Few countries put on a winter show quite like Japan. From the bustling cities and frozen-in-time towns to the alpine prefectures and seaside villages, every nook and cranny transforms the bitter cold into a winter wonderland.
In celebration of my 30th birthday, I spent a fortnight living out a particularly persistent dream: exploring Honshu, Japan’s biggest island, during its snow-kissed prime (January). Here are my trip highlights to inspire your very own winter escape to the Land of the Rising Sun…
Imagine being transported to Lapland, only to discover Santa’s hosting an epic foam party. That’s the best way I can describe old town Takayama, where snow lives on snow, traditional wooden homes glisten like generously iced gingerbread houses, merry holiday music dances through the air (courtesy of the public sound system), and everything looks so Christmas-card-perfect it’s hard to believe the place is real.
The beauty of Takayama lies in its accessibility as much as its visual charm. Even in the midst of a blizzard, it’s easy to hop between boutiques, historic sights and food vendors (think hot steamed buns, strawberry filled Mochi Truffles, Hida marbled beef and beyond). Surprisingly, the souvenir shops are well worth a visit. They sell beautiful handicrafts and tasty treats which genuinely celebrate the local Gifu culture.
Once you’ve spent the day devouring the old town – step by step, bite by bite – it’s time to continue the food adventure at one of Takayama’s memorable restaurants. My top pick is Heianraku, a blink-n-miss-it grotto which serves the best ramen and gyoza imaginable. The food literally made me dizzy with happiness. Owned and operated by a married couple (with no additional support staff), the customer service is also the stuff of dreams. By the time you’re walking out the door, fat and happy, you feel like part of the Heianraku family. It’s a humble gastronomic experience I’ll never forget.
Presenting an intriguing clash of old and new, Kyoto is undoubtedly one of the world’s great cities. It begs to be explored layer-by-layer at a leisurely pace so each of its unique gems gains your full appreciation.
Sure, the glow of Kyoto’s most renowned sites is somewhat dulled by heavy tourist traffic. However, in light of their significant history and enchanting beauty, they should still be witnessed in one’s lifetime. The iconic Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine first caught my attention in the film Memoirs of a Geisha, but its relentless presence on Instagram was what finally convinced me to see it in person. Indeed, with its never-ending arcade of blood orange gates, it’s a truly captivating spectacle. Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion, is also well worth a visit. Covered in gold leaf foil, this Zen Buddhist temple mirrors the blinding beauty of the sun as it ‘floats’ over a tranquil pond, giving nothing away in terms of its dark past. A trip to Kyoto isn’t complete without a moment amongst the bamboo groves of Arashiyama. It’s a surreal experience, being completely enveloped by moving sea of green, the gentle thud of colliding bamboo stalks creating a soothing symphony of sound.
Once you’re ready to pick up the pace, it’s time to hit Kyoto’s lively city centre and soak up the sights, sounds and smells. Lose yourself to the Nishiki Market, where your eyes will bulge at the wild variety of food on offer. Satisfy your retail cravings and fascination with Japanese design by exploring the hidden boutiques and artisan studios nestled amongst the precinct’s back alleys. End your night with a stroll around Gion, Kyoto’s famous entertainment district. Packed with tea houses, ramen bars and old-world charm, it’s also your best bet if you want to cross paths with a real life geisha.
There’s so much to take in in Kyoto, even just a short stay in this city can be utterly exhausting. I recommend treating yourself to a little luxury on the accommodation front. The Hyatt Regency sits quietly in a prime location and pays refined homage to Kyoto past and present. The aura of elegance and serenity are truly invigorating, as are the massages at its in-house spa!
Some Japanese snowboarding destinations are like Bali on ice. In other words, they’re westernised tourist magnets which leave you wondering if you’ve actually left home. That’s not the case with Nozawa Onsen. Here, you can enjoy the ultimate winter sports alongside traditional Japanese alpine village life.
When it comes to the locals, Nozawa is cherished primarily for its onsens (public steam baths heated through natural springs). There’s practically an onsen for every resident and each steamy sanctuary offers a unique experience. Some attract the village veterans who’ve been visiting the same spa every day of their life, while others boast a younger international crowd. There’s even an onsen for vegetables! Whatever floats your boat, they’re basically all free so prepare to get naked, boiled and cleansed to the point of contentment.
Beyond the onsens, Nozawa is famed for its winter sports and powder-perfect tracks. It’s a Mecca for snowboarders and skiers alike, from the novice to the elite. Nozawa Holidays is the ultimate one-stop-shop for those seeking equipment hire, lessons, chairlift passes and accommodation. I spent a morning in a private class and can’t recommend them highly enough. Despite being a complete novice, I was carving up the slopes in no time.
If you need a break from the action, Nozawa Holidays also organises day trips out to Jigokudani Monkey Park, where you can wander through an enchanted forest and witness the legendary Macaque ‘Snow’ Monkeys. Just like the locals, they love to keep warm by chilling out in piping hot springs. But don’t let their red faces fool you, they enjoy jumping between ‘fire and ice’ and only blush to attract a mate.
Once darkness descends on Nozawa Onsen and you’re ready to recharge your batteries, it’s time to feast. Wander along the main thoroughfare and explore the cobblestone back alleys to discover an exciting world of street food vendors, traditional eateries and international restaurants. Local specialties include: savoury pancakes, onsen-steamed dumplings and buns with mixed fillings (I recommend the apple and cinnamon), slow-cooked eggs, pickled green vegetables, and sweet red apples (which are the size of a baby’s head!).
Another ‘hot tip’: visit Nozawa Onzen during the Dosojin Fire Festival (mid-January). In true Japanese fashion, this event is steeped in tradition and as whacky as it is wonderful. Get your cameras ready!
NORTHERN KANSAI COASTLINE
For an Aussie like me, the idea of snow and sand occupying the same space seems quite peculiar. These settings simply don’t coexist in the Land Down Under. As such, my road trip along the Northern Kansai Coastline – where winter-white villages link arms with sandy beaches – was completely thrilling.
Beyond its fascinating visual tapestry, the seaside route from Miyazu to Kinosaki boasts a collection of unique cultural experiences and photo-worthy sights. My favourite stop-off was the quaint fishing village of Ine. Nestled in a quiet little bay, Ine is known for its string of rickety boat houses which jostle for space on the water’s edge. It’s fun to watch the local fishermen go about their business and easy to see why their tiny town plays muse to many artists.
Other beautiful sites include: the Kyoga-misaki Lighthouse, which enjoys prime ocean views from its precarious cliffside position; and, Amanohashidate, which has been rated as one of Japan’s three great views. Also known as The Bridge to Heaven, this narrow spit of land looks particularly impressive from the surrounding mountain vantage points, which can reached by chairlift or monorail.
Kinosaki is perhaps the most famous jewel in Northern Kansai’s crown. With its willow-lined canals and cobblestone bridges, its architectural poetry at its finest. The light dusting of snow is just icing on the cake. Hundreds of domestic tourists wander Kinosaki’s streets in their cotton kimonos and wooden sandals, hopping from onsen to onsen, while others trawl through the markets in search of the best Matsuba Crab (the local delicacy). This beautiful old-world town nurtures a way of life I could happily get used to: walk, onsen, eat crab, repeat.
Tokyo is one of those special cities where tourists are immersed in a world of thrills from the moment they step outside of their hotel room (having said that, some Japanese hotel rooms are pretty quirky!). Sure, I could rattle off a dozen popular tourist attractions and regurgitate well-trodden itineraries, but the beauty of this heaving metropolis is best discovered by accident or with the help of a local. So, my best advice is to surrender. Let Tokyo take you on an adventure – it’s guaranteed to be unique and entertaining.
Indeed, my most memorable night in Tokyo was spent exploring Akihabara – the heart of Japanese otaku culture – with a Manga Maid. We lost ourselves to a fantastical world of anime and manga, uncovering its retro beginnings and whacky modern manifestations. We explored Akihabara at ground level as well as great heights and behind closed doors, where the local community really comes to life. At one point, we ventured into a Maid Café, where Lolita girls served cute cappuccinos, sung happy songs and performed Disney-esque dance routines to a predominantly male corporate audience. One thing’s for sure, this walking tour went well beyond the guide books!
I must admit, being a subculture addict, I couldn’t keep myself away from the iconic district of Harajuku. Having said that, it wasn’t until I wondered away from the main tourist strip – past all of the crepe cafes and overpriced tourist tat – that I discovered the real Harajuku. Home to special interest boutiques and mad fashion houses, the surrounding laneways are incubators for extreme creativity – I’m talking the stuff of acid dreams and whimsical nightmares. The district is best described as a giant outdoor shopping mall designed by Lewis Carroll. In this whacky wonderland, everything is as it shouldn’t be and the assault on one’s imagination is intense. It’s easy to see why Harajuku has practically become a brand in its own right.
Perhaps the only match for Tokyo’s subculture scene is its equally captivating food culture. With more Michelin Star restaurants under its belt than any place on earth, Tokyo has become a hub for culinary tourism. Even its dingiest dives pump out meals worth dying for. A few of my favourite finds include: Uobei Sushi Station, where tasty morsels are ordered from a personal touch screen and delivered via a chute (no human connection needed!); Golden Gai, a rustic district of micro-bars and hobbit-sized restaurants which come to life late at night; and, the Tsukiji Fish Market, where nearby stalls serve the finest sashimi in the world (the ultimate post-tuna-auction breakfast). Tokyo – eat your heart out!
If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to live in a snow globe, visit Shirakawa-Go. This alpine district is famous for its historic villages, which are smothered in snow during the winter months (it’s hard to see beyond your own feet!).
Ogimachi is perhaps the most visited settlement in Shirakawa-Go. Home to a mere 600 residents, it’s heaving with tourists practically all year round. If you want to spend a night in one of its traditional farmhouses and catch a glimpse into rural Japanese life, you’ll need to book well in advance. Dating back to the 12th Century, these heritage listed sites hold a special place in the heart of the Japanese, who love to visit them as much as international travellers do.
During the winter season, Ogimachi is also famed for its evening illumination. Tourists brave the cold and queue for hours at the local observatory to see the village light up like the star-studded sky. While the journey to this moment is pretty arduous, it’s impossible to wipe the stupid smile off your face once you’ve witnessed something so magical.
It doesn’t matter if you’re in a city, country village or on the coastline, there’s nothing quite like winter in Japan. I feel like my two-week stint barely scratched the surface of what’s on offer during the cooler months, let alone the rest of the year. I’ve heard each season offers a completely different experience of Japan and I can’t wait to visit again so I can put this theory to the test. The cherry blossoms are calling! What’s your favourite time to visit Japan? What are some of your fondest memories from your travels there? Let me know so I can chuck them on my bucket list.