Winter Light-up Festival: A Travelers’ Town Made of Snow in Shizu

Winter Light-up Festival: A Travelers’ Town Made of Snow in Shizu

Jackie Imamura

To enjoy winter properly, one must get into the snow. Literally. Here in Japan’s northeast, it’s been snowing since December, which means there is now enough accumulation (reaching over 5 meters) to start building things with snow. This is just what the fine people of Shizu do every year, recreating an entire historical lane of lodges—out of snow. You are invited to visit the “temporary town” during two weekends of winter night light-ups (February 23-25 and March 2-4).

In addition to the main snow lodges, you’ll find an igloo market where handmade crafts and local delicacies are displayed in shelving carved out of the snow walls.

The "ice bar", where you can drink your cocktails on seats of snow, is a particular favorite not only for the drinks, but also for its blue LED lighting that seems to transport you to a North Pole discotheque.

Snack on all manner of warm beverages and treats while enjoying the various live concerts and performances, and don’t forget to send the kiddos to the sledding station, because what’s winter without sledding?

Shizu was traditionally the gateway to Mount Gassan, providing the last lodgings for pilgrims and priests-in-training before they made their ascent up the sacred mountain. Shizu remains a popular way station for travelers going to Gassan to this day.

The small hamlet is equipped with several lovely ryokan whose on-site onsen take full advantage of the healing waters of local hot springs. This and the mountain views alone are reason enough to visit. The festival is just added fun. Enjoy the crunch of snow underfoot and the silence of white all around. The orange glow of the lights and the camaraderie of friends and strangers alike will make you forget—well, almost forget—the cold.

Several accommodations in Shizu specialize in northeast cuisine, taking full advantage of local wild mountain vegetables (山菜). Yamagata prefecture is also famous for its high quality rice, buckwheat noodles (soba), and sake.

Local wild mountain vegetables (山菜).
Tsutaya, one local ryokan that is striving to be a cultural center as well, offers soba making lessons: make your own noodles from the local (出羽香り) variety of buckwheat flour in the afternoon and eat the finished product for dinner.

Guided snowshoe trekking and back-country ski and snowboard packages are also available for the more adventurous—inquire with your accommodations.

The yuki hatago akari (雪旅籠灯り) or “Snow Lodge Light-up” Festival will take place in Shizu during six nights (February 23-25 and March 2-4) from 6-9 pm. Adult admission is just 500 Yen; children under middle school age are free. For more details, see the festival website.

How to Get There

From Tokyo, take the Yamagata Shinkansen to Yamagata station. Arrange with your hotel for a shuttle ride to Shizu, which will take about one hour. You can also take a bus from Yamagata to nearby Nishikawa, and arrange for a pick up.

Where to Stay

Shizu has several ryokan and hotels, some offer promotion packages for the festival. A complete list.