The Best Way to Make the Most out of Winter in Japan

Nov 16, 2019


Winter is coming, are you prepared? What is a better way of experiencing winter than going to the coldest places in Japan!

In this article, I will mainly focus on Japan’s largest winter festival, Sapporo Snow Festival. A bit about the history, how to get there, main events, food and drink, and what you will need to prepare. So allow me first to share some of the winter festivals around Japan.

 

The Different Types of Winter Festivals Found in Japan

 

There are various winter festivals in Japan. The majority of them are held around February and usually go on for about 2 days or a week long. The following are just a few of some well-known festivals in Japan from Niigata to Hokkaido:

 

Yokote Kamakura Festival, Akita Prefecture

This festival in southern Akita is one of the oldest winter festivals in Japan, spanning hundreds of years in tradition. Every year on February 15th and 16th small-sized snow lanterns and large igloos are shaped out of the fallen snow throughout the town. Inside of the dozens of built igloos are alters where visitors can go to pray to appease the water deity. Some snow sculptures are even erected in several locations. The lanterns and igloos are lit-up into the dark until 9 pm. Rice cakes 餅(mochi) and hot amazake 甘酒 are popular foods and drinks to have there to warm you up in the freezing weather.

 

Tokamachi Snow Festival, Niigata Prefecture

A friend of mine enjoyed the festivities there last winter season. Not only does it have amazing artistry in snow and ice, but the food and drink were also a major part of it. For a more local feel with snow and ice sculptures in front of a natural backdrop without the big crowds and commercial advertisements, this is the place for you. Out of all of Japan, Niigata seems to get the most snow, which leaves them with more than enough to build with. Many of the locals even have sculptures around their own businesses, greeting guests along the road.

 

(Note: Tokamachi Snow Festival is happening on February 14th-16th, 2020)

 

Otaru Snow Light Festival, Hokkaido Prefecture

This festival is probably different with the previous ones, in that it’s more slow-paced, where you can enjoy watching the snow being beautifully sculpted, glowing warm candlelight in small lanterns in different shapes. There are even candle lights that float on the river, creating a rather romantic atmosphere for couples wanting to take a quiet stroll.

 

(Note: Otaru Snow Light Festival is scheduled to happen on February 8th -16th, 2020)

 

Asahikawa Winter Festival

You can also go to Hokkaido’s second-largest winter festival when you are visiting the Sapporo’s Winter festival. This is where  Guinness World Records has recorded the world’s hugest snow sculpture constructed in the past. The opening and closing ceremony also features fireworks which makes it a bit more unique for a snow festival. It feels as if they try to make everything massive in this festival.

(Note: Asahikawa Winter Festival is scheduled to happen on February 6th-11th, 2020)

 

Sapporo Winter Festival

This festival is held every year for about 1 week in the middle of February. You may have heard of it somewhere before as it is one of the most popular winter festivals internationally. They bring in truckloads of snow and ice from all over Hokkaido to shape the countless structures for display, advertisement, entertainment, or competition. Every year they receive some of the highest numbers of visitors for snow festivals. The event is open to the public, with the majority of the venues being free.

 

(Note: Sapporo Winter Festival is scheduled to happen on February 4th-11th, 2020)

 

(See Sapporo Snow Festival’s official website: https://www.snowfes.com/english/ )

 

 

Remember if you want to ever get away from the rush of people in the Sapporo Snow Festival, you have the Otaru Snow Light Festival and Asahikawa Winter Festival. Both are happening around the same time in Hokkaido, so you have a number of options to choose from.

 

History of Sapporo Snow Festival

 

The Sapporo Snow Festival began in the middle of the last century, back in 1950 in Odori Park. In 1983, the festival then expanded into the Susukino area with an extension of just as creative snow sculptures. Then, in 2009 Tsudome was opened, with winter activities such as sledding, slides, and the like. These locations are the 3 main sites of the snow festival in Sapporo to this day.

 

As it gained national popularity in the first decade it opened, it then started to earn international recognition when Sapporo held the Winter Olympics in 1972. Even in recent years, Sapporo’s Snow Festival is still growing in popularity with international visitors increasing from all around the world.

 

National and local companies helped sponsor the event by including their own snow and ice sculptures. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces also play a role in the creativity of the yearly event.

 

Over the decades, originality in design and display has evolved. Starting with normal snow and ice sculptures to adding neo-lighting, illumination, and more recently, digital mapping displays.

 

 

Top Things to do at the Winter Festival in Sapporo

 

Odori Park is one of the most known parts of the festival as it features snow and ice sculptures throughout the festival grounds. Open throughout the day once evening arrives, it comes alive even in the dark with illuminations and projection mapping on the life-sized sculptures (some even massive, building-sized) until 10 pm. Various businesses participate in making replicas of all sorts of stuff, from well-known locations in the world to famous characters. There are those who chose to pursue their own original ideas though, making the festival all the more intriguing. Some activities include small slides,  snowboarding on small bunny slopes, skiers performing their skills, a maze of snow and ice, and more.

 

Hokkaido is known for its seafood and vegetables, so food stalls are abundant. Whether you are an adventurous foodie or you just want to get some simple warm food, they have so much to offer. For authentic Japanese food, try grilled scallops, oysters, crab legs, amazake, Hokkaido ramen, curry udon, etc. If you want to be more adventurous though, sea urchin is a good challenge.

 

 

Susukino site has locals from high school students to foreign representatives that participate in creating their own original sculptures every year. From professional to amateur artists, they all seem to be there. They also light up the night a little longer than Odori (until 11 pm).

 

The Tsudome site also has activities to keep you active and warmed up. You can go sledding, tubing, skiing, and so on. Although you can play from morning till the evening, remember it finishes up at 5 pm, just in time for the night viewing of Susukino and Odori Park. Just be sure to dress appropriately! which I plan to talk about next.

 

Preparing for Winter Festivals or the Winter Weather in Japan

 

Depending on where you go in Japan, the cold can vary quite substantially. Although Tokyo can be quite cold during winter, the Kansai area (Osaka, Kyoto, etc) is usually a few degrees colder than Tokyo, despite the fact that all of these areas generally don’t see snow falling over them and as such the basic winter gear is enough to get you through. However, from the northern parts of the main island of Honshu to Hokkaido, the weather can be drastically colder, reaching subzero temperatures (and covered in snow). Thus, when visiting these areas, preparation is key.

 

If you don’t really have winter gears ready with you, do not fret as you can simply buy them in Japan! There is a whole bunch of stores selling winter gears in Japan, from the cheaper alternatives like Uniqlo and GU to the more expensive ones you usually see in boutique stores or luxury brands.

 

To keep warm yourself warm, you need a proper winter insulated coat, boots, and of course hat, gloves, and scarf. Yet sometimes this might not be enough, especially in the colder areas of Japan. This is because both high or low temperatures over there are still well below zero. Thus as Sapporo’s official travel site suggests, wearing layers is important. You may even choose to go for thermal clothing, which has been advertised more frequently lately around Japan for a reasonable price. If you think that the weather is still to cold for you, convenient stores or drug stores usually sell heat packs カイロ (kairo) to put in your pocket, shoes, or stick on a layer of clothing.

 

(For more information about traveling to Sapporo see Sapporo’s official website:

http://www.sapporo.travel/?lang=en )

 

At Odori Park and Susukino wearing appropriate winter clothing is vital to stay warm. Yet if you go to Tsudome to play in the snow it is recommended that you wear clothing made for skiing or snowboarding.

 

Also be aware that the roads can be extremely slippery, so another important item to have is cleats for your shoes. Non-slip cleats to put on your own shoes come in different types of attachments. These you can find at a variety of shops such as any convenient store or drug store.

 

Also, keep an eye out for free sandbags in the vending machine like boxes at intersections while walking. If you find any being labeled with the characters 使用済砂袋 (shiyouzumisunabukuro) (they resemble some western newspaper boxes), you can freely scatter sand where you walk where someone may not have sprinkled any yet. This was set as a public service to keep pedestrians safe on the walkways.

 

Okay! So now you are dressed and have your gear, so how do you get there?

 

 

Ways to Get to and Access Sapporo Winter Festival

 

If you are coming from outside of Japan and want to go straight to Hokkaido, the easiest way around is to take a two-hour plane ride from Narita, Haneda, or Kansai’s international airports. Other alternatives, such as trains or buses would present you with lovely views of never-ending fields of white snow, but they would take up a lot more time.

 

The Sapporo Snow Festival is rather easy to get to as it is located at the heart of the city of Sapporo. Susukino, Sapporo’s dynamic nightlife district is also easily accessible from the festival, being a few streets away from the festival. Or better yet, you can also take the underground path to help warm you up. Just bear in mind that getting to Tsudome requires a riding a shuttle bus with very few parking lots available around the area.

 

That said, the subway is a viable option to get around the city in general, as long as you are willing to brave the cold once you have to surface to the streets.

 

Are you starting to feel excited? There is so much to cover on what you can do during the winter in Japan. Snow festivals are in the end, just a part of the fun. However, this should give you a better idea of how incredible of an experience you can have going to a winter festival in Japan. I hope you can make the trip to northern Japan this winter season.

 

Mandie Kukita, United States

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