Nestled within the northern area of Japan’s main island, Tohoku is a hidden gem whose astounding beauty charms visitors all throughout the four seasons. But winter is when Mother Nature puts on its best show. From December to March, Tohoku transforms into a white snowy paradise that is reminiscent of a fairytale.
If postcard-worthy landscapes, warm hospitality and incredibly fun winter activities sound like your type of a great vacation, Tohoku is the place to visit. Here are 6 Ways to Experience an Authentic Tohoku Winter Holiday that you will never forget!
1. Soak Yourself To A Blissful State In Mineral-Rich Onsens
Matsudai Shibatouge Onsen Unkai, Niigata Prefecture
This Onsen is literally located on top of the world. Elevated above the Shiba Pass, Shibatouge Onsen offers an unparalleled view of Tokamachi’s terraced rice paddies blanketed in snow. Surrounded by a spectacular sea of clouds, taking a soak in their panoramic open-air bath, Unkai-no-Yu, is an otherworldly experience that is nothing short of magical.
For those who prefer more privacy, there are indoor baths and private open-air baths available as well. Shibatouge Onsen welcomes day-use visitors but better still, spend a night in their warm comfy rooms so that you have more time to relax.
After pampering your body and soul in their therapeutic onsen water sourced from the abundance of hot springs around, it is a must to treat your taste buds to a delicious Japanese dinner. Made using only the freshest seasonal ingredients from Niigata, each dish represents the finest of Tsumari cuisine (local cuisine that is unique to the southern region of Niigata) and is truly a feast for the senses.
Naruko Hot Spring, Miyagi Prefecture
As part of the bigger Naruko-onsen-kyo Hot Spring Village, Naruko Hot Spring is the largest and proudly boasts a history of more than 1000 years. It has long been regarded by the Japanese as one of the “Three Renowned Hot Springs in Oshu” (Oshu is the old name for northeastern Japan) because of the effective medicinal benefits of its hot springs and its excellent water quality.
Besides the ample free-flowing hot spring water, another charm of Naruko Hot Spring is that it offers nine out of the eleven kinds of water quality that can be found in Japan’s hot springs. That means you can indulge in a day of Onsen-hopping and happily try out different types of mineral-rich baths!
Those who crave modern comforts would be pleased to know that this historical Onsen town offers a wide variety of accommodation, restaurants and souvenir shops. To complete the whole winter experience, rent a traditional yukata and take a stroll in the snow while immersed in the old-town atmosphere.
2. Rediscover Your Inner Child With Some Fun Snow Activities
Dondendaira Snow Park, Yamagata Prefecture
Opened in 2012 on the picturesque Dondendaira mountain plain of Iide Town, Dondendaira Snow Park attracts both adults and children with plenty of exciting snow activities. During winter season, heavy snowfall in this area creates a winter wonderland for snow lovers.
This is a great spot for people who want to try out other snow activities besides skiing. Banana boat rides on snow, a giant 15-metre snow slide using old-school tyres, snow shoe trekking, games where you can hurl snowballs with much satisfaction at target boards and more. However, the highlight of this snow park had got to be the snowmobile experience. Adventure seekers, this is where you put on your helmets and whoosh through the beautiful snow plains for an absolutely thrilling ride!
Rest assure, no experience is required to enjoy these activities. There will be instructors and staff around to provide assistance so that everyone can enjoy some good winter fun.
Sumikawa Snow Park, Miyagi Prefecture
Situated at an altitude of 1100m, Sumikawa Snow Park is the highest-elevation ski resort in Miyagi. Ski enthusiasts across Japan flock here for its renowned fresh powdery snow and heavy snowfall. If you are not into skiing and snowboarding, this snow park also offers other forms of snow play for people of all ages to enjoy.
One of the more popular activity is the Juhyo Snow Monster tour, where a colossal snow tractor takes you around to Mount Zao to view the famed Zao snow monsters. From afar, they look like armies of scary monsters emerging from the snow. In actual fact, this unusual natural phenomenon are are simply hardy fir trees that are covered thickly in snow. Yes, it is just another stunning artwork created by nature itself!
After all that action, visitors can also enjoy some tummy-warming local food and buy some handmade souvenirs at the Terrace Restaurant that overlooks the impressive snow-covered landscape.
Spring Valley Sendai Izumi Ski Resort, Sendai City
Another must-visit ski resort located at the capital of Miyagi is the Spring Valley Sendai Izumi Ski Resort. It is a mere 50-minute car ride from Sendai city center, making it very popular ski spot for locals and tourists alike.
Equipped with a full-scale ski lift and well-maintained ski rental facilities, guests can glide down the magnificent snow slopes with absolute ease of mind. In the day, the panoramic views over Sendai City are breathtaking. But when the sun sets, the night ski trail captivates with the most romantic night views of the cityscape and the starry skies.
Not into skiing or snowboarding, no worries. Within this resort is the Snow Adventure Kingdom, a huge winter playground that is specially designed for family-friendly fun. Sledding, inflatable play zones, snow tubing, swings, tools to make snowmen and snowballs – these are just some of many activities to keep you and your little ones entertained!
3. Relive Moments Of Nostalgia Through Unique Experiences
Ojiya Chijimi, Niigata Prefecture
The traditional craft of linen weaving originated in Ojiya city since ancient times. Using the fibers of the Chinese silk plant ‘Ramie’, craftsmen weaved their magic to produce an exquisite fabric of superior quality that is known as Ojiya Chijimi. These handicraft skills have withstood the test of time and today, the Ojiya Chijimi is preserved and honoured by being awarded as UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage.
Manufacturing the Ojiya Chijimi is a meticulous yet fascinating technique. The most notable part of the production process is laying the fabric out to dry on clean snow! Ozone produced when snow evaporates in the sun creates a natural bleaching effect that enhances the beauty of the fabric’s colours and patterns.
This ancient technique of snow bleaching can only be done when the environmental conditions are optimal. And, it still can be observed right here in Ojiya city during winter!
Tsugaru Railway Stove Train, Aomori Prefecture
Every year during winter season, a nostalgic train with an old-fashioned coal stove runs through the snow field of Tsugaru plains. As this mustard-coloured train slowly chugs its way from Tsugaru Goshogawara Station to Tsugaru Nakazato Station, passengers are treated to a wondrous view of endless snow fields set amidst a rural landscape.
The Tsugaru Railway Stove Train carries many a secret since it started running in December 1930. It stopped operations briefly in 1945 due to lack of supplies during the war, but resumed in 1947 and continues to this day.
Despite the flurry of snow outside, passengers inside are kept toasty by the burning coals in the stove. The cozy comfort and the glow of the coals create a nostalgic atmosphere that warms the soul. As you fall into a deep state of tranquility, aromatic wafts of dried squid being heated on the stove top bring forth an uncontrollable excitement. What an unforgettable journey!
4. Warm Your Bellies With Soul-Satisfying Local Delicacies
Cold Cod-Jiru, Yamagata Prefecture
What better way to warm your freezing bodies than to slurp up a nourishing bowl of fish stew! This is the time of year when restaurants and hot springs in the Shonai area serve Cold Cod-Jiru, or Dongara-jiru as known by the locals.
It is a well-loved local delicacy made using the meat, bones, roe and liver from a giant cod. Savoury and flavourful, the Cold Cod-Jiru is a Yamagata specialty that warms you wonderfully during the chilly winter months.
As a coastal town that faces the Sea of Japan, Yamagata prides itself on its fresh seafood. Bounties from the sea are plenty and cod stew can be eaten all year round. However, it is particularly delicious in winter when it is nearly spawning season. Cold cod really means cod fish caught during the winter season and when the locals really look forward it, it is a sure sign of deliciousness!
Kakinabe Oyster Pot Cruise, Miyagi Prefecture
Another Tohoku winter delicacy to look forward to is Oyster hot pot! Not many people know this but winter is the peak season for oysters in Tohoku. If you are a fan of this sweet plump mollusk, head straight up to the oyster paradise of Matsushima, a scenic spot famous for its charming bay views.
During the winter months, you can find extravagant Kakinabe (Oyster Hot Pot) Cruises that are centred around Matsushima’s famous oysters. Creamy and sweet, these plump morsels are a delight for the palate. Aside from the delectable oysters, this cruise takes you on a breathtaking sightseeing journey of Matsushima, one of Japan’s top scenic spots. While cruising down the picturesque bay, guests are served a multi-course menu of oyster hot pot made with Sendai miso, fried oysters and fresh oysters prepared in other ways.
Fantastic views paired with a sumptuous meal; this is one unique winter experience that would leave an indelible mark in our hearts for sure!
5. Make The Most Out Of The Best Ski Resorts In Tohoku
Gala Yuzawa, Niigata Prefecture
Since it opened in 1990, Gala Yuzawa has remained a popular ski destination because it offers 16 courses that can be enjoyed by everyone, from beginners to advanced skiers. As the only ski resort in Japan with its own Shinkansen bullet train station, its unmatched convenience attracts many day-trippers from Tokyo and international tourists.
Non-powder-chasers also have plenty to do at this family-friendly integrated ski resort. Take a blissful soak in the hot spring and the outdoor jacuzzi, go for a swim at the indoor swimming pool, enjoy a snowmobile sleigh tour or indulge in some retail therapy. Foodies, you are well-covered too. There are restaurants selling authentic Japanese cuisine, dessert shops and a spacious food court to satisfy the most finicky cravings.
After an exhausting day, simply hop on the Gala Yuzawa shuttle that will take you to the main Yuzawa town, home to many hot springs and even a public bath!
Zao Onsen Ski Resort, Yamagata Prefecture
As the largest ski resort in Tohoku, this one-stop attraction has a bit of everything to create a magical winter experience. Nestled within a forested valley in the majestic mountains of Yamagata, Zao Onsen Ski Resort is famed for its excellent powder conditions, a good range of courses for all skill levels and long slopes that run through mesmerizing landscapes.
Many locals flock here to see the famous Juhyo Snow Monsters too. These bizarre frost-covered fir trees come alive during the winter months and it makes for some truly spectacular scenery. When night falls, be wowed by another kind of splendour as the trees get illuminated in hues of blue and green.
Of course, you have to try their famed Onsen with 1900 years of history at this therapeutic mountain retreat. Its naturally-sourced strong acidic sulfur spring water rejuvenates, beautifies the skin and heals muscle pain, thus earning it the name of “Spring of Beauty”!
6. Luxuriate In The Splendour Of Nature At Its Winter Finest
Hakkoda Ropeway, Aomori Prefecture
There is no better way to soak in dazzling winter views than taking a ride on the 2.5km-long Hakkoda Ropeway. As it makes a slow descent up to Mount Tamoyachi, feast your eyes on the dreamy winterscape of the Hakkoda Mountain Range and panoramic views of Aomori city.
When you reach the top of the Summit Park station, there is a rooftop observation deck where you can breathe in the fresh alpine air and take some stunning pictures. And over at Summit Square, the magnificent snow-capped Mt.Iwaki looms into view.
At the summit, a range of walking trails are available to continue the exploration. If you are strapped for time, take the easy 30-minute walking path that brings you closer to the beautiful natural surroundings. Or you can choose the challenging 4-hour trek that will eventually end up at a Sukayu Onsen, a hidden gem with 300 years of history. For adventure-seekers who are good skiers, you can even try backcountry skiing down to the foot of the mountain!
Oirase Gorge Winter Tour, Aomori Prefecture
The extreme winter conditions at Aomori creates a remarkable winter terrain that cannot be found elsewhere. There are many scenic spots but a notable one is Oirase Gorge, a beautiful 14-km gorge that is famous for its enchanting scenery.
Although it is renowned for its vibrant Autumn foliage, winter presents an out-of-this-world beauty. Pristine white snow covers the ground like a blanket, mountain streams are dotted with frozen waterfalls and icicles hang off from trees like Christmas decorations. The more experienced trekkers can explore this natural monument of Japan on foot via a 9km hiking trail, but do remember your snowshoes.
Alternatively, you can join the guided bus tours for a more insightful experience in the safety and comfort of a warm bus. As darkness falls, the frozen waterfalls and icicles of Oirase Gorge are illuminated by a medley of purplish-blue lights. It is a surreal sight that is only available to guests on the night bus tours!
As you plan your next Tohoku vacation, here is a useful tip for travellers. Tohoku is a vast region of northern Japan and many would choose to drive a rental car for ease of accessibility. However, driving a rental car in the extreme winter conditions of Tohoku’s harsh winter can be daunting.
For the less experienced drivers and non-drivers, you would be happy to know that the Tohoku Highway Bus Ticket provides unlimited bus rides across 6 prefectures in the Tohoku region: Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Yamagata, Miyagi and Fukushima. You can choose from the 2-day (6000yen) or 3-day (8000yen) all-inclusive pass that has a wide coverage of 106 highway and local bus routes.
Not only does this pass easily connect you to various parts of Tohoku, it also creates a hassle-free travel experience. It is a must for your Tohoku winter trip!
Note: The Tohoku Highway Bus Ticket is only eligible for international tourists and Japanese nationals with an overseas long-term residence permit.
Covid-19 caution: Many tourist attractions have reopened. However, some attractions and events in Japan remain temporarily closed or cancelled, so to prevent the spread Coronavirus (Covid-19). Admission information changes day by day, depending on the current situation, so we advise you to please check the official websites of each place before visiting.