Hokkaido's "Freezing Cold Festival" in Rikubetsu

When looking up things to do in winter last year in Hokkaido, one of the events that sparked my interest was Rikubetsu’s “Shibare Festival”, or “Freezing Cold Festival”. Coming from a relatively warm place, I wanted to make the most of my experience in Hokkaido, so I soon tried to figure out how I could join the festival’s “Human Resistance Test”—an all-night challenge where competitors need to sleep in igloos all while enduring freezing-cold temperatures outside.

“Shibare” means “cold” in Hokkaido’s dialect, and Rikubetsu, where the event is held, is known as the coldest town in Japan with temperatures reaching as low as -40 degrees Celsius—temperatures so low that thermometers cannot even measure them. The small mountainous town in Eastern Hokkaido has the lowest average temperature and average low temperature in the dead of winter (January). The festival starts the first weekend of February and lasts for two days. I participated in the event in 2018. 2019 will be its 38th year.

Only around 300 people compete in the festival’s main event, the “Human Resistance Test” each year. In order to “win” this event you need to stay out all night, from 9 p.m. the night before until 7 a.m. the next morning. Those who can stay outside in the cold the whole time, without leaving festival grounds, receive a certificate of completion.

Here are some of the “igloos”, otherwise known as “balloon apartments”, people sleep in. Although they are called igloos, they are really just structures made of ice. They do not provide participants with much warmth.

The only way competitors in the event can stay warm is to crowd around the festival’s large bonfire. The bonfire is called “The Fire of Life”, and it is built to last all night. There are also a few small fires around, but they burn out before the event finishes.

Around midnight, two participants get close to the fire to stave off the cold.
A man warms up his hands before the main attraction starts.

Before the “Human Resistance Test” starts, there are many activities for attendees to enjoy. They have games and ice slides for children and performances on the festival’s main stage. They also have food stands with different local and festival foods, and there is even an onsen.

Venison curry, sold at one of the festival’s food stands.

Everyone at the festival waits for the fireworks to start at 9 p.m. After the fireworks finish, the “Human Resistance Test” officially starts and most of the food stands pack away their leftovers. While many places do close, the main stage stays open to entertain the festival’s freezing participants. Also, ramen is later offered to attendees as a late-night snack.

People watch fireworks right before the “Human Resistance Test” kicks off.
Attendees compete in a popular contest, where people must quickly spin a wet towel until it freezes so that it can stand straight up. Whoever freezes their towel first, wins.

While I did stay on festival grounds, I lost the competition when it was time to sleep. I tried sleeping in the igloo, but after twisting and turning for hours, I could not stand the cold. Around 4 a.m. I moved into the small building next to the event stage and stayed there until the contest was over at 7. When I left, I felt super cold and tired, but I was still happy I had the opportunity to attend such an unusual event. Even though I lost, I was grateful for this unique winter experience in Hokkaido.

People from all over Japan come to experience the bitter cold in Japan’s coldest town. Are you brave enough to brace the cold?

Registration starts early and fills up very fast, so if you are interested in this event, keep an eye on the town’s event page. Festival Information.

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