Japan is a winter paradise – cranes dancing in pristine powder snow, monkeys bathing in hot spring baths, local festivals spiced up with sake and rice vodka, World Heritage Site temples gleaming with ice and fantastic hot-pot cuisine.
The northern island of Hokkaido gets cold, very cold - with temperatures below zero for most of the winter – but nature has its own remedy in the form of hot spring baths. And, once seated around a table to eat in a traditional Japanese ryokan (hotel), with a thick kotatsu cover tucked over your legs, you will never have been snugger!
Hokkaido’s jewel in the crown is Furano, one of the best winter resorts in Asia with a fantastic variety of runs for skiing and snowboarding as well as numerous other activities including snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, dog sledding and ballooning…or you can just relax in the igloo bar.
Hokkaido is also a great place for nature lovers with wide snow-covered plains and serene lakes offering up glimpses of rare birds including the red-crowned crane, Steller’s sea eagle and whooper swans and, occasionally, the rather shy Blakiston’s fish owl. At Abashiri the sea usually freezes over at this time of year and an ice-breaker trip from this small port city offers a close up of the extreme winter conditions as well as more eagle spotting opportunities.
The broad parks of cosmopolitan Sapporo provide the perfect venue for an annual Snow Festival – sculptures of all shapes and sizes fill the city and ensure a carnival atmosphere. The festival started life as a training exercise for the under-worked Japanese self-defence force but has now become one of the biggest showcases of snow sculpture in the world.
Evenings on Hokkaido should be spent enjoying locally brewed beer and the speciality cuisine known simply as Genghis Kahn – a full-to-the-brim lamb grill named after the iconic Mongolian warrior!
On the main island of Honshu, winter is a great chance to see World Heritage sights such as Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion or the original Samurai castle of Himeji, without the crowds. Clearer skies at this time of year also ensure some fantastic views from Kyoto’s hillside Kiyomizu temple and you may even catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji from the skyscrapers of Tokyo.
Deep in the mountains of Nagano the small village of Yudanaka is home not only to skiers and hot spring aficionados but also to the famous Japanese snow monkeys who like nothing better than to take a hot spring bath themselves. Properly known as Japanese Macaques, these hardy animals are the most northerly living monkeys in the world – but while the hot springs gush forth they are happy as can be!