2020 Snow Spectacular Tour of Japan
This trip through Japan’s spectacular landscape has it all; snow monkeys, dancing red-crested cranes, the Sapporo Snow Festival, even an icebreaker ride.
The 2020 Snow Spectacular Tour of Japan takes you on a unique 16-day journey through the heart of the Japan Alps in central Japan and to the remote wilderness of Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido. The tour reveals the spectacular beauty of Japan during winter-time through an amazing selection of experiences.
Along the way, you visit the thatched-roof farmhouses of a UNESCO-listed village, take a snowshoe walk through an alpine forest. You will come up close to floating ice drifts on board an icebreaker in Hokkaido’s northern seas. Imagine participating in some wonderful snow festivals including Japan’s internationally renowned Sapporo Snow Festival.
The tour also allows you to witness the rare sight of Japan’s protected red-crested cranes in their natural environment and wild snow monkeys bathing in hot spring baths. You stay in authentic traditional Japanese inns and appreciate the best of Japan’s hot spring onsen hospitality and local food culture. This tour lets you encounter first-hand the sublime beauty of Japan covered in snow and is suitable for travellers who love the outdoors and travelling through the shear beauty of wintry landscapes.
Places visited: Tokyo, Shibu Onsen, Matsumoto, Hirayu Onsen, Shin-Hotaka mountain, Takayama, Shirakawa-go, Sapporo, Kushiro, Lake Akan, Abashiri, Sounkyo and Otaru
Group size: Min 6, Max 8
Transport: Bullet train, express & commuter trains, bus and taxi and flight from Nagoya to Sapporo
Accommodation: Four star hotels and equivalent Japanese style inns
Fitness level: Moderate (please refer to FAQ)
Tour type: Signature
Experience the old and ultra-modern in Tokyo
See wild snow monkeys soaking in hot spring baths
Be inspired by the majestic snow sculptures of the Sapporo Snow Festival
Take an icebreaker cruise through drift ice in the Sea of Okhotsk
Take a snowshoe walk through the forests of Shin-Hotaka
See the farmhouses of UNESCO-listed Shirakawa-go magically lit-up in the snow
Catch a cable car to the top of the Japan Alps, blanketed in snow
See red-crested cranes dance in the wild in snowy Hokkaido
Day 1: Arrival in Tokyo
Welcome to Japan! On arrival at one of Tokyo’s international airports, you will be met by a member of the Journey to the East team and escorted to your hotel. After a good night’s sleep, you will be ready to start the first full day of your 2020 Snow Spectacular Tour of Japan.
Day 2: Tokyo
After orientation with your guide, you begin your exploration of Tokyo. A vibrant city of soaring towers and sci-fi streetscapes, Japan’s capital is also steeped in great history and culture, making its mark as the seat of power in 1603 when the new shogun moved here. Winter in Tokyo is very special and we take the subway to the old Tokyo neighbourhood of Asakusa, once home to the merchant class and artisans who rose to prominence as Edo (old Tokyo) developed. Asakusa is also home to Tokyo’s oldest temple, the ever-popular Sensoji with its distinctive red Kaminari-mon gate and bustling market stalls.
Lunching is at a local tempura restaurant, and we visit the upmarket shopping district of Ginza, the first part of Tokyo to modernise as the country opened up in the late 19th century. We take a walking tour through Ginza’s backstreets, passing by tiny galleries, traditional ware shops, and the venerable Kabuki-za Theatre. A visit to one of the top department store’s basement food hall is sure to amaze. Celebration is in the air and you will see the massive range of Japanese winter foods and confectionery all beautifully presented.
Tonight our welcome dinner is held at a restaurant with great night views serving modern Japanese degustation cuisine.
Day 3: Tokyo
After breakfast, your tour of Tokyo and its many faces continues as we head off for Tokyo’s fashionable Harajuku area. We firstly head to Meiji Shrine, located in the heart of Tokyo’s fashion district. Surrounded by a forest of evergreen trees and stroll gardens, this impressive Shinto shrine complex provides a peaceful oasis in an otherwise bustling city.
We then walk from the shrine along the fashionable tree-lined boulevard of Omotesando. Here the contrasts are stunning as the world’s super-brands sit comfortably alongside edgy Japanese designers, avant-garde architecture, and Harajuku’s teen pop-culture.
In the afternoon you have the opportunity to explore the vibrant capital on your own. You may like to spend the afternoon enjoying some traditional Japanese art at Nezu Museum or Ota Memorial Museum of Art, or checking out the latest technology in Akihabara, experiencing the cool urban buzz of Shibuya and the night-time neons of Shinjuku, or just wandering Tokyo’s fascinating local backstreets.
Day 4: Shibu Onsen
With the scene set by the massive city of Tokyo, it is time to head for the wilderness of Japan. This morning we ride the impressive bullet train – the shinkansen. The next destination is Nagano Prefecture, the heartland of the Japan Alps and blanketed in snow at this time of year. On arriving at Nagano City, host to the 1998 Winter Olympics, we change trains for the 'Snow Monkey Express'.
We are headed to Yudanaka to visit the Snow Monkey Park. Walking along a winding path for 30 to 60 minutes (depending on snow conditions) we come to the natural hot spring bath where wild monkeys come to bathe in the hot thermal waters to get warm.
In the late afternoon, we check-in to our accommodation in the small mountain hot springs village of Shibu Onsen, to experience our own onsen bath. Our guide will talk you through the ritual of the Japanese bath and explain why a visit to an onsen remains one of the nation’s most popular pastimes.
Dinner will be traditional kaiseki, a multi-course banquet featuring seasonal foods and regional specialities. Your room will be a traditional tatami-mat room where you can experience sleeping on comfortable futon floor bedding – Japanese ryokan hospitality at its finest!
Day 5: Matsumoto
Following an authentic Japanese-style breakfast – a nutritious mix of grilled fish, miso soup, tofu, rice, and pickles! - you then head by local train to Matsumoto. Surrounded by snow-covered mountains, Matsumoto’s own beginnings go back to the 8th century. Later becoming an important castle town ruled by a powerful local clan during Japan’s feudal period. Today the city is popular for its cosmopolitan atmosphere, galleries, and stunning alpine setting.
It’s also home to the impressive Matsumoto Castle, Japan’s oldest wooden castle and one of the nation’s four castles designated as National Treasures. Still in impeccable original condition, you will have the chance to explore its wooden interior and climb to the top of its distinctive black-and-white turret.
In the late afternoon, we travel by private minivan to the Shin-Hotaka region to stay in another onsen village deep in the mountains to enjoy the natural hot springs and beautiful environment. Our accommodation also has outside baths where you can soak and relax surrounded by nature.
Day 6: Shin-Hotaka
A special day to make the most of our stunning alpine location and spend a day in the snow. A ride on the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway is on one of the world’s longest ropeways. From the viewing platform, 2,200 metres above sea level there is a spectacular, uninterrupted view of Japan’s northern alps, which include some of Japan’s snow covered tallest mountains.
Next is a guided snowshoe walking tour through a beautiful winter’s landscape. (Snowshoes will be provided, and snow-wear and gloves are also available for hire.) Alternatively, you can spend the afternoon enjoying the snow at your leisure.
Returning to our accommodation in the late afternoon for a restorative soak in the onsen bath after an active day outside and enjoy another heart-warming country-style dinner.
Day 7: Takayama and Shirakawa-go
A private minivan takes us to Takayama, heart of the rugged Hida region. A compact, atmospheric town surrounded by mountains, Takayama is known for its beautifully preserved streets of timber merchant houses dating from the late 17th century. Our private guide will take you on a walking tour of this historic feudal town.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Shirakawa-go, also in the Hida region is next on our list. This exquisite rural village features the traditional thatched-roof farmhouses unique to Japan’s alpine regions. With their steeply-slanted roofs built to withstand heavy snowfalls, they resemble “hands clasped together in prayer” (hence their name, gassho-tsukuri).
A Walk through the village in the early evening allows us to experience the magic of the farmhouses beautifully illuminated at night and learn more about the construction of these houses and the traditional life of the villagers.
Day 8: Takayama (free day)
Explore Takayama at your leisure today. You may like to visit Takayama Jinya (once the prefectural office for the Tokugawa shogunate in feudal times), marvel at the elaborately decorated festival floats housed in Takayama Festival Floats Exhibition Hall, or wander the impossibly photogenic narrow streets of the old merchant district.
Some of the original wooden buildings have been made into small museums or converted into boutique sake breweries and rustic cafes. Takayama is also famous for Hida beef and you may like to visit one of the local restaurants serving this succulent local marbled beef. Our guide is naturally happy to provide sightseeing advice and restaurant recommendations if needed.
Day 9: Sapporo Transfer
After a few days exploring the central Japanese alps, we take a train trip down a scenic river valley to the eastern seaboard city of Nagoya. Here we transfer to a domestic flight and fly to Sapporo, capital of Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido.
With large tracts of pristine wilderness, Hokkaido is a popular destination for those who love its vast, open landscapes and extensive wildlife. The welcoming and laidback nature of its towns becomes immediately obvious.
Across the year, Hokkaido attracts a steady stream of committed skiers and snowboaders, cyclists and hikers. Families on self-drive tours, and people keen to escape Japan’s busy southern cities also love this part of our world. In Hokkaido, our private minivan will take us to our hotel to begin our own Hokkaido adventure.
Day 10: Sapporo, Kushiro and Lake Akan
An express train takes us eastwards across the centre of Hokkaido's snow covered land to the town of Kushiro. From here we venture into Kushiro shitsugen National Park. It is a huge wetlands area, which was designated a protected area in 1987, to protect the then dwindling populations of tancho-zaru, Japan’s beautiful red-crested white crane.
The crane sanctuary is where to see this elegant bird in its natural environment and to learn more about ongoing conservation efforts and breeding programs.
Akan National Park by a private minivan is our next destination. This extensive park complex features deep gorges and icy lakes, craggy volcanic peaks, and dense cypress forests. We stay at a traditional onsen hotel on the shores of Lake Akan, located in the middle of the park. The hotel has a number of onsen baths, some located outside providing exquisite views of the lake and the surrounding countryside.
Day 11: Lake Akan
We pause to take a breath and relaxing at our hotel and around the lake. You can choose how you’d like to best enjoy Lake Akan’s wintry wonderland: you may like to go ice-fishing, take a ride across the frozen lake in a snowmobile, or simply experience walking across the lake’s huge expanse. Our hotel’s hot spring baths will be a great way to relax after a day spent outside exploring the lake.
Day 12: Abashiri and Sounkyo
Our private minivan takes us to the town of Abashiri, on Hokkaido’s northeastern coast. Buffeted by strong arctic winds coming down from Russia across the Sea of Okhotsk, it's a hauntingly beautiful and rugged part of the world. We board an icebreaker to break the drift ice that builds up off the coast of Abashiri.
Back on land, we visit an Ainu (indigenous peoples of Hokkaido) Museum. Our minivan takes us to our last destination for the day – The town of Sounkyo, on the periphery of the spectacular Daisetsuzan National Park.
In Sounkyo, we participate in the Frozen Waterfall Festival, which celebrates the beauty of its two famous cascading waterfalls frozen in time over the winter season. Our accommodation tonight is an onsen hotel in Sounkyo.
Day 13: Sapporo
Having completed our circuit of central Hokkaido, we head back to the prefectural capital by private minivan. As a relatively new city that developed in the late 19th century as the country modernised, Sapporo was able to apply some of the new urban planning concepts popular at the time. It has unusually wide boulevards and large public parks. Sapporo today is a welcoming and cosmopolitan city with a lively food scene, fashionable shopping malls, and stylish cafes.
In early February, the city’s population swells with the world renowned Sapporo Snow Festival, one of the most popular events in Japan. Huge sculptures are carved in packed snow and displayed along the city’s central boulevard, attracting highly skilled participants from Japan and all over the world. Apart from the sculptures, the city turns on musical performances (delivered from stages made of ice), builds ice bars serving mulled wine and sake cocktails, and creates snow activities for families and kids. It’s a buoyant, vibrant festival atmosphere set against a beautiful snowy backdrop. We spend the weekend enjoying this special event.
Day 14: Sapporo
Our guide takes us on a walking tour of central Sapporo this morning. We stop to have a look at the historic Clock Tower, built in 1878. Wander past other early brick buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries on our way to Odori Koen, the 1.5km-long stretch of public park in the city’s heart.
The Odori Koen is the main venue for the Snow Festival and you have the afternoon and evening free to savour more of the festival atmosphere or explore Sapporo’s attractive street scapes and try some of its great restaurants.
Day 15: Sapporo and Otaru
A day trip to the nearby picturesque town of Otaru is a wonderful treat. Once a vibrant trading centre where the indigenous Ainu people, Japanese, Chinese, and Russian traders mingled to exchange goods. Otaru retains many of the grand stone and brick buildings from its late 19th century boom times.
Many of the warehouses from its trading past have been converted into attractive museums and cafes along its canals and today we wander down Otaru’s iconic central canal with its Victorian-era street lamps. As the sun sets, the area is lit up for the Otaru Snow Path Light Festival and we enjoy the romantic atmosphere of its cobbled streets, street lamps, and canal illuminated by ice lanterns and candles. We return to Sapporo for our last night and our farewell dinner in this wintry wonderland.
Day 16: Sapporo and Bon-Voyage
This morning you will check out of your hotel after breakfast and your 2020 Snow Spectacular Tour of Japan concludes. You can return to Tokyo by train or air to fly home, or perhaps linger in Japan for a little longer. Ask Journey to the East to help you plan your personal tour extension.
Please note that there may be slight changes to the itinerary described above to accommodate changes in train timetables, opening hours, and hotel and restaurant availability.
All photographs on this web site are representative and are not a commitment to what may be on view on the day.
- 15 nights accommodation with daily breakfast
- Lunches & dinners as specified
- All public and private transport for the group itinerary
- Flight from Nagoya to Sapporo
- Airport meet & greet and hotel transfer by public transport on arrival
- Locally licensed English speaking tour guides
- Cultural activities and entry fees included in itinerary
- Luggage transfers (1 piece per person)
- International and domestic airfares (unless otherwise stated)
- Travel insurance
- Alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages
- Tips and gratuities (not routinely expected in Japan)
- Transport when not travelling with the group
- Personal expenses (laundry, internet, telephone, coin lockers etc.)
- Visa (if required)
Had a fabulous time with a great group of people. I loved the country, the culture, the people and everything about the tour – hope to do another tour with JTTE – maybe Hokkaido or Kyushu next time
Vivien Hewitt, Western Australia
This was my first trip with JTTE and already I am looking at the program for next year thinking about another one. I liked the fact that it was a small group, the organisation was spot on and the food everywhere was outstanding.
Dee Mason – NSW Australia