Japan has some of the most beautiful cultural and scenic attractions in the world, many of which are best experienced during winter.

Skiers travelling to Japan might be tempted to spend as much time as feasibly possible on the slopes. However, a Japanese ski holiday is more than just a chance to experience world-class powder. Some of the country’s most beautiful winter attractions are found off the slopes.

Snow monkeys in Jigokudani hot springs

Snow monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park

Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park

Jigokudani Monkey Park is home to one of the country’s biggest populations of Japanese macaques, better known as snow monkeys. The park, open year-round, is most popular in winter when the monkeys take to bathing in Jigokudani’s natural hot spring baths. It’s a phenomenon that has been well documented on Instagram, with more than 20,000 tagged posts.

Jigokudani is not an enclosed space, and its inhabitants are free to come and go as they please. However, the monkeys have become reliant on the park for food, meaning close sightings are all but guaranteed.

Best ski resort nearby: Shiga Kogen (12.5 km)

Zao Onsen

The “monsters” take shape in December when snow and ice begin to accumulate on the branches of Mt. Zao’s fir trees

Snow monsters at Zao Onsen

Zao Onsen is famous as both a ski destination and onsen retreat, yet perhaps most of all for its snow monsters – the surreal-looking snow formations that appear at the top of Mt. Zao. The “monsters” take shape in December when snow and ice begin to accumulate on the branches of Mt. Zao’s fir trees, reaching full size between mid-February and mid-March.

Both skiers and non-skiers can access the snow monsters via Jizo Sancho Station (1,661m) at the top of the Zao Ropeway Sancho line. For skiers, the cost is included as part of Zao’s ¥6,300 day pass, while non-skiers can pay for a single round trip. Nighttime snowmobile tours, which see the monsters illuminated in colourful lights, are also available.

Best ski resort nearby: Zao Onsen (on-site)

Sapporo Snow Festival

Sapporo Snow Festival

Sapporo Snow Festival

The Sapporo Snow Festival is one of Hokkaido’s most popular tourist attractions, drawing 2 million visitors during a 7-day period each year. The festival is most famous for its International Snow Sculpture Contest, which sees 200+ sculptures on display in Sapporo’s Odori Park – an area that spans 12 blocks and 1.5 km.

In 2023, a “My Neighbor Totoro” themed sculpture was awarded top prize in the citizen sculpture event, but previous years’ winners have included giant sea turtles, fighting walruses and Thai tuk-tuks. The largest sculptures, however, are often replicas the world’s most famous buildings, and have previously included China’s Temple of Heaven, the Norwegian Parliament building, India’s Tomb Itimad-Ud-Daulah and Stockholm Cathedral (Storkyrkan).

Best ski resort nearby: Sapporo Teine (23 km)

Otaru Snow Light Path Festival

Otaru Snow Light Path Festival

Otaru Snow Light Path Festival

The port city of Otaru, less than 30 minutes’ drive from Sapporo, is another winter destination well worth a visit, particularly during its annual Snow Light Path Festival. Held in February each year, the festival sees Otaru’s streets decorated with snow candles and small illuminated sculptures, creating one of Hokkaido’s most photogenic night scenes.

The Unga Kaijo festival site, which runs alongside the Otaru Canal, makes for a particularly Instagram-friendly setting when the canal, lined with gas lamps and historical buildings, is illuminated by hundreds of candle-lit buoys.

Best ski resort nearby: Kiroro (27 km)

Ginzan Onsen

Ginzan Onsen

Ginzan Onsen, Yamagata

Yamagata is officially Japan’s snowiest prefecture, so it’s only natural that some of the country’s most beautiful winter attractions are found here. Ginzan Onsen, a popular hot spring retreat and former silver mine, is particularly scenic in winter when snow accumulates on the roofs of the town’s historic ryokan and onsen. These 3- and 4-storey wooden buildings line each side of the Ginzan River.

Ginzan’s Notoya Ryokan and the iconic red bridge leading to its entranceway served as major inspiration for the famous bathhouse scene in Hayao Miyazaki’s “Sprited Away”, Japan’s highest grossing movie of all time. This nostalgic Taisho-era ryokan, completed in 1921, features men’s and women’s indoor, outdoor and “cave” baths.

Best ski resort nearby: Zao Onsen (80 km)

Image: Scott Lin

Tadami River Bridge No. 1

Tadami River Bridge No. 1, which has featured in thousands of spectacular if not identical photographs, is located in Fukushima Prececture within reach of some of Aizu’s best ski resorts. The bridge serves the JR Tadami Line, a 135 km scenic railway line that begins at Aizu-Wakamatsu, a small town known for its sake production and samurai culture.

The Tadami River Bridge makes for a particularly stunning shot in winter – even more so when a train is crossing. Railway enthusiasts may want to check the JR Tadami Line timetable before visiting as trains pass just once or twice hourly. Several viewpoints at various heights can be found up the steps from Ozekaido Mishima-juku roadside station, overlooking the bridge from its south end.

Best ski resort nearby: Nekoma Mountain (64 km)

Shirakawa-go

Shirakawa-go

Shirakawa-go region, a World Heritage-listed region in Japan’s Gifu Prefecture, is known for its gasshō-zukuri style architecture and mountainous backdrop. This collection of villages is particularly beautiful in winter when its traditional farmhouses and the surrounding forest are coated in white.

The Shiroyama Viewpoint, a 20 minute walk uphill from Ogimachi Village, is a great vantage point from which to enjoy this iconic winter landscape.

Best ski resort nearby: Dynaland (49 km)

Biei

Biei is a small town in Central Hokkaido famous for its photogenic landscapes, which include the Shirahige Falls and the Shirogane Blue Pond – an Instagram favourite. There are several tours that include both locations among other popular stops.

The Blue Pond is particularly popular as a nighttime attraction during the winter illumination period, which sees this frozen landscape lit up in fluorescent blue light. This makes for a very different experience than in summer when the pond’s blue hues are illuminated by natural light. Just a few kilometres away, the Shirahige Falls are also lit up during the winter but are equally compelling during the day when the natural blues and whites of the landscape are more visible.

Best ski resort nearby: Furano (39 km)

ENQUIRE NOW

Japan backcountry skiingOrganise your guided backcountry skiing tour in Japan

There are lots of options in Hokkaido and Honshu that can be tailored to the kind of skiing you like and when you plan to come. Answer a few questions and we’ll get back to you with some recommendations.

Enquire Now