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Winter-ful Eastern Japan: Winter trips from Tokyo with the JR EAST PASS

Winter-ful Eastern Japan: Winter trips from Tokyo with the JR EAST PASS

Yearning for a winter wonderland in Japan? Look no further than Eastern Japan! Due to its northern location, the region experiences relatively heavy snowfall during winter, transforming landscapes into magical wonderlands, offering enchanting snow scenery and scrumptious delicacies. Don’t let the shorter daylight hours and lower temperatures deter you—winter is full of exciting activities to enjoy. Thinking of visiting Japan during winter? Don’t miss out on these wonderful winter activities in Eastern Japan, just a short trip from Tokyo:

 

① Delightful winter delicacies

What’s a trip to Japan without trying the local delights? Something unique about Japanese food is its seasonality (旬 shun), so when in winter, try out some winter specialties!

 

Monkfish hotpot and ankimo

Monkfish hot pot is the perfect dish to warm yourself up in winter. (Image credit: 茨城県観光物産協会)

 

What better way to warm yourself up in winter than with hotpot (鍋 nabe)? Have you heard of monkfish (あんこう ankо̄)? Monkfish are deep-sea fish with a peculiar appearance: a large mouth, jagged teeth, and a flat body. But don’t be put off by its frightening exterior; monkfish flesh has a dense texture that is similar to scallop or lobster meat, with a mild and sweet flavour. Monkfish hotpot (あんこう鍋 ankо̄ nabe) is a warm and hearty dish best enjoyed during winter between December and February, when the monkfish fat content is highest.

 

The best places to enjoy monkfish hotpot are in the Joban Region, particularly the coastal areas (Oarai, Mito, Hitachinaka, Hitachi, and Kita-Ibaraki) of Ibaraki Prefecture (茨城県), and Iwaki City in Fukushima (福島県). From Tokyo, you can access the Joban Region via the Joban Line (常磐線), which is served by the Limited Express Hitachi. 

 

Ankimo, or monkfish liver, is a decadent and delicious dish. (Image credit: Carissa Loh)

 

Other than its meat, almost all parts of the monkfish are eaten as well—flesh, skin, liver, stomach, fins, gills, ovaries. A personal favourite of mine, monkfish liver, called ankimo (あん肝) in Japanese, is particularly delicious, and can be found at many izakaya (居酒屋 Japanese-style pubs) around the country, usually served with a tangy ponzu sauce. Due to its rich taste and smooth texture, ankimo is sometimes referred to as “foie gras of the sea”. 

 

Oysters

Feast on as many oysters as you can at a grilled oyster buffet. (Image credit: Carissa Loh)

 

One more winter seafood specialty you can’t miss is oysters (牡蠣 kaki), which are in season usually from November to mid-March. If you love oysters, then be sure to visit a kakigoya (牡蠣小屋 oyster hut), which serves up delicious grilled oysters naturally seasoned with salt from seawater.

 

Many kakigoya offer a bang-for-your-buck, all-you-can-eat grilled oyster buffet, which costs around ¥3,300 for 45 minutes. You can get full and satisfied with just the grilled oysters, but if you crave even more oysters, you can order sides like oyster fried rice or miso soup with oysters, or even other dishes like raw oysters or fried oysters.

 

Oysters can be enjoyed with various cooking methods. Clockwise from top left: raw, baked with cheese, grilled, fried. (Image credit: Carissa Loh)

 

In Eastern Japan, Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture (宮城県) is well-known for producing delicious oysters. You can find many kakigoya around JR Matsushimakaigan Station (松島海岸駅), which is a 40-minute train ride on the Senseki Line (仙石線) from Sendai Station (仙台駅), which takes around 90 minutes by the Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station (東京駅).

 

② Rejuvenating hot springs

Winter is one of the best times to enjoy hot springs (温泉 onsen), especially the outdoor open-air baths (露天風呂 rotenburo). Relaxing in the soothing warm waters while feeling the cool air on your face, and gazing at the magical snowy scenery outside…what a great way to spend the day!

 

Ginzan Onsen

Magical night scenery at Ginzan Onsen. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

A must-visit in winter is the gorgeous Ginzan Onsen (銀山温泉) in Yamagata Prefecture (山形県). This quaint little onsen town is outstandingly beautiful in winter, especially when snow falls in the evening. The dimly lit yellow gas lights shining in the night with falling snow is a wondrous sight reminiscent of a Studio Ghibli film.

 

Ginzan Onsen (銀山温泉)
Access: Ginzan Onsen is a 40-minute bus ride from JR О̄ishida Station (大石田駅), which is approximately a 3-hour ride on the Yamagata Shinkansen from Tokyo Station.

 

Nyuto Onsen

Fluffy snow blankets Nyuto Onsen in winter. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

A prefecture with one of the highest snowfalls in Eastern Japan, Akita Prefecture (秋田県) is a hot spring haven, filled with incredible hot spring resorts, including some special ones hidden in the mountains. Of these, the most magical in winter is Nyuto Onsen (乳頭温泉 Nyūtō Onsen), a rustic hot spring village nestled at the foot of Mount Nyuto. Nyuto Onsen offers spectacular scenery all year round, but winter is perhaps the most mesmerising, due to the fluffy white snow that blankets the area. 

 

The open-air baths here are a must try in winter. Although you’ll have to run through the snow for a few metres to reach the baths, that momentary cold is worth it for the heavenly experience of soaking in the hot spring waters and enjoying the spectacular snowy views!

 

Nyuto Onsen (乳頭温泉)
Access: Nyuto Onsen is a 50-minute bus ride from JR Tazawako Station (田沢湖駅), which is approximately a 2-hour-50-minute ride on the Akita Shinkansen from Tokyo Station.

 

Fun with fluffy friends

As someone living in an urban city like Singapore, I don’t get to see animals frolicking in the snow, but in a country with rural countrysides and four seasons like Japan, you can! In Eastern Japan, you can see the world-famous snow monkeys, fluffy foxes, and many more.

 

Jigokudani Monkey Park

Japanese macaques enjoying a soak in the hot springs. (Image credit: Carissa Loh)

 

Located at an altitude of around 850m in the mountainous Nagano Prefecture (長野県), the Jigokudani Monkey Park (地獄谷野猿公苑 Jigokudani Yaen Kо̄en) is covered by snow for about one-third of the year and is home to the Japanese macaques, also known as snow monkeys. Just like how we humans enjoy soaking in the warm waters of hot springs, these free-roaming monkeys also enjoy long soaks in the park’s natural hot springs to keep warm in winter. 

 

You will have to walk through a forest for about 35 minutes before reaching the park, so seeing the monkeys feels like a reward for your efforts. The monkeys at the park roam freely, so be careful of your belongings as the monkeys might snatch them.

 

Jigokudani Monkey Park (地獄谷野猿公苑)
Address: 6845 Yamanouchi-machi, Shimotakai-gun, Nagano 381-0401
Access: Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is 35-minute walk from the Snow Monkey Park bus stop, which is a 40-minute bus ride from JR Nagano Station (長野駅). JR Nagano Station is approximately a 90-minute ride from Tokyo Station on the Hokuriku Shinkansen.
Opening hours: 09:00–16:00

 

Miyagi Zao Fox Village

Fluffy fox at Miyagi Zao Fox Village. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

In Japanese mythology, foxes (狐 kitsune) are known to be the messengers of Inari, the deity of rice and prosperity. If you’ve ever dreamed of seeing them up close, you’ll be delighted to know that you can at Miyagi Prefecture’s Miyagi Zao Fox Village (宮城蔵王キツネ村 Miyagi Zaо̄ Kitsune Mura), where over 100 foxes roam around freely. 

 

In winter, the foxes grow extra layers of fur to keep warm, making them extra fluffy. Although you can get close to them and even hold them, they are still wild animals, so be careful as they might bite.

 

Miyagi Zao Fox Village (宮城蔵王キツネ村)
Address: Kawarago-11-3 Fukuokayatsumiya, Shiroishi, Miyagi, Japan 989-0733
Access: Miyagi Zao Fox Village is a 20-minute taxi ride or 35-minute bus ride from JR Shiroishizaо̄ Station (白石蔵王駅). JR Shiroishizaо̄ Station is approximately a 2-hour ride from Tokyo Station on the Tohoku Shinkansen. 
Opening hours: 09:00–16:00 (Last entry at 15:30, closed on Wednesdays)

 

For more information about these two places, you can check out a previous article here.

 

④ Festivals and illuminations

Daylight hours are shorter in winter, but creative and colourful illuminations can help lift everyone’s spirits, and provide beautiful displays at night. Eastern Japan is abundant in ice and snow, so winter is celebrated through various festivals that feature snow sculptures, ice and snow creations, and captivating illuminations that light up the long, dark nights. 

 

Winter is a great time to experience unique festivals and events. (Image credit: 新潟県観光協会, 東北観光推進機構, and photoAC)

 

Most of these festivals can be mainly categorised into “snow and ice” events such as:

  • Yokote Kamakura Festival (横手の雪まつり Yokote no yuki-matsuri
  • Tokamachi Snow Festival (十日町雪まつり Tо̄kamachi Yuki Matsuri)
  • Iwate Snow Festival (いわて雪まつり Iwate Yuki Matsuri)
  • Ouchijuku Snow Festival (大内宿雪まつり Ōuchijuku Yuki Matsuri)

or “lights and illuminations” events such as: 

  • Sendai Pageant of Starlight (SENDAI 光のページェント Sendai Hikari no Pējento)
  • Nagano Lantern Festival (長野灯明まつり Nagano Tо̄myо̄ Matsuri)
  • Tsunan Snow Festival (つなん雪まつり Tsunan Yuki Matsuri
  • Nagaoka Fireworks Winter Fantasy (長岡花火ウインターファンタジー Nagaoka Hanabi Uintā Fantajī)

 

For details and dates about the fun and exciting winter festivals in Eastern Japan, you can check out our previous articles on 10 winter festivals and events in the Tohoku Region and 11 winter festivals and events in the Shinetsu Region.

 

⑤ Natural wonders: Spectacular winter phenomena

Blessed with bountiful snow in winter, Eastern Japan has some of the most beautiful snowy landscapes in Japan, and the frosty weather also gives rise to many unique icy phenomena and structures. Have you experienced any of these?

 

Snow monsters

Snow monsters at Yamagata Zao. (Image credit: 山形県庁)

 

Well-known in the Tohoku Region, snow monsters (樹氷 juhyō) are a natural phenomenon that occurs due to frost and snow accumulating on trees. Over time, frost and snow accumulate until the shape resembles that of a monster, hence the name "snow monsters". Some places even have night illuminations, giving an eerie yet magical feel. There are many places to see them, with the most famous being Yamagata Zao (山形蔵王). Other places include Mount Moriyoshi (森吉山 Moriyoshizan) in Akita Prefecture, and Mount Hakkoda (八甲田山 Hakkōdasan) in Aomori Prefecture. The best season for viewing the snow monsters is between early to mid-February.

 

Omiwatari

Omiwatari on Lake Suwa. (Image credit: Suwa City)

 

Lake Suwa (諏訪湖 Suwako) is the largest lake in Nagano, and sometimes freezes during winter. On rare occasions, you can witness a very special phenomenon known as omiwatari (御神渡り)―literally "God's crossing"―which occurs when the ice on the lake expands and contracts due to temperature fluctuations between day and night. The ice cracks in an elevated line of ridges on the surface of the lake resembling a path, hence the name omiwatari. Even if you cannot witness the omiwatari, you can still try walking on the frozen surface of the lake or go wakasagi fishing if the conditions are right.

 

Access: Lake Suwa is a 10-minute walk from JR Kami-Suwa Station (上諏訪駅), which is approximately a 2-hour-15-minute-ride on the Limited Express Azusa from JR Shinjuku Station (新宿駅). 

 

Closing

Winter is a wonderful time to visit Eastern Japan, not just for the skiing and snow activities, but also for the food, stunning scenery, relaxing hot springs and more. If you are thinking of taking a winter-ful trip to some of these places, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), which can save you a lot on rail travel.

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

Winter_JEPT.jpg (921 KB)

The new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are thinking of visiting the Tohoku Region, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days for ¥30,000. You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here. The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

The new JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are coming from Tokyo and thinking of visiting Nagano and Niigata Prefectures, check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days for ¥27,000. You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here. The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

 

Header image credit: Carissa Loh, photoAC, 山形県庁

 

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