Winter in Japan can be harsh, but, thanks to the country’s heated onsen baths, piping hot noodle bowls and intimate restaurants, the freeze also offers the ultimate chance to get cosy. Alicia Miller wraps up and explores the snowy spectacle
I can no longer feel my toes. That’s all I can think, crunching down the narrow, icy path, past tall pine trees, needles laden with snow, along perilous, frigid cliffs. Suddenly – finally – I reach my destination: Jigokudani, or Hell’s Valley. The name suits. Amid the dunes of fresh white that carpet this frozen forest, hot streams ripple, glassy pools shift and scorching waters lap smooth boulders clean. I’ve reached an onsen, a Japanese hot spring. It’s miles from anywhere – and yet far from secret. Before me, bodies teem. They slip in and out of the waters, stroking and fluffing hair, rubbing pink faces. The light is fading, I’m numb from head to toe and nothing would be nicer than joining them in the steaming pools. But it wouldn’t be right, bathing in this onsen. Because I’m not a snow monkey.
Snow monkeys are an only-in-Japan sight. Or, more specifically, an only-in-Japan winter sight. Officially known as Japanese macaques, they’re so-nicknamed because when powder blankets the ground, they descend in droves from their remote mountain habitats for thawing dips in hot springs, famously at Jigokudani, a dedicated conservation park outside Nagano. If you’re lucky, you might spot a handful in spring or autumn, but they really come into their own when the weather turns frosty. As do belly-warming bowls of ramen noodle soup, pretty Alpine towns and, of course, onsen itself. Most travellers flock to Japan for spring cherry blossom, or in sultry summer, or to see autumn leaves turn – but they don’t know what they’re missing. December to March is the quietest and cheapest time to visit, but winter here has so much more to offer besides. This is when the thick clouds that cloak Mount Fuji finally melt away, revealing its cinematic snowcap against a crisp blue sky. It’s when Tokyoites huddle in squeezy, smoky bars, stamping their feet and slurping rich oden fish stews to shake off damp evenings. And it’s when, high in the craggy peaks of the Japanese Alps, a few hours northwest from the capital, and also in Hokkaido, Japan’s northern most island, blankets of thick, powdery snow bring everything to silence and stillness. Under the veil of white, landscapes achieve postcard-perfection – like real-life Hokusai prints – and it’s as if nothing has changed here for centuries. In the most picturesque, snowy parts it’s icy – minus points on the mercury, maybe in double digits – but no matter: the Japanese know how to handle a freeze. More than that: in the most frigid of its regions, they actually appreciate the chill – knowing that without cold, there’s no such thing as cosy.
The air was crisp when I touched down in the Japanese capital two days before meeting those monkeys. I was a Tokyo veteran and fell into its frenetic, neon embrace as one falls into the arms of an old friend. It was rainy and 48 hours was just enough to get my fix, visiting the parts I’d loved as a resident: the crushing intersection at Shibuya and the soaring Tokyo Skytree tower. It was just as well, as that time was all I had – after all, I wasn’t here for drizzle, but for a taste of the real Japanese winter.
My journey northwest traversed a dramatic shift in climate. The bullet train rolled out of Tokyo Station 7.52am precisely, under a grey haze, and sped through boxy suburbs that melted into open, flurry-brushed fields. Tokyo had been heavy-sweater weather; when I stepped out to change to a bus at Nagano an hour and a half later, snowflakes were dancing in the air. By the time I hit Jigokudani in early afternoon, I had ascended more than 800 metres and the ground was covered in white drifts. Comic-book icicles clung to stout old homes by the park-entrance gate. It was a half-hour trudge along that slippery, alabaster path to the monkeys. It was cold, but I felt a warm glow the moment I saw those adorable, fluffy critters dart excitedly into their onsen baths.
‘On my last day, I spent the afternoon in the park. Not wandering, but cross-country skiing’
Onsen, if you didn’t know, is actually a Japanese ritual for humans. Foreigners can get nervous about the complex etiquette – and the awkward nudity (hot springs are entered strictly in the buff, men and women segregated). But try an alfresco dip in winter and you’ll be forever converted: frosty air cooling your neck, coddling, mineral-rich water soothing your limbs – the chance to savour nature’s stimulating contrasts at their best.
Stepping into the warm outdoor hot spring at Hotakaso Sangetsu ryokan was like getting a big hug. A bus had whisked me here along icing-sugar roads from Nagano to remote Hirayu Onsen town, from which a silent taxi driver ferried me up into the hills. Once in the still, steam-cloaked waters, with no other company but a couple of whispering, wrinkly old ladies, I knew the journey had been worth it. Beyond my rock-studded pool was a panorama of trees and a crinkle of whitecapped mountain ranges: the Japanese Alps. These folds of icy rock, a seam 200km long and higher than 3,000 metres in places, hold many treasures.
When I finally emerged from the onsen, pink as a peach, I pulled on my yukata robe and slippers and made for my tatami-mat-lined bedroom. Before long, a knock at my door revealed a smiling woman with a heaving tray. I ushered her in, where she laid an elaborate private banquet on a low table: sashimi platters; pickles; marbled red beef for a DIY hotpot; a flame-licked vessel of slow-cooking mushroom rice. Settling onto a cushion on the tatami mat floor, I surveyed the feast before me, letting her carefully explain each dish (in mime – her English wasn’t great, my Japanese worse). Then she bowed and shuffled out the door, leaving me to devour my gourmet meal in serenity (and, even better, still in the comfort of my robe).
‘Most travellers flock to Japan for spring cherry blossom, or to see autumn leaves turn – but they don’t know what they’re missing’
While Japan nails the whole cosy-winter-hibernation thing, I didn’t want to spend my entire trip holed up. I filled the following days exploring the Alps: Takayama, one of country’s prettiest towns, its creaky wooden buildings housing atmospheric teahouses and fragrant saké breweries; Ogimachi, peppered with ancient gassho-zukuri farmhouses – pointy, snow-strong structures that look transplanted from Switzerland. Then Matsumoto, with its grand old castle and artisan soba noodle shops. The time flew by in a flurry of snowflakes and soon it was time to make for Hokkaido, Japan’s northerly isle, a 90-minute flight away. I hoped it would be the perfect wintry (snowcapped) peak to my trip.
If I thought it was cold in Jigokudani, I hadn’t felt anything yet. Stepping out into the city centre in Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital, I faced a new level of freeze – piercing, breath-snatching. Under a startling blue sky, long, straight boulevards radiated out from the central station, empty. Below ground, however, was a hive of activity: a web of interconnecting sub-surface walkways ferried scarf-wrapped workers and hooded shoppers across the city centre. They’d pop up from this underground city when they reached their desired stop, like dolphins breaching for air, and dart across windswept intersections into towering silver office blocks.
Hardened to the chill, these locals may grit their teeth on the most blistering of days, but they rarely complain. If Tokyoites are like Londoners, whingeing over a light chill and shaking umbrellas through winter, Sapporo’s residents are stoic Scandinavians – brave in the face of this vast, great iciness.
That evening, I wandered south from my hotel along the gritted streets to Suskino, Sapporo’s nightlife district. Tummy rumbling, I shivered past warren-like izakaya pubs and a lantern-lit alleyway lined with tiny ramen shops, filled with laughing students lapping up miso-rich bowlfuls. I longed to enter a shop’s warming embrace, but held firm: on a tip from a Japanese friend, I was out for jingisukan – a DIY Mongolian BBQ, the city’s speciality.
I found the restaurant – and the queue. It was below freezing outside and yet a row of brave faithfuls stood undeterred snaking down an icicle-lined alleyway outside cult-favourite Daruma. I joined them and minutes ticked by; gradually, I lost feeling in my limbs, from the ground up. But when the door finally opened on my turn, an hour later, I was rewarded for my persistence. Perched on stools around an oval wooden counter, chattering couples sipped drinks, while grilling marbled lamb on domed hotplates, fired by glowing charcoal. I squeezed in and ordered a cockle-warming feast, with a flourish of fluffy rice, kimchi and a sesame-garlic dipping sauce. As I griddled my hunks of lamb, fat dripped gorgeously down the grill to soften golden onions. By now, I’d forgotten all about the cold outside.
Sapporo and its charms unveil themselves slowly, like a gradual spring thaw. You can spend a day out at frozen lake Shikotsu, enjoying its illuminated winter display; another soaking at a geyser-studded onsen in Noboribetsu town, a train ride away; yet another watching rare red-crowned cranes dance across fields of ice. Or simply keep to the city centre, walking through the fish market, stocked with lithe, prickly crabs; it’s a treat to dine on the sweet, perfectly in-season meat in any no-frills restaurant.
Japanese tourists flock to the city in early February. Some ogle the towering ski jump, a remnant of the 1972 Olympics; most sip frothy brews at the rambling Sapporo brewery. But all are here to watch artists from around the world chisel vast ice sculptures, competing for glory in the annual, city-wide Snow Festival, the biggest and busiest event of the year. On my trip, it hadn’t officially started yet, but even the largest of scaffolds couldn’t hide the elaborate masterpieces taking shape in Sapporo’s central Odori strip. Elaborate life-sized temples, enormous carvings of horse-racers and panoramas of J-pop stars all rose proud in the icy mix.
On my last day, I spent the afternoon in the park. Not wandering, as I might in spring or autumn – but cross-country skiing, past silvery larch trees, over gentle, hilly drifts. This being snow country, one can hire skis, sleds or even show-shoes at Moerenuma Park for three hours. I didn’t last quite that long: two hours in, my face was whipped by wind and my toes were unresponsive in my boots. After a couple of slippery falls, I felt the chilliest I’d been yet and needed to get out of the frosty air, fast. So, as dusk washed over the city, I hopped in a cab back to vibrant, raucous Suskino and took the lift up to the second-floor Nikka Bar, overlooking a humming traffic intersection.
Cloaked in dark polished woods and rich leathers, the bar’s walls were lined with glimmering bottles. Socialising salarymen were cloistered in corners. I thumbed through the menu, before a suited barman poured my drink of choice as if it was liquid gold. Out the window, in the streets below, bundled-up commuters darted between tumbling snowflakes. Settling into my squishy chair, I felt my cheeks warming and my limbs thawing. Then, my drink appeared before me and I raised the glass to my lips, taking a long, slow sip. Rolling it across my tongue, I savoured its sharp heat – and the frosty hit of ice. Shiveringly good: the very essence of winter Japan.
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