Why you should visit Japan in Winter.
Beware, this post is photo heavy.
People usually dream of visiting Japan during Hanami (the few weeks of spring time when all the cherry blossoms bloom and the country is buried beneath an avalanche of pink petals), or in Autumn, to witness the leaves changing colour and giving the local landscape shades of striking red and orange, which somehow fit perfectly with the nearby temples. I prefer winter. Much of Japan receives heavy snowfall throughout the winter months, and it makes for a wholly different scene to what you’d encounter in the rest of the year. I had to go and discover the charms of Japan in winter.
We flew in from cold and grey of Chengdu, Via Seoul, to the bright blue sky of Tokyo. The crisp air and clear sunshine were nothing compared to what was waiting for us on a train ride to the North, to Yamagata. A 3 hour journey aboard Japan’s iconic bullet train allowed us to witness the landscape’s transformation in real time, as the bustling mega-city of Tokyo gave way first to green fields, then to dense forest with a light dusting of snow, before finally disappearing entirely beneath a thick white carpet, as we arrived in Yamagata.
Visit Japan in Winter: Where heat and snow co-exist.
There is something very special about places like Zao Onsen, Jigokudani and Minakami, the hot volcanic springs that make up a part of the local landscape. Under the metres of snow, you will find not frozen lakes, but pools of bubbling, steaming, spring water, creating little oases of warmth amid the icy landscape. It’s a strange thing to observe, the fumes of the sulphurous waters steaming in such a cold environment. Still, those are hardly an unknown sight in Japan and what could be nicer than laying in a pool of hot water while watching the snow fall?
Visit Japan in Winter: When the snow takes over.
Further West, in the Japanese Alps, the snow has made its kingdom. In towns like Shirakawa-go and Takayama (visit this link for a guide to the local ryokan), nothing seems to stop it and the small wooden houses hold as much snow as it possibly can without collapsing. The monkeys of Nagano try to find heat wherever they can, as the many snow storms tend to cut their usual supply of heat. Welcome, essentially, to Narnia. This part of Japan sees more snowfall in winter than almost anywhere in the world, it’s not uncommon to see several metres of snow come down over just a few days. Priests try to warm up while waiting at the door of their temples, animals huddle together in the hope of finding some warmth, and the food steams from every restaurants where people line up to get a seat to warm up their cold hands.
Visit Japan in Winter: In the South, the crowds are fewer.
In the island of Miyajima, South of Japan, at night the crowds seem to dwindle and in the empty streets, small shops and restaurants open their doors to the few who have stayed behind. You would almost feel part of the family, sitting at the bar, watching an old lady cook for you while her returning customers barely notice you, busy discussing how the island has changed in the past few years. You will get to observe the tide come in and out with, maybe, only a few deer to come and startle you.
Visit Japan in Winter: The old capital of Kyoto shines.
In the cold weather Kyoto rarely sees snow but you might get lucky and see a thin layer of white powder cover the golden temple. In the streets, still crowded whatever the seasons, geikos and maikos try to hurry to their next customer without getting too cold. The temperature forces them to wear thicker kimonos of which the colours light up the dark wooden alleys of the Gion district. If you are lucky enough, you could get closer to them and observe their graceful skills.
Visit Japan in Winter: Cold weather doesn’t mean cold hearts.
Wherever you go in Japan, the heart of the locals will, always, touch you. Polite, respectful, the Japanese are some of the kindest people you might meet. A smile is always returned, help is always near if you find yourself lost or confused and the cold weather doesn’t change this. Lose your wallet on the metro and find it returned, full, at the next station. Try to carry your broken luggage to see the next passengers helping you pick it up and bring you to your destination. I have a fond memory of a young girl helping me when I was living in Tokyo. I got lost and she went out of the way, for the next thirty minutes, to help me find my destination and get me there safely. Those kind gestures are maybe what makes this country so special to many visitors.
Visit Japan in Winter: Food that will warm you up.
Japan is not simply sushi and sashimi. It also boasts some very hearty cuisine that will make you feel like home. From the thick bone broth of a ramen in the streets of Kyoto, to the gorgeous okonomyaki cooked in front of you in Hiroshima, passing by some of the best Yakiniku in Takayama and some of the freshest tofu in Kyoto, if you were under the impression that all Japan had to offer was fish, reconsider, and what better time to try this great food than in the cold dead of winter?
The reasons to visit Japan in winter are many but the best way to prove my point, was, I hope, through all those photos. There is, to me, a real poetry in this country that unveils itself when walking the cold alleys of Tokyo on a cold winter night.
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