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8 Wonderful winter festivals to check out in Tohoku

8 Wonderful winter festivals to check out in Tohoku

Updated as of 26 December 2023
Originally published on 07 January 2022

 

When you think of winter, what comes to mind? For most people, the answer would be snow and cold weather. Due to its northern location and plentiful mountains, Japan’s northeastern region of Tohoku (東北) experiences a lot of snowfall, making the perfect place to enjoy a snowy winter wonderland!

 

Abundant in ice and snow, winter is celebrated through various festivals around the region, featuring snow sculptures, ice and snow creations, and illuminations lighting up the long nights. Daylight hours are shorter in winter, so creative and colourful illuminations help lift everyone’s spirits.

 

Map of festivals mentioned in this article. The events in Iwate (⑥ and ⑦) have since been permanently cancelled as of the most recent update (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Tohoku may be known for its energetic and exciting summer festivals, but its winter festivals are also spectacular in a different way. In this article, let’s check out the Tohoku Region and 8 of its wonderful winter festivals!

 

Aomori Prefecture

Hirosaki Castle Snow Lantern Festival

Snow lanterns and a snow wall at Hirosaki Castle Park. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)

 

Aomori Prefecture (青森県) is the northernmost prefecture in Tohoku, and experiences plenty of snowfall. Thus, it makes sense that it is home to many winter festivals, which bring joy in this freezing cold season filled with long nights.

 

Located in the western part of Aomori Prefecture, the city of Hirosaki is known for Hirosaki Castle Park (弘前公園 Hirosaki kōen), which is home to some of Japan’s most beautiful cherry blossoms. In winter, the park hosts another renowned event, the Hirosaki Castle Snow Lantern Festival (弘前城雪燈籠まつり Hirosaki-jо̄ Yuki-dо̄rо̄ Matsuri).

 

Hirosaki Castle Snow Lantern Festival. (Image credit: 青森県観光連盟 (top) and 東北観光推進機構 (bottom))

 

Started in 1977, the festival focuses on snow structures and illuminations, and was created to entertain residents and visitors through the cold and dark winter season. The snow lanterns are specially handcrafted by the locals, and are so well-made that at first glance you might even think they are stone lanterns covered in snow!

 

The festival also features large snow walls illuminated with neputa float designs, as well as projection mapping that uses snow sculptures as screens. With other sights such as mini igloos lit with candles, large snow sculptures replicating Hirosaki’s famous buildings, winter fireworks, and more, the festival attracts over 200,000 visitors each year, and is one of the Five Great Snow Festivals of Michinoku (みちのく五大雪まつり Michinoku Godai Yuki Matsuri), with Michinoku being an old name for Tohoku.

 

Hirosaki Park's snow-covered sakura trees illuminated with pink light at night. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)

 

Bonus: If you can’t make it during the festival dates, don’t worry, you’ll still be able to enjoy the snow and another special sight: “snow sakura”. Every spring, view of Hirosaki Castle Park’s 2,600 cherry blossom trees in bloom is one of the best in Japan. In winter, snow accumulates on the bare branches of the trees and on the moat below, and on every night from December to February, these trees are illuminated with pink light, making them look like sakura is blooming!

 

Hirosaki Castle Snow Lantern Festival (弘前城雪燈籠まつり)
Date: Early February, 2024’s edition is on 9-12 February.
Venue: Hirosaki Castle Park
Access: Take the Dotemachi Loop bus from JR Hirosaki Station (弘前駅) to Shiyakushomae Bus Stop, and walk 5 minutes to Hirosaki Castle Park.

 

Hachinohe Enburi Festival

 Hachinohe Enburi Festival. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)

 

Over in Hachinohe City (八戸市) on the eastern side of Aomori Prefecture is the Hachinohe Enburi Festival (八戸えんぶり), another one of the Five Great Snow Festivals of Michinoku. While the Hirosaki Castle Snow Lantern Festival is more of a display of snow and light to enjoy the winter, the Hachinohe Enburi Festival is more of a prayer to herald the coming spring season.

 

The Hachinohe Enburi Festival prays for abundant harvests in the coming year. (Image credit: 青森県観光連盟 (left) and 東北観光推進機構 (right))

 

The Hachinohe Enburi Festival has a history of about 800 years, and is known for its unique dances that are performed to pray for abundant harvests in the coming year. The dancers, known as tayu (太夫 tayū), wear brilliantly decorated, tall hats that resemble the shape of a horse’s neck.

 

The tayu perform a distinctive dance that features movements that represent farming actions, such as sowing seeds and planting rice. The unique Enburi dance is designated as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property. In between the tayu’s dances, adorable children perform Shukufukumai dances to delight the crowd.

 

Hachinohe Enburi Festival (八戸えんぶり)
Date: 17–20 February annually
Venue: Various locations around Hachinohe City, but mainly at the open square in front of Hachinohe City Hall
Access: Walk from JR Hon-Hachinohe Station (本八戸駅)

 

Lake Towada Winter Story Festival

The Lake Towada Winter Story Festival. (Image credit: 青森県観光連盟)

 

Finally, to round off my recommendations of winter festivals in Aomori is the Lake Towada Winter Story Festival (十和田湖冬物語 Towada-ko Fuyu Monogatari). Together with the previous two festivals, these three are Aomori’s top three winter festivals, so don’t miss them if you have the chance to visit.

 

Colourful lights and snow structures at the festival. (Image credit: 青森県観光連盟(left) and 東北観光推進機構 (right))

 

Along the shores of Lake Towada around the Yasumiya area, a special site is built to host this event, which lasts from early December to late February. Visitors can expect large snow sculptures, an igloo bar, banana boat rides, and even horse trekking. On the evenings of Saturdays, Sundays, and Public Holidays, traditional Japanese cultural performances, as well as a colourful fireworks display, are available for visitors to enjoy.

 

Lake Towada Winter Story Festival (十和田湖冬物語)
Date: February. 2024’s edition is on 2- 25 February. Closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays
Venue: Yasumiya area on the shores of Lake Towada, around Towada Shrine
Access: Shuttle bus from Towada City Centre.
*Portions of the event are ticketed

 

Akita Prefecture

Yokote Kamakura Festival

Kamakura are huts made out of snow. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Neighbouring Aomori Prefecture is Akita Prefecture (秋田県), another prefecture known for its snow and its cold. In particular, the city of Yokote (横手) experiences very heavy snowfall, and hosts the annual Yokote Kamakura Festival (横手の雪まつり Yokote no yuki-matsuri), also one of the Five Great Snow Festivals of Michinoku. Held annually on 15–16 February, the Yokote Kamakura Festival is a festival dedicated to the water deity, and has a history of over 450 years.

 

Featuring an array of fun activities, the festival shines a spotlight on kamakura (かまくら), which are snow huts/igloos. Inside each kamakura is an altar made of snow, where people can pray to the water deity. Around 100 kamakura are erected around the city, and there are many events to be enjoyed during the festival.

 

Enjoy the beautiful display of mini kamakura, or try your hand at making your own. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)

 

The Yokote Kamakura Festival also features mini kamakura which are illuminated with candles at night, creating a magical atmosphere, especially if it snows. Something unique about this festival is that visitors can even experience building their own kamakura snow huts!

 

Yokote Kamakura Festival (横手の雪まつり)
Date: 15–16 February annually
Venue: Various sites around Yokote City, including the Yokote City Hall Main Government Office, Yokoteminami Elementary School, Yokote Castle
Access: Walk from JR Yokote Station (横手駅)

 

⑤ Namahage Sedo Festival

Namahage Sedo Festival. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Over in the Oga Peninsula (男鹿半島 Oga Hantо̄), there’s another unique festival that is also one of the Five Great Snow Festivals of Michinoku. The Namahage Sedo Festival (なまはげ柴灯まつり Namahage Sedo Matsuri) is held on the second Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of February each year at Shinzan Shrine (真山神社 Shinzan Jinja), and like Aomori’s Hachinohe Enburi, traditionally prays for good rice harvest for the coming year.

 

Namahage are ogre-like deities that visit during the New Year to remind children to behave, adults to be hardworking, and to not be lazy. As part of a folk custom, villagers dress up as namahage and go around the community to caution people. This practice was designated as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2018.

 

Namahage Sedo Festival. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構 (left) and Akita Prefecture (right))

 

The Namahage Sedo Festival combines the folk custom of namahage with Shinto blessing rituals. A highlight of the festival is the majestic namahage dance performed in front of the bonfire. The fierce namahage costumes, vigorous dance moves, and blazing warm fires create a truly exciting atmosphere. It is said that to appease the namahage, you should offer them grilled mochi (餅 rice cakes), so don’t forget to have some on hand and offer them to the namahage if you get up close to one!

 

Namahage Sedo Festival (なまはげ柴灯まつり)
Date: February. 2024’s edition is 9-11 February.
Venue: Shinzan Shrine
Access: Paid bus service from JR Oga Station (男鹿駅). The bus only operates during the festival dates.

 

Iwate Prefecture

Segment removed due to permanent cancellation of events

 

Yamagata Prefecture

Uesugi Snow Lantern Festival

Snow lanterns line the path to Uesugi Shrine. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)

 

Although Yamagata Prefecture (山形県) in located in southern Tohoku, due to its being surrounded by mountains, some areas also experience high snowfall, in particular the snowy Yonezawa City (米沢市). Here you can find the Uesugi Snow Lantern Festival (上杉雪灯篭まつりUesugi Yuki-dо̄rо̄ Matsuri), which is held every year on the second Saturday and Sunday of February.

 

Uesugi is synonymous with Uesugi Kenshin, a powerful warlord who ruled in the mid 1500s. He is enshrined at Uesugi Shrine at Matsugasaki Park (松が岬公園 Matsugasaki Kо̄en), which is where the Uesugi Snow Lantern Festival is held. The Uesugi Snow Lantern Festival gives thanks to ancestors who built the foundation of peace for the region, and to pray for them to keep watching over the region.

 

Snow lanterns and snow lamps at the Uesugi Snow Lantern Festival. (Image credit: photoAC (top) and 東北観光推進機構 (bottom))

 

During the festival, you can enjoy the sight of around 300 large snow lanterns (雪灯篭 yuki-dо̄rо̄) and 1,000 smaller snow lamps (雪ぼんぼり yuki bonbori). The sight is especially beautiful and enchanting at night, when candles are lit inside the lanterns and lamps, and their warm orange glow illuminates the cold and dark night. Visitors can even try their hand at making their own candles and lighting them inside a snow lamp around the venue.

 

Uesugi Snow Lantern Festival (上杉雪灯篭まつり)
Date: Typically in February. 2024’s edition is on 10,11 February
Venue: Uesugi Shrine and around Matsugasaki Park
Access: Take the city loop bus (clockwise direction) or shuttle bus from JR Yonezawa Station (米沢駅)

 

Miyagi Prefecture

Sendai Pageant of Starlight

Sendai Pageant of Starlight. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)

 

Compared to the other prefectures in Tohoku, Miyagi Prefecture (宮城県) does not experience as much snowfall, so its iconic winter event focuses mainly on lights—hundreds of thousands of them. Sendai, Tohoku’s largest city, hosts the Sendai Pageant of Starlight (SENDAI 光のページェント Sendai Hikari no Pējento), a fantasy-like illumination event in the heart of the city.

 

Stunning illuminations of the Sendai Pageant of Starlight. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)

 

Every December for around two weeks, the zelkova trees (欅 keyaki) along Jozenji-dori (定禅寺通り Jо̄zenji-dо̄ri) are covered with around 600,000 LED lights that illuminate the entire area. It’s a magical experience walking through the avenue under the lights, creating a romantic atmosphere.

 

Sendai Pageant of Starlight (SENDAI 光のページェント)
Date: Typically in December. 2023’s edition is 8-25 December
Venue: Along Jozenji-dori
Access: 1-minute walk from Kōtōdaikōen Station (勾当台公園駅) on the Sendai Subway Namboku Line

  

Fukushima Prefecture

Ouchijuku Snow Festival

The Ouchijuku Snow Festival is held on the second weekend of February. (Image credit: 福島県観光物産交流協会)

 

Ouchijuku (大内宿 Ōuchijuku) is a former post town along the Aizu-Nishi Kaido trade route. Located in the western part of Fukushima Prefecture (福島県) and surrounded by mountains, this area receives high snowfall in winter, and the town's old-style buildings have thick thatched roofs (茅葺屋根 kayabuki-yane) to guard against this. The scenery here is most stunning in winter, when the town is blanketed in thick, fluffy snow.

 

Every year, on the second Saturday and Sunday of February, visitors can look forward to the Ouchijuku Snow Festival (大内宿雪まつり Ōuchijuku Yuki Matsuri), which showcases handmade snow lanterns placed along the streets of the town.

 

Enjoy taiko drum performance, fireworks, snow lanterns, and more. (Image credit: 福島県観光物産交流協会)

 

On Saturday, fireworks are set off, creating a magical atmosphere against the background of snow-covered huts. During the festival, you can also enjoy taiko drum performances, and check out competitions like the period costume competition and the noodle-eating competition.

 

Ouchijuku Snow Festival (大内宿雪まつり)
Date: Typically in February. 2024’s edition is on 10 and 11 February.
Venue: Ouchijuku
Access: Bus ride from Aizu Railway Yunokami Onsen Station (湯野上温泉駅)

 

Getting around

If you are thinking of visiting some of these wonderful winter festivals, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), which can save you a lot on rail travel. If the dates align, you can visit multiple festivals in one trip. If you’ve noticed, many of these festivals are held in February, which is often considered the peak of winter. Do check out Part 2 of this series, where I will introduce fantastic winter illumination events and festivals in the Shinetsu Region!

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are going around the Tohoku Region to enjoy its wonderful winter festivals, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥30,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Hirosaki (~¥36,000). You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

 

Header image credit: 東北観光推進機構

 

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