The dream of a white Christmas, or even merely to see snow, is something deeply ingrained in me as an Australian. Unlike cities overseas, it doesn’t snow much in Australia, and December marks the start of the hottest part of our summer. Sure, we have snow-white beaches we can frolic upon during the holidays but how many Christmas movies are set at the beach?
With Qantas and Jetstar both adding extra flights from Australia to Japan earlier this year now is the time to consider experiencing that white Christmas you’ve dreamed of with a two-week getaway. From temple hopping to eating ALL the amazing food, riding a Shinkansen (bullet train), experiencing a snow festival, and skiing in one of Japan’s premier snow fields, it’s all possible!
A Two-Week Itinerary for Winter in Japan
Osaka is known for its food. In fact, numerous authors and food critics have cited it as one of the food capitals of the world.
The southern city, and second biggest in Japan, is well known for regional dishes like udon (a noodle dish), okonomiyaki (pan-fried batter cake), takoyaki (octopus dumplings), and oshizushi (pressed sushi), as well as sake, a traditional alcoholic spirit famed across Japan.
While you are in Osaka, pay attention to the Osaka Castle (Osakajo) – intended to become the centre of a new, unified Japan in 1583 – and the surrounding Nishinomaru Garden, a sprawling garden with 600 cherry trees and beautiful views of the castle tower from below (like the picture above).
Other interesting sites include Sumiyoshi Taisha, one of Japan’s oldest Buddhist shrines, and Shinsekai, a district full of great street food, especially the famed kushikatsu, or deep-fried skewers that contain anything from meat to vegetables, or even desserts!, and Tsutenkaku Tower.
For those wanting to relax, Spa World is a huge traditional bathing complex using waters from natural hot springs; or for those with families, or are young at heart, pay a visit to Universal Studios Japan.
You could also take a day trip to Hiroshima, the city best known as the first city in history to be targeted by a nuclear weapon, which is approximately 2 hours 25 minutes away by Shinkansen (bullet train).
For something a little closer to the city, Peace Osaka is a museum that documents the horrors of World War II with a permanent exhibition that has documented Japan’s aggressions as well as the US invasion of Okinawa and the atomic bombings.
Find out what to do with 72 hours in Osaka!
The historic former capital, Kyoto is considered the cultural capital of Japan, having been spared from much of the destruction of World War II.
Known as the City of Ten Thousand Shrines, Kyoto is home to many shrines, many which are now designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites; the most famous of them being Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf.
A little closer to the city, Kiyomizudera (“Pure Water Temple”) is one of the most well-known for its wooden structure.
For a glimpse of Japans famous Geisha, or “Geiko” as they’re known in Kyoto, visit the Gion district. Filled with shops, restaurants, and ochaya (teahouses), the area is where the geiko and maiko (apprentice geiko) entertain. You can even participate in your own special Kyoto Cuisine and Maiko Evening if you book in advance.
For pop culture fans, the Kyoto International Magna Museum is a must visit. The museum focuses mostly on Japanese manga, but there is a small section of the books dedicated to foreign and translated manga.
For animal lovers, venture out to Iwatayama Monkey Park, close to the famed bamboo forests in Kyoto called Arashiyama. Follow the signs up the mountain to see the Japanese macaque monkeys and a beautiful view over Kyoto.
For more views of the snow-capped mountains then a visit to Kyoto Tower is a must. Standing at 131 meters tall, the tower is Kyoto’s tallest building and a rare modern landmark amongst such a historic city. The viewing platform is located 100 meters above ground and offers a 360-degree view of Kyoto. On a clear day, you can see as far as Osaka!
The bustling capital of Japan, Tokyo mixes history with new age effortlessly. Dazzling visitors with its neon lights and the latest technology, but showing a more demure face near it’s iconic temples and historical landmarks.
If you want to see just how immense Japan’s seafood industry is pay a visit to the Tsukiji Fish Market, the large wholesale market for fish, fruits and vegetables in central Tokyo, and one of the largest in the world. Handling over 2,000 tons of marine products each day, the market is an interesting sight to explore for those who can handle the fishy smell and if you’re staying in an airbnb property, you can even buy seafood and produce at wholesale prices.
For those hungry at the sight, there are a number of restaurants inside the inner market.
Technology lovers, rejoice! Akihabara, also known as Akiba, is famed for its hundreds of electronics shops. Wander along Chuo Dori street and you can find the newest computers, cameras, televisions, mobile phones, electric parts, and home appliances, and everything in between. While most stores are independent, there are a few chain stores such as Sofmap and Laox, as well as mega-sized Yodobashi Camera complex.
Akihabara has become the center of Japanese anime and otaku culture, with dozens of stores specialising in anime, manga, and other collectables. There’s also the popular maid cafes, where waitresses dress up and act like maids or anime characters, and manga cafes (manga kissa), which is like an Internet cafe but for watching manga.
While you’re in Tokyo you could also consider visiting Ryogoku, the district of Tokyo where the sumo stadium and sumo stables are situated; or Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea, Shibuya, the famous shopping district and crossing, and Harajuku, the district known for trendy boutiques geared towards the fashion conscious.
Located within the northern Hokkaido region, the mountain region of Niseko is considered one of the world’s top 10 ski resorts. While beautiful in summer, it is in winter when the mountains turn into a playground for snow lovers both local and international, especially Australians.
Comprised of six ski areas, you’ll have what feels like endless options, especially if using a Niseko All Mountain Pass, giving you up to 8 hours of skiing a day.
In addition to kilometers of ski trails, most resorts offer winter activities such as trail skiing, helicopter tours of Mt. Yotei, the volcano seen from the slopes Niseko, day-trips to the hot springs and buses into the local towns.
For accommodation, the best deals for the resorts found on Vacation Niseko, a website that showcases the best accommodation options, including ski-in, ski out options.
From Tokyo, you can choose to fly into either New Chitose Airport or Sapporo Airport where the ski resorts will be able to arrange transfers for you to the mountains.
The largest city on Japan’s northern island, Sapporo is most well-known for hosting the 1972 Winter Olympics, the first time the event had been held in Asia. But that’s not all it’s famous for!
One of the highlights of exploring Japan in winter is taking part in Sapporo’s Yuki Matsuri, the internationally renown snow festival. Taking place each February, the Sapporo Snow Festival includes an ice festival and a small ‘theme park’ which includes a snow maze and snow slides.
For foodies, Sapporo is the birthplace of miso ramen. Wander the Kouraku Ramen Meitengai, an alley lined with ramen restaurants.
If you’re a little ramen-obsessed, the Sapporo Ramen Republic, a ramen-themed theme park, is located on the 10th floor of Sapporo Esta next to Sapporo Station.
One of the oldest and most popular beer brands in Japan, Sapporo Beer is also made in the city. The Sapporo Beer Museum is free and welcomes the public to discover the history of beer in Japan, learn about the process of beer making, and beer tastings available (for a small fee). If you’re hungry after the beer tastings, make your way to one of the two restaurants on site.
Where to stay
Hotel Okura is a Japanese brand of mid-range to luxury hotels offering traditional Japanese hospitality and architecture. With hotels in most major cities of Japan, I highly recommend them for comfort, convenience, and location.
When visiting Niseko, I would recommend staying at one of Vacation Niseko‘s properties which cater to couples, families, or groups wanting to stay in comfort and luxury while skiing in Japan. Personally, I would recommend the Chalet Murasaki or MUSE Niseko.
How to get to Japan
Both Qantas and Jetstar have added additional flights from Australia to Japan in 2015. Qantas now offers a twice-daily service to Japan from Sydney and Brisbane, while Jetstar offers a direct service from Melbourne, Cairns, and the Gold Coast to Tokyo or Osaka airport.
Let me know in the comments below