Tohoku, the region north of Tokyo has many top-class ski resorts and most are easily accessible by train, making it a great area to head to for winter fun. There are also many other winter activities you can experience in the Tohoku region and many of them, I would argue, is way better than skiing or snowboarding.
Whether it is relaxing sore muscles in an amazing onsen after skiing, riding a special train, trying other winter sports or visiting a special winter festival, winter is a great time to be heading north in Japan!
There are other winter activities on offer in Tohoku that you might like to enjoy after your ski holiday or in-between some winter sightseeing. Snow-shoeing is one such activity that I highly recommend. To be upfront, I am not much of a skier, having spent more time sitting in the snow than standing upright. So before trying snow-shoeing I was a bit concerned that it would not be for me.
I was pleasantly surprised to find it quite easy to do, no more difficult than an easy hike. I joined a snow-shoeing tour from my accommodation, Oirase Keiryu Hotel in Aomori Prefecture. This hotel has a wonderful onsen, many winter activities to try, as well as comfortable Japanese/Western-style accommodation, also don’t get me started on the amazing apple pie at the dinner buffet!
We were taken to a beautiful area near the Oirase Keiryu stream and provided with all the equipment necessary for snow-shoeing. During winter the waterfalls freeze to form amazing ice sculptures and our snow-shoeing adventure took us up close to some of these winter creations. A very enjoyable winter activity!
While in many other countries during winter, giant Christmas trees are being illuminated with twinkling lights, in Japan winter illuminations can be towering ice sculptures or a tunnel of lights.
There are many places to visit to see some truly spectacular winter illuminations throughout Japan and one of the best in the Tohoku region is the Snow Monsters at Zao Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture. Zao Onsen is a ski area where you can relax in hot springs after a day on the slopes, much needed if you are a poor skier like me.
The unique weather conditions in the area cover parts of the trees in a thick layer of snow creating monstrous forms. From late December to the end of February these snow monsters are illuminated at night with a rainbow of colours. Take the gondola up for the full effect. Even if you are not into skiing Zao Onsen is a fun place to visit in the winter months.
It is hard to avoid taking a trip on a train when travelling around Japan, nor should you, as they are convenient to get you from A to B. Trains are also great for catching up on sleep between sightseeing, although not if you miss your stop, that is a story for another time.
In this post, I want to share two train journeys that you won’t want to sleep through and I highly recommend you go out of your way to travel on. Meet locals and fellow tourists on an intimate train experience travelling up the Tsugaru Peninsula in Aomori Prefecture.
Tsugaru Railway runs seasonal trains with different themes. In winter the train has a daruma stove (coal stove) inside the train carriage to keep it warm. Purchase some locally caught dried squid that the conductor will grill on top of the stove for you or drink sake and swap stories with your fellow passengers while admiring the winter scenery.
In neighbouring Iwate Prefecture, the Kotatsu Train runs throughout winter. Kotatsu is low heated tables covered in a doona that many Japanese people have in their houses, they are warm and cozy to curl up under during the freezing winter months.
On this train, you can experience the same warmth under your own kotatsu while looking out at the spectacular winter scenery passing by the train windows. The journey is from Kuji to Miyako along the Iwate coast and takes around 1hr40mins.
Look out for the Namahage (demons) that visit each carriage looking for misbehaving passengers, you definitely won’t be able to sleep through this train journey!
If you have read any of my other posts you will know that I am a huge fan of onsen and it is probably what I miss the most when I am not in Japan. Especially when the weather is cold, there is nothing more comforting than soaking in the hot onsen water. It is even better when the onsen is surrounded by snow and the air is crisp.
There are plenty of great places in Japan where you can experience this for yourself and Tohoku is one of the best for this due to the high snowfall and abundance of onsen towns. Here are a few that I recommend.
Ginzan Onsen is like something out of a storybook. Located in Yamagata Prefecture, this quaint town has traditional buildings situated either side of a river with bridges crossing at intervals. During the day you can stroll through the town, visiting the small shops and cafes. During winter the place becomes magical with a backdrop of white snow.
Particularly at night when all the ryokans turn on their lights walking along the river in the snow is an experience that is not the same anywhere else. I stayed at Takimikan Ryokan, which is situated a short drive from the main town on the hilltop overlooking Ginzan Onsen. Dinner was served in our room and the hot spring had a spectacular view into the valley. At night they have a free shuttle to take you to the main hot spring area so that you can experience the wonderful atmosphere.
So what do you think? Do any of these activities appeal to you? I certainly hope so. For those who are not into skiing and snowboarding or those who want to add more to their winter ski trip, there are some great things to try in the Tohoku region. Maybe I will meet you in an onsen next time!
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