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There may be biting winds, and the occasional snowstorm, but boy does Japan do winter in style. Layer up, throw that scarf over your shoulder, and swap the land of the rising sun for the land of the rising snow.
Winter festivals in Japan
Dark skies make illuminations brighter, cold hands make steaming bowls of nabe (Japanese hotpot) tastier, and chilly weather makes festivals better; after all, what would a snow festival be without the cold? That’s right, a puddle.
1. Chichibu night festival, Saitama Prefecture – December 2nd/3rd
Fireworks are largely seen as the preserve of summer festivals in Japan, but in winter you’re spared the humidity and rewarded with splashes of colour on the clearest skies. Take a 90-minute train out of Tokyo to celebrate the Chichibu night festival in Saitama Prefecture.
Enormous floats, lit up by lanterns, are carried down the streets (we imagine the carriers don’t feel the cold), followed by an impressive two and a half hour fireworks display. There’s nothing quite like clutching a hot mug of amazake (sweet rice wine) between your gloves while you watch the festivities.
2. Hanatoro (lantern illuminations), Kyoto – December
There are two sets of Kyoto lantern illuminations: one in March (Higashiyama District) and one in December (in Arashiyama). While we would never dream of picking favourites, the illuminations in Arashiyama are pretty special. For anyone unfamiliar with this area, it’s best known for a towering bamboo grove. Up-lit, and lined with lanterns, the forest is haunting – in the best way.
3. Oniyo Fire Festival, Fukuoka – 7th January
Oniyo is one of the three major fire festivals in Japan. Having been practised for 1,600 years, it’s perhaps one of the oldest too. It’s held at the Daizenji Tamataregu Shrine in Fukuoka on 7th January, and practised to drive away evil spirits. A fire is guarded at the shrine for a week, until crowds of men in loincloths transfer the flame to six giant torches and proceed to parade them around the grounds of the shrine.
Apparently it’s good luck if the embers fall on you – that hole in your favourite jacket will always bring back happy memories.
4. Sapporo snow festival, Sapporo – February
No trip to Japan in February would be complete without a visit to the Sapporo snow festival. This really is the crème de la crème of winter festivals in Japan. Sapporo is up in Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, where temperatures are always significantly cooler than the rest of the country. Pretty darn chilly.
They put the great piles of the white stuff to good use here by crafting enormous snowy sculptures. We’re talking building-sized – previous highlights have included an impressive replica of St. Paul’s Cathedral. In the evening, the creations are lit up with dazzling light shows. But the residents of Sapporo don’t rest on their laurels; why stop at snow buildings when you could include pathways of ice sculptures, snow mazes and tobogganing tracks?
This foodie city also becomes an ode to gastronomy during the festival; sample local delights in between your sculpture-spotting. Ice cream, anyone?
5. Otaru lanterns, 30 mins from Sapporo – February
While you’re in Sapporo, head to Otaru; this town is only half an hour away by train so there’s really no excuse not to. Glowing lanterns line the picturesque canal in the evening – it’s all very romantic. Like a Christmas card, without the Christmas bit. There’s also the Temiyasen Kaijo area here where food stalls and small snow sculptures can be found dotted through the pathway of an old railway line.
6. Nozawa Dosojin festival, Nozawa Onsen – 15th January
Prepare to thaw out amidst mountains of snow at the Nozawa Dosojin festival. In Japan, it’s considered unlucky for men to be aged 25 or 42. To face down this unfortunate year, they team up to build a wooden shrine, before burning it down. Simple enough, you think. Not so!
Once fuelled by copious amounts of sake, the older of the men climb to the top of the structure, while the 25 year-olds guard it from below. Those who are lucky enough to be neither 25 nor 42 then attempt to burn the whole thing to the ground; the elders must then scramble down from the top to avoid certain death. Easy.
For more information about winter festivals in Japan, or summer festivals in Japan. Or anything to do with Japan, really, do contact our team.