Winter season in Japan boasts some of its most amazing and picturesque sceneries, especially in regions lying alongside the Sea of Japan (日本海), otherwise known as Yukiguni (雪国), or Snow Country. These regions are not only dominated by heavy and long-lasting snowfalls, but also are home to some of the snowiest cities ranked among the world. While Hokkaido may immediately evoke wintry snowy images, it might surprise you to learn that the city with the heaviest snowfall is not located in Hokkaido…
From Aomori to Takayama, here’s a look at seven of Japan’s snowiest cities and several of their unique winter activities and sightseeing spots to check out.
1. Aomori City: World’s Snowiest City and the Land of Apples
Hakkoda, Aomori City | ©︎ Amazing Aomori
Located on the northernmost part of Honshu Island just below Hokkaido, Aomori City (青森市) of Aomori Prefecture (青森県) is renowned not only for having the highest snowfall in Japan but also in the entire world. As a result, this paves way for the captivating natural phenomenon known as the "snow monsters" in the Hakkoda Mountain Range (八甲田山系) of Aomori City. Formed by heavy snowfall and freezing winds, heavy snowfall transforms the landscape into a winter wonderland, creating surreal, otherworldly figures on the trees.
Aomori, the kingdom of apples | ©︎ Amazing Aomori
Other than its record snowfall, Aomori City is also recognised as one of the top producers of delicious apples. Ranging from varieties such as the widely consumed ‘Fuji’ to the unbelievably sweet ‘O-Rin’, the A-Factory of Aomori City offers an inexhaustible selection of fresh and juicy apples, together with other apple products such as their famous apple cider, that will no doubt deliver the best of Aomori straight to your taste buds.
How to get to Aomori
From Tokyo: Take the JR Tohoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) from Tokyo Station (東京駅) to Shin-Aomori (新青森駅) which takes approximately 3 hours. From there, you can transfer to a local train and alight at Aomori Station (青森駅).
2. Obanazawa City: A Hot Spot for Hot Springs like Ginzan Onsen
Ginzan Onsen was one of the sources of inspiration for the Studio Ghibli film “Spirited Away” | ©︎ Tabi Tohoku
Obanazawa City (尾花沢市) is situated towards the eastern border of Yamagata Prefecture (山形県) and ranks among Japan’s top three snowiest cities. Besides winter scenery, the city is renowned for its abundance of hot spring resorts, featuring dozens of traditional Japanese inns (ryokan). Among these, the hot spring town of Ginzan Onsen (銀山温泉) stands out as one of the most well-known, boasting a nostalgic atmosphere reminiscent of the Taisho Era in the early 20th century. For Studio Ghibli fans, this town will evoke scenes straight out of the animated film “Spirited Away”.
Winding through the town center, the Ginzan River is flanked by traditional inns on either side, creating a picturesque setting. The air carries the soothing scent of sulfuric hot springs, making this riverside retreat an ideal retreat after a day of snow gazing.
And for fellow foodies, Obanazawa is also famed for its tender Obanazawa Wagyu beef (尾花沢和牛), ensuring a culinary delight to complement the city's natural and historical attractions.
How to get to Ginzan Onsen
From Tokyo: Take the JR Yamagata Shinkansen (山形新幹線) from Tokyo Station to Oishida Station (大石田駅) which will take approximately 3 hours. From Oishida Station, change to a local bus which will bring you straight to Ginzan Onsen (approximately 20 minutes). Do note that the buses running from Oishida Station to Ginzan Onsen can be infrequent so be sure to check the bus timings ahead of time! For Japan Rail Pass users, do note that the pass only covers the train fare and not the bus fare.
3. Zao Onsen: Ski Fun and Snow Monsters (Juhyo)
Snow Monsters of Zao Onsen | ©︎ Tabi Tohoku
If that does not seem like enough snow for a day, you can also visit Zao Onsen. Lying atop a volcanic mountain and sandwiched between two prefectures, Yamagata and Miyagi (宮城県), this hot spring resort is a popular ski destination for visitors from all over the world. Apart from the soft and unrivaled snow best suited for skiing, Zao is also known for the ‘Juhyo’ (ice trees), or otherwise nicknamed ‘Snow Monsters’, as trees covered by thick layers of snow create the illusion of monsters standing amongst the snow. In winter, between late December to late February, the Juhyo Light Up Event (樹氷ライトアップ) takes place and the mountain transforms into an expansive display of art as these ‘Juhyo’ are being illuminated under the clear winter night sky.
How to get to Zao Onsen
From Tokyo: Take the Yamagata Shinkansen (山形新幹線) from Tokyo Station to Yamagata Station (山形駅) which takes approximately 2.5 hours. From there, you can transfer to a local bus that will bring you to Zao Onsen Ski resort (approximately 40 minutes). Similarly, do take note that the Japan Rail Pass only covers the train fare and not the bus fare.
4. Otaru City: Stroll Along Candle-Lit Canals and Cute Penguins
Otaru Canal | ©︎ Zhang Shu
Situated on the northernmost reaches of Japan, Hokkaido (北海道) experiences ample annual snowfall, earning its renowned reputation as a winter sports and recreation haven. The vast expanse of mountainous geography also boasts beautiful snow-covered landscapes. The quaint city of Otaru (小樽市) becomes lively in winter during The Otaru Snow Light Path Festival (小樽あかりの路), which occurs every February, as the port city is bathed in candlelight. Small snow statues and candles embellish the main areas of the iconic Otaru Canal (小樽運河) and the Former Temiya Railway (手宮線跡地), engulfing them in a pleasantly nostalgic and romantic atmosphere. Lit glass globes are set adrift in the canal, mimicking the Milky Way and symbolizing the prayers and wishes of each individual.
Penguins of Otaru Aquarium | ©︎ kata716
Besides taking part in the winter festivals, make sure to visit the Otaru Aquarium (小樽水族館), the largest aquarium in Hokkaido, for a delightful and exciting family outing. The aquarium primarily features marine animals from the cold seas of Hokkaido and is renowned for its shows, offering audiences close and personal interactions with the animals. The highlight of the programs is the Penguin Winter Stroll, which is held exclusively during the winter season, where you can witness Gentoo penguins gracefully waddling through the snow.
How to get to Otaru
From New Chitose Airport: If you are arriving in Hokkaido by plane, you can make use of the Airport Rapid Service (快速「エアポート」) for a direct train to Otaru Station (小樽駅) which takes approximately 1.5 hours. As this service is run by JR Hokkaido, your train ride will be covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
From Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station: If you are arriving in Hokkaido by the Hokkaido Shinkansen (北海道新幹線), you can transfer to the Hokuto (北斗) or the Super Hokuto Limited Express (特急北斗) at Shin Hakodate Hokuto Station (新函館北斗駅), which will bring you straight to Otaru Station. However, please note that this journey would take around 4.5 hours, making arriving in Hokkaido by plane a more time-efficient alternative!
5. Abashiri City: Drift Ice and Wildlife-Watching
Drift ice of Abashiri | ©︎ mantaphoto
For the more adventurous, Abashiri City (網走市), which lies on the eastern coast of Hokkaido, facing the Sea of Okhotsk, is an excellent destination to witness drift ice, originating from the Amur River in Russia between mid-January to early February. Drift Ice Boat Cruises and Drift Ice Tours provide opportunities to observe this seasonal spectacle up close, including the thrilling experience of walking on the drift ice. Ryuhyo Monogatari (流氷物語号), a unique sightseeing train that operates during the drift ice season, offers another option for safely observing the drift ice from the coastline.
Alternatively, immerse yourself in the winter festivities celebrating this phenomenon, such as the Abashiri Okhotsk Drift Ice Festival (あばしりオホーツク流氷まつり) or the Okhotsk Yatai Village (オホーツク屋台村). The latter features dozens of food stalls selling winter delicacies, including fresh local seafood, and drinks served on bar tops made out of blocks of ice!
How to get to Abashiri
From Memanbetsu Airport: Take a 30-minute bus to Abashiri Station (網走駅) where you can transfer to a local bus which connects the station with Abashiri Harbour (網走港). After approximately 10 minutes, alight at Road Station Ice Breaker Terminal (流氷砕氷船のりば). Take note that the sightseeing ship only operates from 20 January to 31 March.
6. Iiyama City: Snow Hut Village and A Hearty Local Hotpot
Kamakura or snow huts in Iiyama City, Nagano | ©︎ Adobe Stock
Nagano Prefecture (長野県) is also one of the snowiest regions in Japan where visitors flock to for its famous ski resorts and regions such as Hakuba and Shiga-Kogen. Afterall, the prefecture is covered with snow for nearly a third of the year. However, less known to the general tourists would be the elusive winter-only restaurant that pops up in the small city of Iiyama, a city which consistently receives record-high snowfall every year.
Situated amidst the snowy Japanese Alps, The Kamakura Snow Hut Village (かまくらの里), is a pop-up restaurant which serves noroshi nabe (のろし鍋), a hot pot consisting of a Nagano miso base, Ilyama’s specialty ‘Miyuki Pork’, and local vegetables such as honshimeji and king trumpet, just for the winter season. You can enjoy the pleasant experience of sipping hot soup in the cozy interior of the kamakura (snow domed houses), all while being surrounded by Nagano Prefecture’s most pristine natural winterscapes.
Besides having a warm, hearty meal, the Snow Hut Village also offers other unique ways of enjoying the thick powdery snow exclusive to the season, such as snowcat rides and snow rafting. With the snowcat ride, you can enjoy the experience of the vast expanse of the pure white snowscape of the deep countryside being unveiled before your very eyes, all from the comfort of your seat. For an even more thrilling experience, you can opt for the thrilling snow rafting, in which you will be pulled by a snowmobile, gliding through the beautiful snow at high speed. These family-friendly activities will certainly be the cherry on top of your stay at this magical village.
How to get to Iiyama
From Tokyo: Take the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen (北陸新幹線) from Tokyo Station to Iiyama Station (飯山駅) which will take around 2 hours. To get to the Kamakura Snow Hut Village, take a 20-minute bus ride and alight at Shinano Taira bus stop (信濃平バス停), which is just walking distance from the village.
7. Takayama City: The Little Kyoto Surrounded by Japanese Alps
Old meets snow in the historic village of Takayama | ©︎ coward_lion
A natural basin lying amongst one of the most mountainous regions in Japan, Gifu Prefecture also experiences abundant snowfall during winter, coating its majestic nature and landscapes with powdery white snow. Takayama City (高山市), surrounded by the Japanese Alps, is a historic town that has preserved its old streets, reminiscent of the Edo Period, thus its nickname ‘Little Kyoto’. In fact, many buildings along the Old Town are centuries old, with their beauty amplified in winter as the white snow rests atop the roof, emphasizing the seasoned colors of the wooden infrastructure.
Takayama is also known for its mouth-watering Hida beef (飛騨牛) and Gohei-mochi (五平餅), a local delicacy made by roasting non-glutinous rice dipped in a sweet walnut miso sauce. In winter, the town is illuminated at night, recreating the peaceful snowscape of a time long gone.
How to get to Takayama
From Tokyo: Take the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen (北陸新幹線) from Tokyo Station to Toyama Station (富山駅) (approximately 2 hours). Then, transfer to the JR Hida Limited Express (特急ひだ) to Takayama Station (高山駅), which takes approximately 90 minutes.
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