8 Great Snow Festivals to See in Japan
By Sophie Skillett
On February 10, 2017
Everyone loves snow and Japan is no exception to that rule. Through the cold winter months, these festivals are sure to give you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. Whether you’re planning to spam Instagram with pics of Sapporo’s Snow Festival, or feeling out in the cold because you can’t make it this year, it’s time to start planning for the next adventure!
Sapporo a go? Plan ahead.
The most famous snow festival is the Sapporo Snow Festival held on Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. Over two million people make the trek to this winter wonderland every February to get a glimpse of the towering snow sculptures that take over Sapporo’s city centre. There’s loads to see and do no matter what the time, although these gravity-defying structures look mighty fine all lit up after sunset. Beware that you do need to book super early for this one (looking at a year to eight months in advance) or expect to pay through the roof for accommodation.
2018 dates: Feb 1 – 12
I totally missed Hokkaido off my itinerary, are there any festivals near Tokyo?
No problemo! Honshu is blessed with tons of snow this time of year so you can take the shinkansen (bullet train) to one of the nearby prefectures for skiing, snowboarding and snow festival-ing.
The closest festival to the capital is in Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture. Called the Yunishigawa Onsen Kamakura Festival it’s about two and a half hours from Tokyo. Good for a day trip, I know, but why not stay overnight and soak in the town’s numerous onsen (hot springs) between festivities?
Snow huts can be found at the “Heike no Sato” – the main venue (these need to be booked in advance) – or you can sled down slopes at Yunishigawa Snow Park. The scenery is lit up at night and is best viewed with amazake – the region’s favorite sweet fermented sake drink.
2018 dates: Jan 27 – Mar 4
My skis are packed and ready to go, what’s good up North after a hard day on the slopes?
The Zao Snow Monster Illuminations are held from December until February which is also the best time to visit the slopes. The “Snow Monsters” are actually trees on Mount Zao that have been buried under the snow, creating an eerie looking landscape that is best explored at night via the Zao Ropeway. Wrap up warm because temperatures at the top can get as low as -20°C(-4°F).
2017/18 dates: Dec 23 – Mar 4
Aomori holds one of the region’s biggest festivals over five days in February in the form of the Hirosaki Castle Snow Lantern Festival. A top spot for cherry blossom viewing, the winter transforms it into a magical wonderland reminiscent of Narnia. All of the lanterns have been lovingly hand-crafted by locals who have been preparing throughout the harsh winter months for this moment!
2017 dates: Sept 9 – Dec 12
Akita’s Kamihinoki-nai Paper Balloon Festival sees over 100 balloons sent into the atmosphere on February 10th every year. These balloons aren’t your average birthday balloons: they can get as tall as eight meters and are painted with beautiful designs of geisha and samurai straight from Edo-era ukiyo-e prints, or adorned with hand-written wishes for the year to come.
I’ve been meaning to pay the Fukushima area a visit, what’s the dealio there?
Fukushima is Japan’s best-kept secret when it comes to snow festivals. What Fukushima can’t make up for in fame, it does in quantity: Fukushima has three festivals for you to choose from.
Both taking place in the second weekend of February are the Aizu Painted Candle Festival held at Tsurugajo Castle, and the Ouchijuku Snow Festival. Aizu is one of the three regions in Fukushima, famed across Japan for its painted candles. They have been crafted in this region for over 500 years and are said to burn for longer than their Western counterparts. Not only are the candles painted with seasonal motifs, they are also planted in the castle grounds to form a large picture when viewed from the top of the castle.
2018 dates: Feb 9 – 10
The Ouchijuku Snow Festival is held in an ancient village with the same name. The beautiful thatched roofs of the traditional cottages transport you back in time and are designated as an “Important Preservation District for Groups of Historic Buildings.” The second weekend of February is also the best time to pick strawberries in the region.
2018 dates: Feb 10 – 11
So candles and old houses aren’t your thing, but the Urabandai Snow Festival (held on the third weekend of February) has a little something for everyone. At 5:30 p.m. on the first day of the festival, 3000 candles are lit up and placed on a frozen lotus pond. Visitors are encouraged to contribute by leaving their own candles. There’s also snow treasure hunts, craft workshops and some of the most deeeelicious ice cream.
2018 dates: Feb 17 – 18
To Wrap Up (Warm – it’s cold out there)
Grab your skis, wool hat and passport in order to make the most out Japan’s amazingly diverse selection of snow festivals.