Why visit Japan during the winter? Wouldn’t this lovely country be experienced at a warmer time of year? After my wonderful winter trip to Japan, I can give you a few reasons:
Because Japan doesn’t require good weather to be an entertaining destination. No matter what time of year you visit, you’ll find plenty of things to do, both outdoors and indoors.
Because Japan excels at foods besides sushi and there are plenty of soups and stews to warm you up. There’s nothing as satisfying as walking into a tiny restaurant on a chilly night, sitting at the bar, and ordering a bowl of ramen brimming with pork and noodles.
Because, actually, one thing might be a bit more satisfying — sitting in an outdoor mountain onsen, luxuriating in bubbling hot waters while sipping on warm sake, thick snowflakes falling around you.
And if that’s not enough, there are Japan’s many winter festivals, none more famous than the Sapporo Snow Festival.
When ANA contacted me about traveling during the winter to Japan for its Experience Class™ campaign which celebrates new heights of luxury and service no matter who you are or where you sit, I was eager to explore what the winter had to offer.
If you’re going to dive into the Japanese winter, you should dive hard. For that reason, I chose to visit the most wintry region of Japan: the northern island of Hokkaido.
Another excellent day trip is Noboribetsu Onsen, a hot spring town about an hour and 40 minutes from Sapporo. This area is famous for its Jigokudani, a.k.a. Hell Valley. You get to hike through an angry-looking mountainous landscape as hot springs bubble and sulfur fills the air. It’s like a trip to Mars!
After your hike, reward yourself with a soak at an onsen, or Japanese public bath. I visited Onsen Tengoku, or “Hot Spring Heaven,” just steps from the Jigokudani. I luxuriated in a wide selection of pools, including one outdoors in the snow and one with a distant view of hikers on the trails! Be sure to read up on onsen etiquette before you visit — foreigners are welcome, but the Japanese have a very specific way to wash and behave before you get in the pools.
If you like to ski or snowboard, you’re really in luck — Hokkaido is home to Niseko, one of the country’s best ski resorts. While I’m not a skier myself, locals told me Niseko’s location near the ocean with cold winds from Siberia creates an enormous amount of snow for ideal ski conditions.
The easiest way to get to Hokkaido is to fly into New Chitose Airport, which is a 35-minute train ride from Sapporo. ANA has flights to New Chitose from Narita and Haneda airports in Tokyo.
Any good trip needs a foil. After enjoying the wilds of Hokkaido, I was in need of a dose of urban inspiration, so I headed to Tokyo.
The Sapporo Snow Festival is one of Hokkaido’s biggest draws in winter. Each February, the streets are filled with snow sculptures, concerts, athletic competitions, and lots of fresh seafood for sale. It culminates with a snow sculpting competition.
Even with just one night to wander the festival, I was delighted by the magic in the air, enhanced no doubt by the falling snow. I caught a wild moguls skiing competition. I watched a performer dance on an ice sculpture. I got a French-style hot chocolate from a vendor. I watched a competitor work on a sculpture to be entered in the competition. Best of all was the people-watching, seeing couples and families bond at the festival.
When you’re ready to warm up, head to the Susukine neighborhood. This area is home to the best nightlife and restaurants in Sapporo. Tucked between two busy streets is Ramen Alley — a tiny street lined with ramen restaurants. Jump in wherever looks good!
For the typical Sapporo meal, get a miso ramen with butter and sweet corn. It sounds strange, but believe me, it works beautifully. Pair it with a Sapporo Classic — a version of the city’s eponymous beer that is only sold on Hokkaido!
Alternatively — or additionally! — head to a tiny coffee shop called Baristart for the best coffee in Sapporo. My recommendation? Go for one of their lattes. They use three different kinds of local milk from Hokkaido cows and can educate you on their subtleties.
Sapporo is a clean, modern city with a youthful population. It’s not as energetic or sophisticated as Tokyo, but it has a wonderful low-key flavor that makes visitors feel welcome. To get the best views in town, head to the top of the TV Tower. If you time your visit close to sunset, you might be able to get some nice sky colors, even on a cloudy day!
One of the most popular day trips from Sapporo is to Otaru, just 30 minutes away by train. Otaru is famous for its Western-style architecture along the canal, and they also have a collection of small museums and cool gift shops.
Otaru is also home to an ice cream shop famous for their unusual flavors called Kita-no Aisukurimu-ya-san. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try squid ink or uni (sea urchin)! Both are mildly sweet with a unique flavor. If that’s a little out there for you, go for melon or white peach instead.