It’s getting cold, and it seems winter is finally upon us.
Soon, we’ll all have the heating turned up full, snuggled under our blankets, with a hot drink in one hand and our TV remote in the other. Going outside, venturing into the cold will probably be the furthest thought from our minds.
And yet, if you are in Japan this winter, and you choose to stay at home, out of the cold, you’ll be missing out on some of the very best festivals and events that this great country has to offer.
Great arts, great food and great music and dance: just some of the highlights of Japan’s great winter festivals. Here are my personal top 5.
1. Miyajima Oyster Festival, from February 10th
I’ve spoken before about the beauty, majesty and sheer romance of Miyajima, the stunningly picturesque island just outside Hiroshima City, in southern Japan. With its wild deer, quaint little souvenir shops, great restaurants and of course the amazing red gate on the sea that has framed so many holiday pictures for visitors to Japan down the years, Miyajima is a great place to visit anytime of the year. However, my favourite time is in early February, where I can indulge my twin passions: great sightseeing opportunities and even better seafood!
Photo: jam_232 on Flickr
The Oyster festival offers a unique opportunity to taste these delicious shellfish outside of their usual summer season. Best enjoyed flame grilled with a dash of the local rock salt, this is a festival you won’t want to miss!
2. Yokote Kamakura Snow Festival, from February 14th
So, you’ve done the romantic dinner, you’ve done the hot spring retreat and you’ve even taken your beloved on a short break in the Okinawan sunshine.
If you now find yourself running out of good Valentine’s Weekend date ideas, then why not head to the small town of Yokote, in Akita Prefecture in Northern Japan.
Photo: By (社) 横手市観光協会
The centrepiece of this festival is the beautiful little, igloo-like, small houses that are built by the locals for the duration of the festival. These temporary homes only last for about 2 days, but as a visitor you can be assured of a warm welcome, as you are invited to partake of hot sweet rice wine and other local delights with the local people.
Akita was one of the first places I visited when I had my first trip to Japan 11 years ago, and I can personally attest to the fact that the people of Akita are some of the warmest, most sincere and welcoming people you will ever meet. The Yokote Festival is one of the highlights of Japan’s long, cold winter.
3. Sapporo Snow Festival, from late January/early February
Ever since I first saw ice sculptures being created in one of my favourite comedy movies, 1993’s Groundhog Day, I’ve always been amazed at the beauty and precision with which these artists can create such memorable artworks from something as simple as a block of ice. Well, in Sapporo, usually at the beginning of February each year, they take it a step further. Instead of ice, they use the one natural resource that Sapporo is unlikely to ever run short of:: snow! And lots of it!
Photo: Akinori YAMADA on Flickr
The festival made the national news back in 2015 when a Star Wars collage formed the centrepiece of the display.
It remains to be seen what will form the main attraction at this year’s festival, but its sure to be something unforgettable. And besides, while you are there, if you’re the alpine type, why not have a go at some skiing or snowboarding while you are there. There are few better places in Japan for winter sports than Sapporo.
4. Tokamachi Snow Festival, from late February
Sapporo may have the most famous snow sculpture festival in Japan, but Tokamachi has its own snow festival that dates back more than 60 years. The festival is, undoubtedly smaller in scale than its larger Sapporo based counterpart. The different atmosphere lends the festival a decidedly more intimate setting, with members of the local community coming together to make the sculptures the best they can possibly be.
Photo: celiaintokyo on Flickr
The Tokamachi Snow Festival is not just a symbol of how beautiful winter in Japan can be. It also serves as an example of the amazing sense of camaraderie that exists in small cities in Japan, and the amazing sense of loyalty and common purpose that the people there have for each other.
Photo: nAok0 on Flickr
5. Dosojin Matsuri on January 15th
Winter in Japan doesn’t necessary need to be cold, and there’s no greater demonstration of this point than the Dosojin Matsuri. Anyone who has ever attended a traditional November 5th bonfire back in the UK will have a fair idea of what is going on here.
The rationale behind the festival itself is, as is often the case in Japan, is a little obtuse.
Photo: U-ichiro Murakami on Flickr
Traditionally, in Japanese culture, the numbers 25 and 42 are considered to be rather unlucky. So, men of those ages in the town could be said to possibly bring bad luck upon the local populous. So, how do the villagers dispel this bad luck? With an almighty cleansing fire of course!
The local men in question, those aged either 42 or 25, all gather together in the days leading up to the festival and construct a massive wooden structure which is then set alight on the night of the festival. As a visitor, you can sit back, enjoy some excellent street food, and heartwarming sake as you enjoy the bonfire with the locals. Truly this is a festival to warm the heart in even the coldest winter!