Japan: Winter Festivals and Snow Monkeys

  • Trip Type: Land
  • 11 Days | Round-trip Tokyo
  • Group Size: Max 25

Expedition Details


Venture to Japan during the heart of winter, when snow-mantled mountains, frost-fringed wetlands, and steaming crater lakes set the stage for an incredible wildlife spectacle. Explore dynamic Tokyo, and then fly to the wild island of Hokkaido to witness the splendid courtship displays of the endangered red-crowned crane. Search for red foxes and sika deer amid the geothermal landscapes of Akan National Park, and learn about the ancient ways of the indigenous Ainu people. Continue to Sapporo to experience the city’s internationally-renowned winter festival. Conclude our journey amid the hot springs of Kanbayashi Onsen, enjoying up-close encounters with Japan’s famous snow monkeys.

Trip Highlights

  • Marvel at snow- and ice-sculpted masterpieces at either the Sounkyo Hyobaku (Ice Waterfall) Festival or the Sapporo Snow Festival.
  • Get up close to rare and wonderful winter wildlife: splendid red- crowned cranes, Steller’s sea eagles, snow monkeys, and more.
  • Experience the time-honored tradition of the Japanese onsen, or hot spring bath, while staying at a lakeside hotel and a mountainside ryokan.
  • Explore the snow-dappled forests and geothermal wonders of Hokkaido, and attend a dance performance at an Ainu cultural center.

Itinerary - 11 Days

Day 1 — Tokyo, Japan

Arrive in Japan and transfer to our centrally located hotel in one of Tokyo's dynamic neighborhoods.
Cerulean Tower Tokyu

Day 2 — Tokyo

Begin the day at Meiji Shrine, Tokyo's most important Shinto shrine. After lunch at a local restaurant, take in the organized chaos at Shibuya Crossing, one of the busiest intersections in the world. Later, visit an antiquities museum or a Japanese garden and venture into a traditional teahouse to partake in the elaborate ritual of an authentic tea ceremony.
Cerulean Tower Tokyu (B,L,D)

Day 3 — Kushiro/Lake Akan

The northernmost of Japan's four main islands, Hokkaido is a vast, rugged frontier of snowy mountains, primeval forests, volcanoes, and lakes. Fly to the fishing port of Kushiro and experience the colorful bustle of the Washo Fish Market. Then drive to the marshes north of the city, designated a national park in 1987 to protect a resident population of endangered red-crowned cranes, also known as Japanese cranes. Learn about the history and ecology of Japanese cranes and the conservation efforts that have brought them back from the brink of extinction. Witness their spectacular, noisy courtship displays and synchronized dancing amid the quiet landscapes of winter—the best time to see the cranes in action. Continue to our resort overlooking Lake Akan, surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. Unwind at the on-site onsen, or hot spring baths.
Akan Yuku no Sato Tsuruga (B,L,D)

Day 4 — Lake Akan

Visit a nearby cultural center and enjoy a vibrant dance performance by Hokkaido’s indigenous Ainu people. Spend the afternoon exploring the geothermal features of Akan National Park, where bubbling hot springs and fumaroles steam through the snow. Look for sika deer and red foxes that congregate around thermal vents in the park’s frozen crater lakes. This evening, view fireworks over Lake Akan as part of a local winter festival.
Akan Yuku no Sato Tsuruga (B,L,D)

Day 5 — Lake Akan/Abashiri/Sounkyo

Drive to Abashiri and cruise the Okhotsk Sea on an icebreaker, marveling at the drift ice floating by. Continue to Sounkyo, located in a giant gorge with multiple hot springs and surrounded by dramatic waterfalls and rock formations. In the evening, celebrate the Ice Waterfall Festival and the illuminated frozen waterfalls surrounding Sounkyo.
Sounkyo Choyotei Hotel (B,L,D)

Day 6 — Daisetsuzan National Park/Sounkyo

Spend the day exploring the mountainous terrain of Daisetsuzan National Park. Known as the "roof of Hokkaido," the pristine wilderness of Japan's largest national park teems with wildlife, flora and unique geological features. In the evening, return to the illuminated frozen waterfalls surrounding Sounkyo.
Sounkyo Choyotei Hotel (B,L)

Day 7 — Sounkyo/Nagano

Drive to the Asahikawa Airport and return to Tokyo by airplane. Drive to Nagano, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. En route, stop at the Matsumoto Castle known for its unique black exterior.
Hotel Metropolitan Nagano (B,L,D)

Day 8 — Nagano/Japan Alps

Begin the day strolling the picturesque chestnut path of Obuse village and its Hokusai Art Museum. Continue to our traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan, situated in Kanbayashi Onsen—a picturesque village brimming with natural hot springs. Spend the remainder of the day relaxing at the inn’s soothing onsen, which include indoor baths and outdoor cascading hot springs nestled amid peaceful gardens.
Kanbayashi Hotel Senjukaku (B,L,D)

Day 9 — Japan Alps

Buried in snow several months of the year, the mountains of Nagano are home to the wild Japanese macaque, or snow monkey. Walk along a nature trail to Jigokudani Yaen-Koen (Monkey Park), where more than a hundred snow monkeys descend each day from the surrounding cliffs to bathe in the park's hot springs. Observe and photograph these remarkable primates up close as they soak, groom, and socialize against a steamy, snow-draped backdrop. This evening, sit down to a multi-course kaiseki dinner at our ryokan.
Kanbayashi Hotel Senjukaku (B,L,D)

Day 10 — Japan Alps/Tokyo

Drive to Nagano and explore the city’s highlights, including the 7th-century Zenkoji Temple, an important pilgrimage destination which houses the first Buddhist statue brought to Japan. Return to Tokyo by bullet train, a quintessential Japanese travel experience, moving at up to 200 miles per hour. This evening, gather for a farewell dinner.
Cerulean Tower Tokyu (B,L,D)

Day 11 — Tokyo

Transfer to the airport for your return flight home.

Related Trips

National Geographic Expert

Paula Swart

Paula SwartPaula Swart is an expert on Asian culture and history and has been a museum curator for more than 20 years. She studied Chinese and Japanese language at the University of Leiden and Asian Art history at the University of Amsterdam. While working at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, she researched the Clemenceau collection of Japanese tea ceremony ceramics and 19th century Japanese woodblock prints. Paula has organized many exhibitions on various aspects of Japanese art, history and culture, publishing on such topics as Shinto shrines, sword guards, the ritual use of sake and the function of ceramics in the tea ceremony. She has made a number of trips to Japan exploring the various ancient capitals as well as modern cities like Tokyo and Yokohama, and has lectured on Japan's World Heritage sites at the University of Victoria. In 2008 she travelled to Japan at the invitation of the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties in Tokyo to discuss the restoration project of an important and rare early 17th century Buddhist painting. Paula has a longtime interest in Japanese films, literature, textiles and Japonisme. Paula also studied and lectures on artifacts from the shipwreck of the Dutch East India company ship Witte Leeuw (White Lion), which was found off the island of St. Helena and documented in the October 1978 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Paula will join the following departure:

Feb 02 - 12, 2019


  • Feb 02 - 12, 2019 ALT
  • Feb 22 - Mar 04, 2019

ALT indicates a departure that has a slightly different itinerary than the one shown on this page. Click the ALT icon to see the day-to-day itinerary.

Expedition Cost



Price is per person, double occupancy. For a single room, add $2,595.

International airfare to/from Tokyo and airfare within Japan are not included in the expedition cost. The group flights within Japan are $375 (subject to change) depending on the departure date.

Activity Level


Travelers should be in good health and comfortable walking or standing for extended periods of time. Daily activities may include city walking tours, visits to sites, game drives, or easy hikes, with options for more physical activities such as hiking, kayaking, snorkeling and biking.

Click here for a description of all activity levels.

What To Expect

Travelers wishing to see the snow monkeys must be able to walk 1.2 miles each way along a forested path that can be icy, snowy, and muddy in winter. Travelers should be prepared to encounter slippery conditions. Sturdy footwear with good traction is necessary.

The Akan Yuku no Sato Tsuruga hotel and Kanbayashi Hotel Senjukaku ryokan are traditional Japanese accommodations with futons set atop tatami mats on the floor.