Are you asking yourself “Does it snow in Japan” because you are planning a trip this winter? Well, you’ve come to the right place!
Japan is beautiful all year round and wintertime is no exception. In fact, Japan is known for its stunning winter landscapes and ample snow activities because it snows! Simply put, yes it does snow in Japan during the winter months (including December).
However, the intensity and consistency of snowfall can vary significantly depending on the region. While places like Hokkaido experience heavy snowfall, the southern parts of Japan including Okinawa are warmer (relatively). This means that if you’re pressed for time, you’ll need to prioritize your activities and choose your locations wisely in order to get the kind of winter experience you’re looking for.
As someone who’s gone through this process and had to pick my options carefully, I’m here to help you so you too can have a winter trip of a lifetime in Japan! In this guide, I’ll provide everything you need to know about the weather in Japan in December as well as tips for things to do during this time of year.
- Does it Snow in Japan?
- Where Does it Snow in Japan?
- Top 10 Things to Do to Enjoy Snow in Japan
- 1. Walk Around Ginzan Onsen
- 2. Visit Shirakawago
- 3. Find Japanese Macaques at Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
- 4. See Snow Monsters at Zao Onsen Ski Resort
- 5. Visit the Asahiyama Zoo
- 6. Explore the Sapporo Snow Festival
- 7. Stop by the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival
- 8. Ski in Hokkaido
- 9. Ski in Nagano
- 10. Relax at Nyuto Onsen
- Japan Winter Travel Tips
Does it Snow in Japan?
Yes, Japan experiences snow every winter! The average temperature in Japan during the winter months ranges from -5℃ to 5℃ (23-41 F). However, location and time of year will greatly determine how cold it is and how much snow you’ll see (if any).
- Location: Areas in northern Japan like Hokkaido see significant snowfall during the winter months and is home to some of the best ski resorts in the world. As you make your way south, you’ll see less and less snowfall.
- Time of Year: The snow season typically spans from mid-December to March, with the highest amount of snowfall occurring in January and February. However, depending on your location, the season might start as early as late November and extend until May.
🗻 January is considered to be the coldest month in Japan.
Does it Snow in Japan in December?
Absolutely! December is typically the start of winter in Japan so it’s definitely possible to see snow during this time. Since it’s the beginning of the season, it’s also cheaper to travel to Japan in December than during peak winter months.
However, how much snow you’ll see will vary depending on where you visit and what time of the month. The further north you are, the more likely it is you’ll see snow. There is also some possibility of snowfall in the central regions, whereas you won’t see snow in the coastal and southern parts of the country.
You’ll also have a greater chance of seeing snow as you near the end of the month around Christmas time than at the beginning of the month.
Where Does it Snow in Japan?
Here are some of the best regions and cities in Japan known for their snowy winters:
- Hokkaido Prefecture: This island way up north is famous for its heavy snowfall. Sapporo is one of the most popular places to visit in Hokkaido, especially in February for the Sapporo Snow Festival. Winter is also perfect to visit the best ski resorts the country has to offer, including Niseko, Furano, and Rusutsu.
- Yamagata Prefecture: Located in the Tohoku region, Yamagata Prefecture is one of the snowiest places in Japan. Every winter, the trees at Zao Onsen Ski Resort transform into “snow monsters” due to the heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures. Nearby, you’ll find Ginzan Onsen, one of the most picturesque hot spring towns in the snow. And of course, there’s the annual Uesugi Snow Lantern Festival that takes place every February in Yonezawa.
- Nagano Prefecture: Nagano is home to the Japanese Alps and some of the best ski resorts in Japan, including Hakuba, Nozawa Onsen, and Shiga Kogen. It’s also where you’ll find the adorable Japanese macaques enjoying a hot bath at the famous Snow Monkey Park.
- Gifu Prefecture: This central prefecture also experiences snowfall and gorgeous winter scenery like in the beautifully preserved old town of Hida-Takayama. Shirakawago is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and another popular winter destination, best known for their traditional thatched-roof houses that are especially stunning under a blanket of snow.
Where Does it Snow in Japan in December?
Since December is the start of the winter season in Japan, you’re likely only guaranteed to see snow up north in areas like Hokkaido. Other areas can experience snow but there’s no guarantee. And even if it does snow, it may be intermittent.
This is important to keep in mind as you’re planning your trip so there are no surprises! For example, when I looked up the best places to visit Japan to see snow, Ginzan Onsen, Shirakawa-go, and Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park ranked at the top of every list.
However, none of these places are easy to get to from Tokyo so we didn’t have enough time to see them all – we had to pick. Ultimately, I made a last-minute decision to take a day trip from Tokyo to the Snow Monkey Park because (1) I really wanted to see the monkeys and (2) I knew there was some snowfall around the park, even if I couldn’t see it snow in realtime.
I was so grateful for how everything worked out. We got lucky and ended up seeing it snow while the monkeys were bathing in the hot pools and we felt good about our decision because it didn’t end up snowing in either Ginzan Onsen or Shirakawa-go (this was mid-December).
All this to say, December provides little guarantee of snow outside of the north so be flexible in your plans and really think about what you want to see.
Top 10 Things to Do to Enjoy Snow in Japan
When I think of snow in Japan, I think of snow monkeys bathing in the hot springs, incredibly soft snow at a famous ski resort, or historic villages that look like they’re straight out of a wintery fairy tale.
Here are some top places and things to do during the winter season for a chance to experience snow in Japan:
1. Walk Around Ginzan Onsen
Located in Yamagata Prefecture, Ginzan Onsen is a hot spring town that is simply magical in the winter.
Skip the public baths here and instead spend your time strolling along the river lined with old-fashioned street lamps while admiring the traditional ryokans covered in snow. Its most enchanting at night when the lights turn on and, if you’re lucky, you might be there as it snows.
Unless you have a reservation at one of the private onsens, aim to do this as a day trip and only if it’s the right time of year. Otherwise, there’s not that much to do in the town.
☃️ BEST TIME TO SEE SNOW IN GINZAN ONSEN: January. The average amount of snow & snow days per week throughout the season are:
December: 4.5 days (10.2 in)
January: 5.7 days (13 in)
February: 5.2 days (10.2 in)
2. Visit Shirakawago
Shirakawago is a historic village in Gifu Prefecture. Its distinct gassho-zukuri (traditional thatched-roof houses) are what make it famous and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Of all the seasons, Shirakawago is especially beautiful in the winter when the snow covers the thatched roofs. It’s best to stay in the town for at least one night so you can spend time wandering around the village during the day and see it illuminated at night.
☃️ BEST TIME TO VISIT SHIRAKAWAGO: January. The average amount of snow & snow days per week throughout the season are:
December: 3.4 days (12.2 in)
January: 4.7 days (18.9 in)
February: 4.0 days (13.8 in)
3. Find Japanese Macaques at Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
If you’re wondering where you can see snow monkeys in Japan, you’re likely thinking of Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park.
Located in Nagano Prefecture, Jigokudani is where you want to be if you want to see Japanese macaques bathing in the hot springs in the middle of the mountains. While the park is open year round, winter is when you’ll most likely see the monkeys in the water as they try to keep warm..
Seeing the monkeys is one of my all-time favorite travel moments and I absolutely think it’s worth doing if you’re in Nagano or even as a day trip from Tokyo.
4. See Snow Monsters at Zao Onsen Ski Resort
Zao Onsen is a ski resort in Yamagata Prefecture.
Despite its name, it’s best known for its snow monsters or “juhyo” (ice trees) that form when strong winds blow snow onto the trees, freezing them into all sorts of fascinating shapes. Skiers and non-skiers alike are welcome to take the ropeway or gondola to get a closer look.
☃️ BEST TIME TO VISIT ZAO ONSEN SKI RESORT: mid-February. This is when you have the highest chance of seeing the snow monsters in all their glory.
5. Visit the Asahiyama Zoo
Located in Hokkaido, Asahiyama Zoo is known for its unique and interactive exhibits that allow visitors to see animals up close and personal.
While some attractions like the Polar Bear Pavilion are open year round, the Penguin Parade only happens during the winter. Twice a day, you can watch the penguins march and waddle around the zoo.
☃️ BEST TIME TO VISIT ASAHIYAMA ZOO: December through mid-March (i.e. when the Penguin Parade takes place).
6. Explore the Sapporo Snow Festival
The Sapporo Snow Festival is one of Japan’s most famous winter events, attracting hordes of visitors each year. Held in early February, the week-long festival features massive snow sculptures and ice structures that are lit up at night.
The Snow Festival has three sites: Odori Park is the main site with the snow sculptures that also illuminate at night; you can also find snow sculptures that light up at night at Station Avenue while Tsudomoe has fun activities like ice skating and snow rafting.
☃️ SAPPORO SNOW FESTIVAL 2024 DATES: February 4 – 11, 2024
7. Stop by the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival
Around the same time as the Sapporo Festival, the city of Otaru in Hokkaido hosts the annual Snow Light Path Festival.
Every February, lanterns and snow sculptures line the city’s streets that add a touch of magic to this small port city. Be sure to grab some food and drinks while strolling through the snowy streets.
☃️ OTARU SNOW LIGHT PATH FESTIVAL 2024 DATES: February 10 – 17, 2024
8. Ski in Hokkaido
Hokkaido is home to some of the best ski resorts in Japan, making it THE destination for skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts.
Some of the top resorts include Niseko, Rusutsu, and Furano. These resorts offer powdery slopes, stunning views of the surrounding mountains, and a variety of terrain to suit all levels.
☃️ HOKKAIDO SKIING SEASON: Early January – mid February for peak powder conditions.
9. Ski in Nagano
If you aren’t able to make it up to Hokkaido, Nagano in central Japan is another popular destination for skiing and snow sports.
One of the most famous ski resorts in Nagano is Hakuba, known for its steep slopes, varied terrain, and as the host of 1998 Winter Olympics. Other great options include Nozawa Onsen (perfect if you’re also looking for hot springs) and Shiga Kogen (near the Snow Monkey Park).
☃️ NAGANO SKIING SEASON: Early January – mid February for peak powder conditions.
10. Relax at Nyuto Onsen
After a long day of skiing or exploring in the snow, there’s nothing quite like soaking in a traditional Japanese onsen (hot spring) to rejuvenate your body.
Nyuto Onsen in Akita Prefecture is famous for its collection of 8 rustic, onsen ryokans. Each one has its own unique charm but Tsuronoyu Onsen is the oldest and most famous of them all. It’s also open to day trip visitors, making it a great place to relax and unwind for a few hours.
☃️ BEST TIME TO VISIT GINZAN ONSEN: January. The average amount of snow & snow days per week throughout the season are:
December: 5.7 days (26.4 in)
January: 6.4 days (28 in)
February: 6.2 days (27.6 in)
Japan Winter Travel Tips
- 📖 Research activities ahead of time: Unless you spend the entire winter in Japan, you won’t be able to see everything. It’s important to have some sense of what you want to see for when you plan on visiting.
- 🏨 Book as early as possible: Popular destinations and activities during the winter season can fill up quickly, so it’s best to plan ahead and book your accommodations as soon as possible. Some onsens like Nyuto Onsen & Ginzan Onsen even book out 6 months in advance!
- 🚄 Have a plan for getting around: Japan’s public transportation is reliable, but it’s important to check for any seasonal changes in schedules, especially in snowy areas. Consider reserving seats on long-distance trains (like Shinkansen) in advance, as winter is a popular travel season in Japan.
- ❄️ Keep an eye out on the forecast: Before setting out on your trip, keep a close eye on the weather forecasts in the area. Japan experiences heavy snowfall during winters, especially in the northern regions, so it’s important to plan ahead and be flexible.
Final Thoughts: Does it Snow in Japan & What to Do When it Does
So if you’ve been wondering whether it snows in Japan, the answer is a resounding yes! And in fact, winter is a great time to visit Japan. From healing onsens, spectacular snowy landscapes, festive winter festivals, and adorable wildlife, there’s something for everyone to enjoy all that Japan has to offer during its magical winter season.
If you’re looking for a true winter wonderland experience, you’ll want to make your way to the mountainous areas in the north. Hokkaido is the crown jewel of Japan’s snow country where ski season typically spans from early December through mid-to-late March. If you can’t make it to the northern regions, you’ll find lots of snow in the likes of Nagano and Yamagata, thanks to the cold winds that sweep over the Japanese Alps. And even major cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka can experience the occasional snowfall to make for a gorgeous backdrop.
The most important thing to remember when planning your next winter vacation is to stay flexible and plan way ahead. Keep an eye out for weather forecasts, book tickets for the bullet train, and stay flexible for any changes that may come your way. With the proper preparation and mindset, snow seekers will have plenty to explore in Japan.