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Sub-zero Japan

24th October 2011 Print

Delicate cherry blossom in the spring, a festival-packed summer, autumn leaves ablaze - and what about the winter?

From the mountain peaks of Honshu to the vast wilderness of Hokkaido, the 'white stuff' dumps on much of the Land of the Rising Sun from November to as late as April. These sparkling winter months offer all kinds of seasonal experiences for the culture vulture, the powder hound, the naturalist, festival fans and travellers looking for the 'wow' factor.

Here are InsideJapan Tours' recommendations for snowy sojourns:

Powder heaven and hot springs

Japan's northern island of Hokkaido is blessed with metres of some of the best powder snow in the world. Niseko is the jewel in the Hokkaido crown with four sprawling resorts, overlooked by the majestic Mount Yotei volcano, and superb back country skiing around Mount Annapuri. In central Hokkaido, Japan's largest national park, Daisetsuzan, meaning 'great snowy mountains', extends across sixteen peaks of over 2,000 metres.

For jagged terrain and dramatic scenery, head for Honshu's Nagano, host of the 1998 Winter Olympics. Go to Hakuba for fabulous on and off piste opportunities and night skiing across several of the seven resorts.  Nozawa Onsen is a small but perfectly-formed traditional skiing village, with just 5,000 inhabitants; it's been renowned for its hot springs since the 1600s.

Wildlife in the winter

Witness captivating birdlife scenes in Hokkaido - see the graceful red-crowned Japanese crane perform dances as the orange sun sets over the pure white snowfields of Tsurui - and see thousands of magnificent sea eagles rest on drifting ice on the frozen sea off the Shiretoko Peninsula

Amidst the peaks of Nagano, the forests of Yudanaka are home to the wise-looking snow monkeys. Watch them splash about in the hot springs, enjoy a good long soak or have snowball fights in the thick snow.

Festivals and fire

Several big festivals are organised across Japan throughout the winter months. The city of Sapporo in Hokkaido is host to one of the most impressive - the Snow Festival (Yuki Matsuri), which takes place in February. Mammoth ice sculptures, snow parks and ice bars are constructed all over the city amongst music stages and food stalls. A more traditional festival is the Nozawa Fire Festival in mid-January, an intense celebration of health and growth. Fireworks and bonfires light up the village and the skies above whilst large amounts of sake are consumed by the locals.

Culture and cuisine

In the Japanese Alps, it's skiing by day and, by night, relaxing in an outdoors hot spring pool, surrounded by snow-covered rocks and with the stars twinkling overhead. Or, if a foot soak will suffice, look out for the free ashi (foot)-onsen, pools of knee-deep hot spring water dotted around the resorts. To eat, head to an izakaya (pub/restaurant), where it's easy to mingle and chat with fellow skiers and locals, and enjoy good-quality tapas-style food, washed down with lager or schochu (rice spirit cocktails). Karaoke bars are common in ski resorts, too, perfect to round off a day on the slopes.

Sample holidays

The eight-night 'Niseko Winter' self-guided adventure includes six nights in a family-run guest house in the heart of Niseko village, with two nights in Tokyo's neon-lit Shinjuku district, daily breakfast, all domestic transport and a five-day Niseko all-mountain lift pass. Costs from £1,070 pp (excluding flights) or £1,720 pp with direct flights from London with Virgin or BA.

There is also a winter special for 5 star 'Niseko Winter' staying at the splendid Green Leaf Hotel for £1,500pp.

The 14-night 'Winter Highlights' small group tour incorporates Tokyo, Sapporo (during the Snow Festival), the Shiretoko Peninsula (with an ice breaker cruise) and Kyoto (with a tour of the geisha district) and includes 14 nights' accommodation, daily breakfast, seven evening meals, full-time guide and domestic transport across Japan. Costs £3,250 pp (two sharing), excluding flights.

For further information, visit

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