Having hosted two Winter Olympics, Japan is truly a winter wonderland. A Japanese winter caters for all tastes and interests, combining each experience with that ‘something special’, making each adventure unique and memorable. Japan’s northern region’s that face the Sea of Japan see some of the heaviest snowfall of three to six meters, with the snow season starting in some places as early as November and lasting well into May. While most of Japan’s major cities, including Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, generally receive only small amounts of snow, snow-laden experiences are easily accessible from all of them.
In this edition we venture to a place that offers world-class skiing surrounded by snow monsters, take a foodies’ road-trip to savor some of the best winter seafood on offer, see wild snow monkeys pamper themselves at a hot spring bath, and provide adrenaline seekers with great outdoor fun followed by a night in the lap of luxury. Join us as we rug up warm and commence an enthralling Japanese winter adventure.
Mount Zao, in Yamagata Prefecture, comes alive in winter with throngs of couples, friends and families hitting its slopes for its excellent powder-snow skiing conditions and facilities. While the skiing remains the main reason for visiting Mount Zao in winter, it also attracts an audience of seasonal ‘snow monsters’, that border and gather between the ski slopes and ski trails, giving the mountain an eerie and distinct atmosphere. This unusual natural phenomenon, known as ‘juhyo’, is created through a process of repeated ice and snow layering on the leaves and branches of conifer trees that dot the region. Snow monsters are a rare natural event that only occurs in a few mountain ranges in northeastern Japan, and they make for fantastic photography. Zao Onsen Ski Resort is easily accessible and an ideal base for observing the spectical. For arial views of the snow monsters take the Zao Ropeway, which is an enclosed gondola that travels directly over the snow monster forest. During the evenings from the 26 December through to the 28 February, the snow monsters at the top of the summit are illuminated from 5 to 9pm, for an even more ethereal effect.
Zao Onsen Ski Resort is one of the most renowned and largest ski resorts in Japan, with 14 slopes of various difficulty and an additional 11 trails. Use the opportunity to better your ski and snowboarding techniques through one of the many ski schools that are located there. Tuition can be provided for groups, or tailored for couples or private lessons. Lessons are also provided for young children through to adults at all levels of ability. Lessons are available in English.
Miyagi Prefecture, located on the northern Pacific coast, is a seafood-foodies’ delight throughout the year. Winter is especially so for lovers of oysters and other much-loved fish varieties such as bigeye tuna, flounder and monkfish, which seasonally are at their zenith. From seaside seafood ‘huts’, to Michelin-starred restaurants, the joy of quality fresh seafood can be savored in all types of settings and for all budgets, and it is best enjoyed as a road-trip. Our journey starts in Sendai, the regional capital. Home to 11 one-star Michelin restaurants and 1 two-star restaurant, the culinary landscape overwhelmingly features the local sea produce and is predominately seafood based. A 30-minute drive from Sendai is Shiogama Port, which amongst its multitude of seafood haul, boasts Japan’s largest tuna catch. The port itself is a culinary haven and is reported to be home to the most sushi restaurants in all of Japan, a testament to the quality of the local catch. One of the best ways to experience Shiogama is to go to the fish market and create a “my donburi”, whereby you meander through the market selecting your favorite sashimi, and head towards a vendor that supplies you with a bowl of rice. Then simply put the sashimi on top of the rice to make your own ‘Donburi’.
From Shiogama Port it is a 15-minute drive further up the coast to Matsushima. The highlight is to stop along the way at the roadside “kakigoya” or ‘oyster huts’. The oysters are farmed in the adjacent bay. Quality and freshness are next to none, with October through to March the best season to visit. The winter specialty is “hamayaki “, or grilled oysters. Fresh shells are heated over charcoals and grilled for about 3 minutes on each side.
If you can pull yourself away from the seafood, be sure to also take the sights of Matsushima Bay. Dotted by 260 tiny pine-clad islets, the bay has been ranked through the centuries as one of Japan’s top 3 most scenic views. Its beauty has also been the inspiration for many haiku poems. There are four distinct vantage points located around the bay known as the ‘shidaikan’ that offer the best views. It’s a perfect way to finish any tour of the region. Also located in Matsushima is the designated national treasure of Zuiganji Temple, that is well worth a visit for its splendid architecture and highly decorative interiors.
Minakami Kogen Ski Resort is perfect for those visiting Tokyo looking for an overnight snow experience full of adrenaline and outdoor fun. Naturally skiing and snowboarding are on offer, including ski and snowboard rental, and classes for children as young as 3 years old up to adults, for novices and those advanced. Unique for a ski resort, there are a number of other exciting activities and adventures that will make you want to extend your stay. One such activity is the snowmobile treks. Lead by a guide, the 60-minute tour ventures deep into the mountains providing a unique and thrilling opportunity to explore the winter landscape. Another fun activity for the whole family is snow rafting, where a rubber raft boat is pulled behind a snowmobile with an expert driver at the helm. The ride is full of dashes and turns at top speeds, ensuring an exhilarating experience for all. Dog sleigh experiences are also on offer. Pulled by 5 or more dogs, a 50-minute tour includes a ride with an instructor, or for those that wish to learn the art themselves, there is a 110-minute course that includes an instructional lesson, followed by a drive-alone tour.
Just a 30-minute drive from Minakami Kogen Ski Resort lies Bettei Senjuan, a luxury boutique resort perched in a quiet mountain valley. The resort boasts 18 exceptionally appointed spacious rooms featuring either traditional or modern Japanese design. Each room has spectacular views of Mount Tanigawa, that are especially beathtaking in winter as a snow-capped landscape, and best enjoyed from the privacy of the outdoor hotspring, which is attached to each room. A luxury award-winning resort that is also a member of Relais & Châteaux, Bettei Senjuan offers respite, privacy and calmness after a day of outdoor adventure.
Hot springs are found throughout Japan and continue to be fondly appreciated by the Japanese since time immemorial. Humans, however, are not the only local residents that enjoy the relaxation, rejuvenation and social settings that hot springs offer. Jigokudani Yaen Koen Park, in Nagano Prefecture, is world renowned for its inhabitants of over 150 wild Japanese Macaques, or ‘Snow Monkeys’, that ‘live the good life’ and often spend part of their day soaking up the warmth and ‘family atmosphere’ of a recreational dip. The park is open throughout the year, however, it’s during January and February in winter, when the bathing monkeys can be best captured amidst the white snow settings.
After watching the Snow Monkeys pampering themselves, make a 1hr 30min drive to the town of Karuizawa and the Hoshinoya Resort for some rejuvenation indulgence of your own. The famous luxury resort has long been a mountain retreat favorite of many Japanese and expatriates alike. It offers both hotel room and villa accommodation, including the highly coveted “Water Wave Villas”, which are arranged within a vast waterside garden. The resort is famous for its numerous spa treatments including traditional Japanese Shiatsu massage, acupuncture and even moxibusion to name a few. Karuizawa also entices travellers with its excellent fine dining options and shopping venues, including the Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza, which is a popular outlet shopping destination all its own.
The park was established in 1964 to protect the natural environment and settings surrounding the natural spring, that the snow monkeys have claimed as their own. As such, visitors should prepare themselves with suitable shoes and protective clothing to walk the snow-laden mountain paths to reach the hot spring site.