Friday, December 11, 2015

Trying to see snow during Dec in Japan

Every year, when it gets closer to the month of December (In Singapore, the schools have a long vacation period in the month of December), I will start to receive more emails asking for advice on where to bring their kids to see snow in Japan.

Generally speaking, if you want the best possible chance of seeing snow, this is my advice:
- Visit Hokkaido (especially the regions with higher chance of snowfall, like Asahikawa, Sounkyo, Abashiri...etc) during mid-January to mid-February.

However, if your trip can ONLY be during the month of December then this is what I can advice:
(I can only do recommendations on what I feel will improve your chances of seeing snow, but please bear in mind that I CANNOT guarantee that you will definitely see snow).

 1, Schedule your trip to be as close to end-Dec as possible.
The temperatures in end-Dec will usually be colder than compared to early-Dec, therefore there's a higher chance of seeing snow closer to end Dec rather than early Dec.

Also, if you only plan to make a 1 or 2 day visit to a certain place to try your luck to see snow, try to arrange your itinerary to be such that those days will be on the last few days of your trip, rather than the 1st few days of your trip. This is so that you will be able to visit those possible snowfall places as close to January (usually the coldest month of the year) as possible.

Best is if you can schedule your trip to be during the last week of Dec. If not, then the 2nd last week of Dec.

Even if you intend to go Hokkaido in early Dec, it is still not guaranteed that you will see actual snowfall, specially if you only visit central Hokkaido areas like Sapporo city.  This happened to me during 1 of my previous trips.

I visited Hokkaido during the first week of December to places like Sapporo, Otaru and Noboribetsu, and I did not see any snowfall at all during that trip. All I saw were just a few piles of snow here and there on the ground.

If your trip is during early Dec to Hokkaido, and you want to see some snow, at the very least, travel abit further to areas like Asahikawa or Sounkyo onsen to increase your chances, instead of just visiting central Hokkaido like Sapporo/Otaru/Noboribetsu.

2. Plan on where to go.
Many 1st timer foreign tourists visit Tokyo (or Osaka) in winter expecting to see snow everywhere.  
Sorry to burst your bubble, but no, it VERY SELDOM snow in Tokyo (and Osaka). 
Even if it snows, it is usually very slight. 

I've visited Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo in winter during a few of my previous trips, and other than 1 occasion (when it snowed for awhile in the morning before I arrived Tokyo, and all I saw were puddles of melting snow on the ground when I arrived Tokyo), I've never seen snow at Osaka, Kyoto nor Tokyo in all of my trips. 

I know most tourists will fly into Japan via either Tokyo or Osaka. So I will go with the assumption that your flight will enter/depart from either Tokyo or Osaka.

If you are flying in/out via Tokyo:
You can either:- 
Take a domestic flight to Hokkaido (where there's a much higher chance of seeing snow than in the Tokyo Kanto region), 
Take a Shinkansen (bullet train) train northwards into the Tohoku regions (eg. Aomori, Akita, Yamagata...etc) where there's usually also a higher chance of seeing snow than Tokyo Kanto region.

But if those 2 options are too far (or expensive for your budget) for you, then my next best recommendation is to get a 3 days JR Tokyo WIDE railpass (used to be JR Kanto Area railpass) and use it to go to Gala-Yuzawa (or Echigo-Yuzawa).

There are ski slopes at Gala-Yuzawa, and in my opinion, it is the most accessible ski area from Tokyo with a decent probability of snowfall.  The opening dates of the ski slopes varies from year-to-year since it really depends on that particular year's winter temperatures.  
Eg, for this year (year 2015/16's winter season, Gala-Yuzawa ski slopes are scheduled to be opened from 19 Dec onwards)

How to go to Gala-Yuzawa (or Echigo-Yuzawa, which is just 1 station before Gala Yuzawa):
From either Tokyo station or Ueno station in Tokyo, take a Shinkansen to Gala Yuzawa station.
The train journey usually takes about 85-100mins, and costs 6570yen (Unreserved seat) for 1 way.
So you can see why spending 10000yen to get the 3 days JR Tokyo WIDE railpass is a good deal, since it would also cover Narita Express train that links Narita Airport to Tokyo.

Not all Shinkansen along that route will stop by Gala Yuzawa, however almost all of the Shinkansen (as far as I know) will stop at Echigo-Yuzawa station.

We took Shinkansen from Tokyo station
Although there are many other ski slopes in Yuzawa other than at Gala Yuzawa and Echigo Yuzawa (as shown in this website), however please bear in mind that if you are using the 3 days JR Tokyo WIDE railpass, it will only cover the journey up to Echigo-Yuzawa and Gala Yuzawa.

Here is the link to my blog post of my visit to Echigo-Yuzawa on 28 January 2015:
Even though you see alot of snow in my photos, please bear in mind that my visit was made in the month of January, and not in December.

Outside Echigo-Yuzawa train station (photo taken on 28 Jan 2015)

A suggested itinerary using the 3 days JR Tokyo WIDE railpass is probably something like this:
Day 1: Arrival at Tokyo. Stay at Tokyo
Day 2: Visit Disneyland or Disneysea. Stay at Tokyo
Day 3: Visit Tokyo. Stay at Tokyo
Day 4: Visit Tokyo or Yokohama. Stay at Tokyo
Day 5: (Railpass day 1) Tokyo to Echigo-Yuzawa. Visit Gala Yuzawa ski slope. Stay at Echigo-Yuzawa.
Day 6: (Railpass day 2) Echigo-Yuzawa to Tokyo. Stay at Tokyo.
Day 7: (Railpass day 3) Tokyo to Narita Airport via Narita Express train. Departure from Narita Airport.

If you are flying in/out via Osaka:
You can either:- 
Take a domestic flight to Hokkaido (where there's a much higher chance of seeing snow than in the Kansai Osaka/Kyoto region), 
Take longer train rides to areas with higher chance of snowfall (like Takayama, Shirakawa-go, Kanazawa, Toyama, Nagano...) than compared to Kansai region.  Even Kinosaki onsen have a slightly higher chance of seeing a little snow than Osaka/Kyoto.  

If you don't want to fly to Hokkaido, but don't mind spending a little to have a better chance of seeing snow rather than solely remaining in Kansai region, then this is my suggestion:
Day 1: Arrival at Osaka. Stay at Osaka
Day 2: Visit Osaka. Stay Osaka
Day 3: Visit Kyoto. Stay Kyoto
Day 4: (Railpass day 1) Kyoto to Kanazawa via Ltd Exp train. Either visit Dinosaur museum at Fukui or Yunokuni no mori handicraft village near Kaga onsen on this day.  Stay at Kanazawa.
Day 5: (Railpass day 2) Visit Kanazawa. Stay Kanazawa
Day 6: (Railpass day 3) Kanazawa to Toyama via Shinkansen, Toyama to Takayama via Ltd Exp train. Visit Takayama. Stay at Takayama.
Day 7: (Railpass day 4) Takayama to Shirakawa-go via bus, deposit luggage at coin lockers at Shirakawa-go's tourist info office, visit Shirakawa-go for a few hours, then collect luggage and take bus to Kanazawa.  Take Ltd Exp train from Kanazawa to Shin-Osaka. Stay at Osaka.
Day 8: (Railpass day 5) Shin-Osaka to Kansai Airport via Haruka Express train.

A slightly cheaper option (but less chance of seeing snow than the above option) would probably to get the 5 days JR Kansai WIDE railpass (8500yen) and do this:
Day 1: Arrival at Osaka. Stay at Osaka
Day 2: Visit Osaka. Stay at Osaka
Day 3: (Railpass day 1) Take Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka to Himeji. Visit Himeji castle. Then return to Osaka in the late afternoon for the rest of the day. Stay at Osaka.
Day 4: (Railpass day 2) Osaka to Kinosaki onsen via 3hrs Ltd Exp train ride. Visit Kinosaki onsen. Stay at Kinosaki onsen.
Day 5: (Railpass day 3) Kinosaki onsen to Kyoto via 3hrs Ltd Exp train ride. Visit Kyoto. Stay at Kyoto.
Day 6: (Railpass day 4) Day visit to Hakodateyama ski slope via train to Omiimazu station (about 40-50mins train from Kyoto station). Take a 20mins bus to gondola station from Omiimazu station. Spend half a day at the ski slope. Then return back to Kyoto.  Stay at Kyoto.
Day 7: (Railpass day 5) Visit Kyoto. Then take Haruka Express train from Kyoto to Kansai airport. 

Kinosaki onsen

My visit to Hakodateyama ski area in mid-Feb 2014
See my visit to Kinosaki onsen (Feb 2014) here:

See my visit to Hakodateyama ski area (Feb 2014) here:

If you don't want to spend too much, and just want to bring the kids to a place where they can play with sleds on some artificial snow (made using snow machines, since it's not exactly cold enough in Kobe for actual snowfall), then u can try the snow park at Mt Rokko in Kobe:   

If you are planning a visit to Hokkaido, this is what I would probably suggest:
Day 1: Arrival at New Chitose Airport. Stay at Sapporo
Day 2: Visit Sapporo. Stay at Sapporo
Day 3: Visit Otaru. Stay at Sapporo
Day 4: Sapporo to Asahikawa via Ltd Exp train, Visit Asahiyama Zoo. Return back to Sapporo. Stay at Sapporo
Day 5: Take Ltd Exp train from Sapporo to Tomamu. Visit Tomamu ski resort and Ice village. Stay at Tomamu resort
Day 6: Tomamu to Noboribetsu via Ltd Exp train (with a transfer at Minami-Chitose station). Stay at Noboribetsu hotspring town.
Day 7: Noboribetsu to New Chitose Airport via train (with a transfer at Minami Chitose station). Fly out from New Chitose Airport.

If the weather is cold enough (usually mid or end Dec onwards), there'll be scheduled penguins walkabout at Asahiyama zoo at Asahikawa in winter. This photo was taken in Feb 2012.
Ice village at Tomamu. This photo was taken in Feb 2015.
See my blog entry about my visit to Tomamu in Feb 2015:

In addition, you might find these sections on japan-guide's website helpful: (guide on where to find snow in Japan) (guide on where to find snow near Tokyo)

Hope my article here helps.  :)


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  2. Your blog explaining all the main points very awesomely. Thanks for sharing this knowledgeable post. Visit : Snow Japan

  3. Skiing Japan doesn’t need to break the bank. Here we have outlined our top tips for getting maximum time on the slopes for minimal cost.

  4. Hi Sam,

    I remember reading your writeups on Hardwarezone several years back. At that time, we had visited Japan about the same number of times as you, and were planning to return more frequently, however, life got complicated, my 4th kid came, and the older ones had December activities...

    Despite that, we have had 4 winter and 4 summers in Japan, and heading back for the 9th time for our first Train adventure (Tokyo-Sapporo-Otaru-Hakodate).

    Our advice to those intending to Ski for the first time is to find the best ski-in/ski-out hotels in Hokkaido that is within you budget. There are several highly recommended ones in Niseko/Hirafu.

    I would also recommend Furano for those who are able to travel in Jan/Feb.

    For the best Snow in Japan (and some say the the world), it has to be Hokkaido. :)

  5. The only possibility to go is during Dec school holilday. I will be going last 2 weeks of Dec 18.
    How about chance of snow at Hakone or lake Kawaguchi ?