Winter can be a bleak time of year. The nights are long and the temperatures low. But throughout much of Japan, people in towns and cities illuminate the gloom with festivals, and have been doing so for centuries.
Akita Prefecture’s Yokote Kamakura Festival is one of these, dating back almost 500 years. This example, like many others, coincides with koshōgatsu or “little new year,” usually falling in mid-February.
Filled with prayers and rituals for good fortune and harvest in the year ahead, these festivals sometimes involve fire and they often involve snow. Japan’s modern-day snow festivals usually include a plethora of sculptures, slides and other attractions. They began in earnest in the 1950s, and have been growing in number as their popularity has risen.
This year things are looking a little different, however. December saw the lowest amount of snowfall in Hokkaido since records began in 1961. This has led to not only a lack of snow on its ski slopes, but also forced the customarily snow-laden Sapporo Snow Festival — last year attracting 2.74 million visitors — to truck in tons of snow from further afield to meet the demands of the festival. It’s not the only snow festival feeling the heat: This year’s light up of the usually impressive Misotsuchi icicles, Saitama Prefecture, has been canceled.
Mild weather may have diminished the impact of some of Japan’s snow festivals, but winter is not canceled and there is still plenty of time to experience some of the wonderful celebrations taking place this month.
Asahikawa Winter Festival
A small-scale alternative to the larger festival in Sapporo, Asahikawa draws crowds with a selection of ice and snow sculptures, a family-friendly atmosphere, a large snow stage and some very kawaii snowmen created by local children. The festival is also much easier to attend than Sapporo’s, which is so popular that hotels are booked up months in advance.
Impressive ice sculptures by international teams lead the way from Asahikawa Station along Heiwa Dori, and festivities take place in Tokiwa Park and on the main stage on the banks of the Ishikari River. Make sure to try some of the regional gastronomic delights on offer at the festival stalls, such as shoyu ramen; take a trip down one of the snow slides; and stay until the end of the festival for a bonkers rainbow light show.
Asahikawa Winter Festival, Asahikawa, Kamikawa Subprefecture, Hokkaido; Feb. 6-11
Hiburi Kamakura Festival
Snow might be the main focus of other wintry jubilees, but Kakunodate, Akita Prefecture, opts for a more historical celebration.
Formerly an influential castle town, Kakunodate is best known for its well-preserved samurai district. But it also attracts visitors aplenty for Hiburi Kamakura, its fire-swinging February festival.
Once a ritual of the lunar new year, today the 400-year-old tradition feels more like a community event. Locals gather at 36 spots in town to cook up feasts under gazebos, taking turns to whirl around flaming bales of rice straw for good health and fortune, while also inviting passersby to have a go at the hiburi (fire-swinging).
Hiburi Kamakura Festival, Kakunodate, Senboku, Akita Prefecture; Feb. 13-14
Japan Cup Dogsled Race
Dog sledding is not often associated with Japan. However, the Japan Cup Dogsled Race in Wakkanai, Hokkaido — now in its 37th year — says otherwise.
Held over two days, dogs and racers compete in a series of events from the seriously speedy six-dog race to the popular and more light-hearted “Wan Wan Dash” (“Doggy Dash”), in which participants race alongside their own pooches.
Japan Cup Dogsled Race, Koetoimura, Koetoi, Wakkanai, Soya Subprefecture, Hokkaido; Feb. 22-23. For more information visit bit.ly/jpdogsled.
Namahage Sedo Festival
A tradition originating on the Oga Peninsula, the Namahage Sedo Festival witnesses men dressing up as namahage (demons), wearing grotesque masks and straw cloaks, and wielding wooden replica deba (knives). They proceed to stomp about town with the call of, “Are there any cry babies around?” Needless to say, children are horrified; the intent is to scare little ones from being lazy or naughty.
The festival begins with a large bonfire at Shinzan Shrine before the straw-clad, torch-carrying namahage descend on the town.
The Namahage tradition was inducted into the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2018, but the area’s aging society may soon make this a remnant of the past.
Namahage Sedo Festival, Shinzan Shrine, Mizukuisawa, Kitaurashinzan, Oga, Akita Prefecture; Feb. 8-10
Steeped in history, the Oto Matsuri in Shingu, Wakayama Prefecture, is downright dangerous.
Taking place in early February, it sees around 2,000 torch-bearing men clad in white robes run down the 538 steep and irregular stone steps of the ancient Kamikura Shrine.
After a week supposedly involving eating only white food such as tofu, kamaboko (cured fish paste) and white rice, the male-only participants, named agariko or “ascending children,” meet at Gotobiki Iwa — a boulder at the shrine said to be home to a deity. After sundown, the men light their torches from a sacred flame before making a death-defying descent down the staircase in the name of purification and good harvest.
Oto Matsuri, Kamikura Shrine, Shingu City, Wakayama Prefecture; Feb. 6
Ouchijuku Snow Festival
The intact Edo Era (1603-1868) post town of Ouchijuku, Fukushima Prefecture, capitalizes on its historical houses during the bitter winter by breathing some festival life into its snowbound streets.
A chance to see a 300-year-old townscape lit by the glow of mini kamakura (snow huts), there is also an abundance of fun for festival-goers to get involved with: From loincloth-wearing men traipsing through the streets with torches to taiko drumming and fireworks. Sample negi-soba noodles, a local specialty whereby spring onions are used to eat in place of chopsticks.
Ouchijuku Snow Festival, Shimogo, Minamiaizu, Fukushima Prefecture; Feb. 8-9
Shirakawa-go Light Up
Shirakawa-go is famous for its traditional gasshō-zukuri (“prayer-hands style”) straw-roofed farmhouses. These are dramatically lit up during January and February for a captivating sight along the remote Shogawa river in Gifu Prefecture. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the houses — some over 250 years old — are made with steep, thick thatched roofs to withstand heavy snowfall.
The best place to see the glow of the snow-laden roofs of the houses is at the Shiroyama Viewpoint, north of Ogimachi (the most well preserved part of town). However, this is a popular spot, and the only way up is on a ticketed shuttle bus. Staying in some of the traditional houses in the area is an option, too, and means being immersed in the rustic history of the buildings — and getting the village to yourself once the tourists go home.
Shirakawa-go Light Up, Ono District, Gifu Prefecture; Feb. 2, 9 and 16
Shiretoko Drift Ice Festival
On the remote, UNESCO-recognized Shiretoko Peninsula in eastern Hokkaido, the town of Shari transforms the long, dark winter into a mystical wonderland with its Drift Ice Festival.
Replacing the 30-year heritage of the annual Shiretoko Fantasia in 2016, the new festival is a celebration of the ryūhyō (drift ice) that attracts visitors to the Okhotsk Sea coastline each year. It showcases natural creations and invites attendees to explore its snowy domes, igloo-like coffee stands and ice bars spread throughout the Shiretoko National Campsite area. The festival is a 21st-century winter wonderland.
Shiretoko Drift Ice Festival, Shiretoko National Campsite, Sharicho, Hokkaido; Jan. 30-Feb. 28; admission ¥500, including commemorative pin and one beverage
Tokamachi Yuki Matsuri
Dating back to 1950, Tokamachi Yuki Matsuri claims to be Japan’s original snow festival, this year’s being its 71st edition.
A more local offering than the usually booming Sapporo snow festival, which also began in 1950, mid-February sees the snowy streets of Tokamachi adorned with cute snow sculptures, slides, rides and other displays, including taiko drum performances. Though the schedule has been adjusted due to the unprecedented warm winter weather, 2020’s festivities are still going ahead. Organizers promise “a fun experience even without much snow,” and urge visitors not to be put off.
Tokamachi Snow Festival, Tokamachi City, Niigata Prefecture; Feb. 15-16
Yokote Kamakura Festival
Another atmospheric winter festival in Akita Prefecture, Yokote’s small-town ambience is exemplified during its weekend-long winter festival, when the town is illuminated by hundreds of kamakura.
Local schoolchildren invite visitors into some of the cozy huts for grilled mochi (rice cakes) and amazake (sweet low-alcohol sake). There is also a glittering field of tiny, candlelit kamakura, while elsewhere the specially illuminated Yokote Castle makes for an excellent viewpoint.
The event has a long history, dating back around 450 years, and takes place alongside Yokote’s Bonden Matsuri, a festival unique to Akita Prefecture in which participants carrying bonden — decorated poles, some five meters long and weighing up to 30 kilograms — make their way to Asahiokayama Shrine to offer up their elaborate totems.
Yokote Kamakura Festival, Yokote, Akita Prefecture; Feb. 15-16. For more information visit yokotekamakura.com.