stew with friends.

Hokkaido is heaven for snowshoe exploration.
Hokkaido is heaven for snowshoe exploration.

4. Amazing Winter Sports

Niseko, Japan, has been the subject of many articles in ski magazines because of its deep powder. The outsiders to first discover the charms of Niseko were Australians. Now it is a must-ski destination for visitors from China, North America, Europe and other areas.

But, mountainous Japan has ski resorts all over the northern ranges. Nagano and Niigata prefectures jointly held the 1998 winter Olympics.

Many of the ski resorts in Hakuba and Myoko have hot springs at the bottom of the slopes. Ski and bathe where the Japanese pros do. If you are not a pro, don't worry because most large winter sports resorts have teachers and guides for amateurs.

Snowboarders, ice climbers, cross-country skiers, snowmobilers, and even dogsledders can all find their niche in northern Japan.

Snowshoe enthusiasts can trek on mountain passes, through bamboo forests, and even over snow-filled rice fields. Every year, Myoko, Niigata (February 18 and 19), and Nikko, Tochigi (March 11 and 12), will hold international snowshoe running competitions.

Try my Japanese sake.
Taste my Japanese sake.

5. Taste the Best Japanese Saké

The clean mountain snow runoff and the rice grown in northern Japan are married to create the ambrosia of Japan known as saké.

Many of the most famous saké companies developed in northern Japan. The saké making process starts after the fall harvest and continues through winter, with most sakés being born around February.

Late February and early March are months when many saké breweries allow visitors to tour their facilities and sample their products. March is the best time to taste unpasteurized sakés, which cannot be aged. Local saké associations across northern Japan hold tastings and saké festivals.

One of the biggest producers of rice and saké in Japan is Niigata, Prefecture, which celebrates its saké with exuberance. The JR East Japan Railway Company offers saké train trips, starting in October and ending in late March during which passengers listen to live jazz, taste saké, and relish winter views.

Saké indulgence takes place in Niigata city on March 11 and 12 at a celebration called Saké nojin. Almost ninety breweries, members of the Niigata Saké Brewers Association pour unlimited samples to thousands of drinkers in a cavernous assembly room.

Meanwhile, Japanese musicians, dancers, and other artists perform. You will taste not only the saké but also the culture of the region.

Tokamachi Snow Stage, Lights, and Fireworks.
Tokamachi Snow Stage, Lights, and Fireworks.

6. Scenery that Exists Almost Nowhere Else

One day I was walking on one tip of a bay. Majestic snowy peaks in the distance behind the other tip of the bay caught my eyes.

My gaze eventually drifted down, where I noticed surfboarders riding waves in the foreground. The next day, I skied down mountain slopes with panoramic views of the blue sea.

Such scenes are common in northern Japan, where taking an uninteresting winter photograph is almost impossible. Probably, the most incredible Japanese scenery is in Zao, in Yamagata Prefecture, in the months of February and March.

During winter, powerful air currents from Siberia blow across the Sea of Japan. They bring moist, freezing winds, covering trees with accumulating blankets of frost, ice, and snow that can be meters thick, creating trees that no longer look like trees.

They look like aliens, mythical beings, or monsters the size of small buildings. In fact, they are called the Zao Snow Monsters. At the Zao Ski Resorts in Yamagata Prefecture and Miyagi Prefecture, you can ski or walk among them. The natural habitat of the snow monsters only exists in a few places on earth.

The author of this article blogs about Japanese hot springs at

Japanese Bath Products

Purchase a range of wooden Japanese bath products made from the finest Japanese wood including original bath buckets, chairs and soap basins to give your bathroom that Japanese hot spring onsen feel.

Eating fresh raw oysters at Sapporo Fish Market.
Eating fresh raw oysters at Sapporo Fish Market.

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