There’s more to winter in Japan than staying indoors and cozying up under the kotatsu. All across the country are natural wonders that come to life when the mercury drops—think snow monsters, frozen waterfalls, steamy hot springs, and ice caves!
If you’re visiting outside of winter, see our article on 12 natural wonders to visit in the warmer months.
1. Zao Snow Monsters – Yamagata Prefecture
Halloween may have come and gone, but the eerie Zao Snow Monsters are yet to emerge for the winter season. Blowing winds assist the accumulation of ice and snow on the resident fir trees, creating these giant and uniquely shaped frozen structures. They’re found on mountaintops in the area of Zao Ski Resort in Yamagata Prefecture (about 4–5 hours away from Tokyo by car or rail).
At the resort, the monsters, called juhyo in Japanese, can be accessed via ropeways and gondolas. The best time to catch them is during the winter months, with February being the peak viewing month (they begin to melt heading into March). In the evenings, colorful illuminations cast them with an ethereal glow.
The Zao Snow Monster Festival takes place every year on a weekend, usually toward late January and early February. The event features a parade of mascots and skiers gliding down the mountain with glowing torches, and a fireworks displays on the Saturday evening.
2. Okhotsk Sea drift ice – Hokkaido Prefecture
Every winter, an expanse of drift ice makes its way from the Russia’s Amur River (one of the longest in the world) to northeastern Japan, reaching Okhotsk Sea, along the coast of Abashiri and the Shiretoko Peninsula (where Shiretoko National Park is located).
The ice floe (called rhuhyo in Japanese) arrives in mid-January to March, and sometimes can stick around until April.
For something a little more tame (and warm), visit the Okhotsk Sea Ice Museum of Hokkaido. Learn all about the drift ice, its route, and the area’s flora and fauna. There is an observation room, and even a newly renovated dome theater where visitors can experience how Okhotsk changes throughout the four seasons.
Lastly, there is a drift ice festival in Abashiri every February featuring snow sculptures of all sizes that are illuminated in the evenings.
3. Misotsuchi Icicles – Saitama Prefecture
Take a short train ride north of Tokyo into neighboring Saitama Prefecture to see the Misotsuchi icicles. As the temperature drops, the spring water solidifies and piecey curtains of ice jut from the surface of the natural rock wall. The best time to visit is mid-January to mid-February when the temperature is at its lowest.
There is an annual Otaki Ice Festival where the icicles are illuminated in the evening on weekends and national holidays, creating one of the most beautiful winter sights in Saitama. For 2020, the Otaki Ice Festival has been canceled. The area is open from 8 am to 5pm, however when there are illumination days, closing hours are extended into the evening.
A one-way trip takes about 2.5 to 3 hours from central Tokyo by train + bus.
4. Jigokudani Monkey Park — Nagano Prefecture
Macaques monkeys ensconced in a steamy natural hot spring is the quintessential image of winter in Japan. With the exception of humans, macaques live farther north than any other primate in the world. At Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano Prefecture, visitors can get up close (but not so personal as they are indeed wild animals) all year round, however the winter season is especially picturesque. While the monkeys are on their own schedule, park employees do feed them daily, so you’ll likely get a good view of the hedonistic bathers at those set times.
See our guide to the Jigokudani Monkey Park for visitor info, how to get there from Tokyo, and Snow Monkey 2-Day Pass.
5. Shirahige Falls – Hokkaido Prefecture
The town of Biei, home to the famous Shirogane Blue Pond and the expansive flower fields, has another natural wonder to add to its list of extraordinary sights: Shirahige Falls. In winter, the icy blue views will woo even the most cold-adverse among us.
The waterfall is lit up year-round. Hours vary throughout the year, but typically the lights are turned on around dusk until 9 pm.
Nearby is the blue pond (called Aoiike), which is also illuminated from November to April (again from dusk to 9 pm). There is a special bus that will take you on a three-hour tour to visit both the waterfall and the pond (among other stops) on weekends and holidays. It costs ¥2,000 for adults, ¥1,000 for elementary-aged children, and free for children under the age of 5. The tour starts at Biei Tourist Center. See the Biei Tourism site for more details.
6. Mt. Fuji – Yamanashi and Shizuoka Prefectures
Fuji is Japan’s most famous natural landmark. In summer, hordes of hikers climb to its peak for heavenly views. But a snow-covered Fuji in winter—what a beaut! The colder season is the perfect time to step back and take in its entirety.
Plan a day trip to the Kawaguchiko area to see its stoic reflection in the lake. Alternatively, if you’re an experienced hiker, you may want to consider a winter hike up a nearby mountain, like Mt. Mitsutoge or Mt. Akadake, for phenomenal views of Mt. Fuji.
See our guide on traveling from Tokyo to Mt. Fuji.
7. Tadami River Bridge No. 1 – Fukushima Prefecture
Take a ride across Tadami River Bridge No. 1 for soaring views of coniferous trees—their evergreen color disguised under a blanket of pristine white snow. Below, the frosty river glistens a cool jewel-tone blue. It’s romantic, it’s picturesque, so hop on the JR Tadami Line with bae and a camera and capture some winter wonderland memories.
In Fukushima, the two closest stations on either side of the bridge is Aizu-Nishikata Station (southwest of the bridge) and Aizu-Hinohara Station (northeast of the bridge).
Note: A small section from Aizu-Kawaguchi Station (located just a few stations southwest of Aizu-Nishikata Station) that continues down toward Tadami Station is currently closed.
If you’d rather get a view of the train against the wintry landscape, visit the No. 1 Tadami River Bridge Viewpoint.
8. Fukuroda Falls, Ibaraki Prefecture
High praise abounds for Ibaraki’s Fukuroda Falls. It’s designated as a Place of Scenic Beauty and one of Japan’s Top 100 Waterfalls. It’s also ranked as third most beautiful waterfall in Japan (in good company with Kegon Falls and Nachi Falls).
The 120-meter-tall and 73-meter-wide waterfall is also known at Yado no Taki, meaning “four times falls”, referring to its four-level drop. In winter, due to its location in a basin, the temperature gets colder than the surrounding areas and the chutes freeze solid—as if the White Witch of Narnia had cast a bitter spell on them herself.
Fukuroda Falls is located in Daigo, a small town of 15,000 people. It’s known for its many hot springs, which is the perfect activity to end a day of winter sightseeing.
9. Unryu Keikoku Waterfall – Nikko Prefecture
Adventurers wanting a winter hiking experience can look to Unryu Keikoku, or “Cloud Dragon Valley”, in Nikko. In January and February, Unryu Keikoku sees its many waterfalls, of all sizes, freeze over, resulting in long, frozen pendants draped over the cliffside.
If you’re up for the challenge, make sure you have the right winter hiking gear. If you’re not an experienced hiker, you can join a trekking group that will show you the way to the icicle utopia. We found a few groups online through a simple “Unryu Keikoku + snow trekking” Google search.
10. Narusawa Ice Cave – Yamanashi Prefecture
Not too far from Lake Kawaguchiko in the Aokigahara Forest, at the northern base of Mt. Fuji, is the Narusawa Ice Cave. Visitors can walk the 156 meter route through the volcanic cave to see the naturally forming icicles, which exist year-round, but increase in size in the winter season. The average temperature in the cave is about 3°C (37°F), so be sure to bundle up.
Entry is ¥350 for adults, ¥200 for elementary-aged students, and ¥250 for seniors.
There are two other caves in the area: the Fugaku Wind Cave and the Lake Sai Bat Cave.
11. Tamagawa Onsen – Akita Prefecture
In the small, northern city of Semboku, Tamagawa Onsen offers steamy, therapeutic hot springs. At its source, the sulfuric water is 98°C (208°F) and highly acidic (1.2 pH)—which translates to being smelly, but having healing properties. Every minute, the spring discharges 9,000 liters of water, spanning a width of 3 meters.
12. Nozawa Onsen – Nagano Prefecture
Nozawa is a ski village (one Japan’s most famous) and onsen town all wrapped into one. It buzzes in winter with skiiers, snowboarders, and hot-beverage sippers from around the world. The area is said to be discovered by the monk Gyoki in the 8th century, but recorded establishments in the area date back to the 1800s. Nozawa was also the host venue for the 1998 Winter Olympics biathlon event.
For more details, see our guide on taking a trip to Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort.
While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change.