Japan is most famous for its cherry blossom, or Sakura, season in springtime. It feels like the entire country is covered in soft pink blossoms swaying gently in the breeze. There are some spots where the trees line pathways as far as the eye can see and you feel like you’re in a fairytale. The major downside to this is that it’s not a secret so you will be surrounded by thousands of people with the same idea. If you’re like us and prefer to avoid crowds, you might be considering winter in Japan.
We love off-season travel because we can explore beautiful places without throngs of other people. It’s also a great strategy if you’re looking to save money on your trip. Most flights and hotels offer off-season deals to try and get more bookings. Take advantage of this for your adventure through Japan and we promise an amazing experience! Keep reading to find out more of what you can expect.
NORTH OR SOUTH?
You already know that Japan is big but you might not fully appreciate its size. We had 3 weeks which we thought was enough time to see most of the country. That plan was quickly dashed when we started looking into flight and train times (not to mention the prices). We then had to ask ourselves the question many travellers to Japan have had to face: do we go North or South?
The Southern Route is known as the Golden Route and is usually the path of first-time visitors. It has Mount Fuji, Hakone, Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima to name a few. On the other hand, the Northern Route is the Silver Route only because it’s the route for second-time visitors. It has lots to see as well like Iwaki, Sendai, and Sapporo. Either way, you will need to pick up a JR Pass to be able to see as much as possible.
This decision is pretty much a wash from Spring to Fall because there is a lot of beauty to discover throughout Japan. However, the two routes are drastically different experiences in winter. If you want a trip full of temperate-to-warm weather with a risk of some rainy days then head South. On the other hand, if you love winter sports or want to experience the most snow you’ve ever seen then North will be your friend.
We’re Canadian which means we see enough snow every year so we opted for the Golden Route. We also really wanted to visit Hiroshima and Kyoto so we needed to head South. For us, it was the right call but we’re already planning our Silver Route trip!
WHAT ABOUT THE WEATHER?
Like we said, we’re Canadian which also means we’re not really bothered by cold. On the other hand, we also prefer not to be cold whenever possible. We were a little worried about winter in Japan because we have seen pictures of the snow monsters. Hokkaido, the Northern Island of Japan, gets the coldest at a crisp average of -10°C (14°F) in January. The island also has an average 80cm (31″) of snow in winter so make sure you pack your boots!
We decided we didn’t want to pack our boots so we headed South from Tokyo. The temperature along this route stays between 4-12°C (39-54°F) and gets even warmer further South. It’s not tanning weather but still much better than the frigid Canadian winter we left behind.
The one risk heading South during winter in Japan is rain. We knew we would come up against some rainy days but there ended up being only 3 or 4 days that were affected. Luckily, Japan is a country that is well-prepared for rain so there are a lot of covered areas as well as tons of stores that sell affordable umbrellas. The rain surprised us in Osaka but we were able to quickly find a 7-11 to pick up quality umbrellas for about $15 CAD.
Most days, we both walked around in light sweaters that were more than enough to keep us warm. There were even days that we had to put our sweaters away because we were too hot! We would keep a light rain jacket on us at all times just in case the rain made an appearance. The coldest weather we experienced was in Kawaguchiko while we visited Mount Fuji. Even then, the temperature was only -1°C (30°F) at night but adding an extra layer of clothes kept us toasty.
SEE SIGHTS, NOT CROWDS
We love off-season travel because there are far less people around and winter in Japan is no different. You may have seen or heard about massive crowds at a lot of sights across the country. There are stories about people waiting over 3 hours in line for a ride at Tokyo Disney or paying ridiculous hotel prices during high-season.
Experiencing winter in Japan helps avoid those crowds for the most part. We noticed most of the cities we visited were relatively empty compared to crowded photos we saw during our trip research. There were still some crowds at popular places like Senso-ji, Kinkaku-ji, and Dotonbori Street but nowhere near as busy as you’d expect.
PERFECT TIME FOR THEME PARKS
We were even able to plan a last minute trip to Universal Studios Japan for Mark’s birthday. Normally, the park is extremely busy and takes a month’s worth of planning to get the most out of your visit. We decided to visit the park on a whim the night before. Mark was able to buy tickets online and was even able to score a discount.
We made sure to show up early just in case there was a crowd but it turned out we were worrying for no reason. Although there were still some crowds, the longest we waited for a ride that day was about 30 minutes. We were even able to walk freely in-and-out of the Harry Potter area when you would normally need to reserve a time slot during high-season.
A SHOPPER’S PARADISE
Who doesn’t love a little bit of retail therapy while travelling? Japan is a great destination for anyone looking for anything from new clothes to vintage video games. Winter in Japan is a great time to scratch your shopping itch because it is typically big discount season for many stores. You can not only pick up that perfect item but you can also save serious money while doing it!
If you find yourself in Japan from mid-December to early January you can take part in an annual Japanese tradition – fukubukuro shopping! The name translates to ‘lucky bags’ or ‘happy bags’ and it’s essentially shopping-meets-gambling. Many stores across Japan will fill bags with items that you can buy for a flat price. The catch is that you don’t get to know what’s in the bag until after you buy it and take it home. You’ll have a general idea of what’s inside – the Starbucks bag is coffee-related, Bic Camera is full of gadgets, and clothing stores have…well, clothes!
It’s a lot of fun to get wrapped up in the excitement so we really recommend picking up a fukubukuro if you have the chance! You can put your mind at ease knowing that stores try to make sure the items inside combined are worth double what you pay for the bag. Check out our video of Mark’s Blackanny Fukubukuro full of mostly great (and some not so great) clothes.
SEE MOUNT FUJI
You’d think that the tallest mountain in Japan and its most famous landmark would be prominent year-round, right? Well, technically that’s true but Mount Fuji is a lot more elusive than you might think. One of Japan’s most popular ex-pat YouTubers, Chris Broad of Abroad in Japan, has lived in the country for more than 5 years and only saw Fuji for the first time this year!
Mount Fuji is actually covered by thick clouds throughout most of the year. If you’re visiting Japan in the summer you have a 20% chance of getting a full view of the mountain. This means you need to plan carefully but will still need to have luck on your side.
If you want a picturesque view of Fuji-san then winter in Japan is your best bet! The air stays cold enough to keep clouds at bay. Plus, the mountain will have its trademark snowy peak for the best photos. You will still need to plan on staying near the mountain for 2-3 days to increase your chances.
A lot of blogs will tell you to stay in Hakone for Fuji views but we suggest you check out Kawaguchiko instead. This little town is at the base of the mountain on the shores of Lake Kawaguchi. There are lots of great places to eat, stay, and relax. Plus you are close to the Chureito Pagoda for a postcard-worthy memory. Another huge bonus to winter in Japan!
OK, BUT WHAT’S THE CATCH?
We highly recommend experiencing winter in Japan but there are some downsides to keep in mind. First of all, if you are visiting over the New Year period you will need to do some extra planning. Late-December to early-January is a big holiday time for the country. This is great for a quieter experience but there are some caveats to that.
One thing we noticed right away is that a lot of restaurant owners take time off around New Year’s Eve like everyone else. It became a running joke on our trip that we always needed to pick a “2nd Restaurant” because the first would always be closed! We were able to get by in Tokyo but our options were limited in a smaller town like Kawaguchiko. Luckily, convenience stores like 7-11 and Family Mart almost never close and they’re always a good option.
Another thing you’ll need to plan in advance is travel. A lot of people in Japan head home for the holidays to visit family. This means there is a huge migration of people heading in just about every direction. We knew we had to plan early for our Tokyo-Kyoto Shinkansen trip on January 3rd. You need to reserve your ticket at least a few days in advance. Reserving seats is included with your JR Pass but you have to pay extra if you don’t have one. We took a lot of trains during our trip and this was the only full Shinkansen we experienced.
Overall, the positives outweighed the negatives and we decided on winter in Japan. We are so happy that we did because it was an amazing experience. Discovering a new country without heavy crowds makes the memory that much more special. Plus, we were able to save on flights and hotels to have more money for the most important part – food!