Chasing Hokkaido’s winter festivals: A friend’s experiences
Mention the words “winter” and “Japan”, and one of the things that come to mind would be winter festivals. Just like I mentioned in the earlier part of this article, there are plenty of winter festivals to be found in the country, especially in Hokkaido where the cold season lasts long and plenty of snow falls.
Of the three I introduced, though the Kitami Genkan no Yakiniku Matsuri is not very well-known, both the Sapporo Snow Festival and Otaru Yuki-akari no Michi are, in part due to their ease of access, and also because of extensive promotion campaigns. These are definitely not the only ones worth visiting, though—as mentioned earlier, there is no lack of winter festivals and events to attend, with so many of them offering their own unique and interesting experiences!
Some of the other activities that can be experienced at other winter festivals—from left to right, an illuminated tunnel, an ice maze, live music performances in an igloo (top) and a bar carved out of ice where you can have a drink (bottom). (Image credit: Low Ka Wei, Bryan Tay)
Though I have been to Hokkaido in winter a few times, sadly only one of those trips coincided with the winter festival season…In order to find out more about the festivals one can visit, I asked a good friend of mine, Mr Low Ka Wei!
Just like all of us who frequent this page, Mr Low is an avid lover of Japan, and has made over ten trips to the country, having been to virtually all of the regions in the country. Even though we exchange notes about our trips to Japan and share with each other places we found interesting and would recommend to the other (he was the one who introduced me to Onneyu Onsen which I wrote about in one of my earlier articles), I am always fascinated by just how many destinations he manages to fit in on every trip he makes to Japan.
His last trip in February 2020 was no exception—he actually managed to squeeze in a total of 10 winter festivals! Just like most of us who love Hokkaido, his primary reason for visiting Hokkaido in winter was to experience the famed Hokkaido snow—but instead of heading straight towards the slopes of ski resorts like Niseko for winter sports, he decided to do a loop of as many winter festivals he could squeeze in on one trip. Here is the full list of festivals he and his partner attended, in order of visit:
- Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival (支笏湖氷濤まつりShikotsu-ko Hyōtō Matsuri)
- Jōzankei Yuki-tōro (定山渓雪灯路)
- Otofuke Tokachigawa Swan Festival Sairinka (おとふけ十勝川白鳥まつり彩凛花Otofuke Tokachigawa Hakuchō Matsuri Sairinka)
- Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan (しかりべつ湖コタンShikaribetsu-ko Kotan)
- Obihiro Ice Festival (おびひろ氷まつりObihiro Kōri Matsuri)
- MOO Ice Festival (MOO氷まつりMOO Kōri Matsuri)
- Sōunkyō Ice Festival (層雲峡氷瀑まつりSōunkyō Hyōbaku Matsuri)
- Asahikawa Winter Festival (旭川冬まつり Asahikawa Fuyu Matsuri)
- Sapporo Snow Festival (さっぽろ雪まつり Sapporo Yuki Matsuri)
- Otaru Yuki-akari no Michi (小樽雪あかりの道)
The frozen aquarium at the Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival. (Image credit: Low Ka Wei)
He very kindly and gamely agreed to be interviewed via email about his experiences for this article—below are some excerpts from the interview:
Q. Which of these festivals did you enjoy the most, and which would you recommend?
A: The Sapporo Snow Festival is the obvious choice, due to the sheer scale of the ice and snow sculptures, and the surrounding activities. We thought the Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival was pretty neat, especially the frozen aquarium. There are also fireworks on some nights, but we could not make that work in our plans. The Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan was magical. Do stay the night so that you can have a drink in an ice cup and listen to a concert in an igloo in the evenings. The Shikaribetsu Kohan Onsen Hotel Fūsui (然別湖畔温泉ホテル風水) lakeside hotel has stunning views of the festival—and if you're up for the challenge, the hotel also manages the bookings for sleepovers in an igloo.
Of the small ones, Jozankei Onsen Yukitoro with its candles in snow lanterns is truly romantic and highly recommended for couples. It's close to Sapporo, with frequent shuttle buses between the city and the event venue—but stay overnight in a ryokan if you can and enjoy the hot springs in this onsen town.
Colourfully illuminated tetrahedrons at the Otofuke Tokachigawa Swan Festival Sairinka. (Image credit: Low Ka Wei)
Q. In your opinion, what would be the best way to enjoy such festivals to the maximum?
A: Take your time to absorb the atmosphere. The major ones can also get crowded over the weekends, so plan your trip to coincide with the weekday. And, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, spend the night in the festival town to not only take advantage of the evening activities (which also tend to be less crowded after the bus tours leave), but also to enjoy the local cuisine and hospitality.
Ice candles at the Otaru Yuki-akari no Michi. (Image credit: Low Ka Wei)
As you may have rightfully guessed from his schedule, squeezing in all of these festivals was no mean feat for Mr Low, as he attests to in his reply to the following question I posed him:
Q. What were some of the difficulties you faced before/during this trip with regards to finding/visiting these festivals?
A: The organisers often decide on the exact dates of the festivals only a few months in advance. If you are planning far ahead, you would need to look up the dates for previous years' events and make educated guesses when this year’s would take place. Many of the small events are scarcely documented in English, so you need to understand basic Japanese. Due to Hokkaido being lowly populated, you would also need to keep an eye on the sparse train and bus schedules to make your connections work. At some places, it might be a good idea to rent a car from the train station to cover the last leg to your destination—a cab ride would be price prohibitive!
(Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
In the interest of full disclosure, Mr Low drove on his trip in February 2020, which was also part of the reason why he was able to cover so many winter festivals in a relatively short period of time.
Public transport in Hokkaido outside of the major city areas can indeed be sparse—even in some bigger cities like Asahikawa (旭川市Asahikawa-shi) and Obihiro (帯広市Obihiro-shi), non-limited express train services are one train per hour (or even less frequently), and bus services can be sparse, with only a handful running a particular route. That said, though, some of these winter festival sites do offer free shuttle bus services from/to the nearest station, or from/to hotels around the area, so with some clever planning, it is possible to visit quite a few of them entirely via public transport.
As a parting question, I asked Mr Low, a seasoned traveller to Japan, if he had any advice for those of you intending to visit these winter festivals once travel to Japan resumes:
The icebreaker ship I took when I went to see the drift ice at Abashiri. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
Q. Do you have any advice for people wishing to visit these festivals/attractions?
A: I've spoken a lot about the festivals. But I'll tell you a secret. if you look hard enough there are actually other fun things to do in the Hokkaido winter. Soak in the warmth of an outdoor onsen when the snow is falling. Go animal glamping and camp in style at the North Safari Sapporo where you can borrow a miniature pig for your cabin for the night. Go dog-sledding though the frozen countryside. Visit ruins of a railway bridge via a snowshoe hike at Lake Nukabira (糠平湖 Nukabira-ko). See the drift ice on an icebreaker ship. Drift a car on a frozen lake. And eat your way through the trip!
Drift ice in the glow of the setting sun. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
Mr Low’s recommendations for other things to do in winter are solid—and I can attest to his list, since I have done two of them myself! Icebreaker ship rides can be taken in either Abashiri (網走市 Abashiri-shi) or Monbetsu (紋別市 Monbetsu-shi) during the month of February, when winter gales and currents push the drift ice down from Siberia. Whether you are able to see drift ice (流氷 ryūhyō) (and whether you can even board the boats) is heavily weather-dependant, though—the first time I went I was able to do so, but the second time all boats that day were cancelled due to inclement weather at sea, which meant that all I did in Abashiri was walk about and eat (subpar) conveyor-belt-sushi before taking a 5-hour train ride back to Sapporo…
Looking up at one of the bridges of the former JNR Shihoro Line. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
On the other hand, the Kami-Shihoro (上士幌町 Kami-Shihoro-chō) area around Lake Nukabira is where the former JNR Shihoro Line (士幌線 Shihoro-sen) used to run through before it got discontinued in 1987—most of the bridges that were used then still stand, with many of them now declared as Registered Tangible Cultural Properties (登録有形文化財 Tōroku-yūkei-bunkazai).
Though not a snowshoe hike across the frozen Lake Nukabira to see the most famed of them all, Taushubetsu Bridge (タウシュベツ橋 Taushubetsu-kyō), I did go on a guided hike in early December with staff from the Higashi-Taisetsu Nature Guide Centre (ひがし大雪自然ガイドセンター Higashi-Taisetsu Shizen Guide Centre) to see a few of the other bridges, as well as to explore the rich nature of the area. As the hikes allow you to experience the history and flora and fauna of the Kami-Shihoro area up close, I recommend them for those of you looking for a more local experience!
Igloo-like snow houses at the Yokote Snow Festival. (Image credit: Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization)
Mr Low already has his sights set on the next few winter festivals to visit—he is thinking of those in the Tohoku Region (東北地方 Tōhoku-chihō), especially the Yokote Snow Festival (横手の雪まつり Yokote no Yuki Matsuri) in Akita (秋田県 Akita-ken). Snowfall in northern Tohoku rivals that of Hokkaido, yet the festivals remain largely unknown, quite possibly due to Tohoku not registering on most people’s radars as a tourism destination. I believe, though, that all of you readers of JR Times are keenly aware of all the magic and wonder the Tohoku Region has to offer all-year round, so do consider some of the winter festivals in Tohoku as well!
In this two-parter, I have introduced a few winter festivals, ranging from the well-known to the quirkier, as well as gotten a friend, Mr Low, to share his experiences in planning a trip to Hokkaido in winter centered around winter festivals, and how to make the best of your time while there. I hope that all of you, dear readers, have found a few festivals you would like to visit once travel to Japan resumes—I personally have, and cannot wait for the day I get to experience them in person again!
Header image credit: Kevin Koh