With winter beginning in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s that time of the year when travellers have to make an important decision – snow or sand? Do you embrace the cold and do a holiday in the north, or do you escape to a warm beach below the equator?
I’m personally not a huge fan of the cold but there is one country that I love during winter… Japan!
The landscapes across the country look so beautiful and serene when they’re covered in snow and even the cities seem to shimmer with all the neon reflecting off the winter white. On the cultural side, Japanese traditions have developed over the centuries to provide comfort and warmth in the cold months and it’s a perfect time to see some authentic ways of living.
Here are seven of my favourite things to do in Japan in winter.
Japan is famous for its skiing and if you like to hit the slopes, you have to try the Japanese resorts at least once in your life. There are around 500 ski locations in Japan but the most popular ones are in Hokkaido or around Nagano. An easy and popular resort is Hakuba, which is family-friendly but has great runs for experts. It is also designed for visitors who can’t speak Japanese. It’s impressive how affordable skiing in Japan can be – it’s often cheaper than many parts of Europe.
When you’re at one of the ski resorts in Japan, you’re likely to see plenty of traditional temples in the village where the accommodation is. The local culture is as much a part of the experience as the action on the slopes. But head to one of Japan’s famous temple cities and you’ll find spectacular destinations with plenty of colourful buildings covered in snow. Nara or Kyoto are the best ones and both are easily accessible from Osaka.
North of Nagoya is one of Japan’s hidden gems – a small village called Shirakawa. It’s been listed as a World Heritage Site because of the unique architecture of its homes. The steep angled roofs are thatched and about a metre thick. They were designed to survive the harsh cold periods in this isolated region – so seeing it for yourself in winter gives you the best understanding. You can also do a homestay in one of the houses for a deeper experience.
Stay in Ryokan
Speaking of special accommodation options, make sure you stay in one of Japan’s traditional ryokans. These inn-style hotels usually have rooms with tatami mats and sliding paper walls. You’ll sleep on a futon and be expected to wear a kimono when inside in the evenings. Most ryokans also have restaurants where you’ll be served authentic Japanese meals.
Some ryokans will have their own onsen for you to try. If not, I would suggest trying to find a public one somewhere for a truly Japanese experience. An onsen is a pool filled with steaming hot spring water. You’ll be expected to follow the rules which means going completely naked and scrubbing yourself with soap before getting in the water. After you get over the shock of how different it is to what you’re used to, you’ll find the water and surroundings extremely relaxing.
Humans aren’t the only animals in Japan that enjoy an onsen – there are monkeys that do as well. Near Nagano is a unique Japanese winter attraction, the Jigokudani Monkey Park. Here, dozens of snow monkeys come down from the trees in the morning and sit in pools of warm spring water all day until it’s time to return to the forest to sleep. To get there, you hike through the snow for about half an hour. Once you arrive, you can stay for hours watching them relax and play.
Weird cafes – Moomin
When you feel like it’s time to spend a few hours indoors, I would suggest trying one of Japan’s strange cafes. You have probably heard of the cat cafes, where you pay by the hour to play with cats. There are also now owl cafes, which work on a similar idea. But how about having a coffee with some Moomin trolls? The cartoon characters are from Finland but have become extremely popular in Japan. At one cafe in Tokyo, dolls of the characters will sit in a spare seat at your table so you don’t feel alone!
Only in Japan!
By Michael Turtle