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Walkin’ in a winter wonderland: Winter festivals in Hokkaido

Walkin’ in a winter wonderland: Winter festivals in Hokkaido

Winter is a wonderful season to be visiting Japan in, with all the snow and various ways to keep warm, ranging from foods like nabe (鍋 hotpot), to outdoor hot springs where one can bathe and admire the falling snowflakes at the same time. One of my favourite things about winter in Japan is the kotatsu (コタツ), that ingenious invention of attaching a heater to a table and throwing a blanket over—I cannot count the number of times I have stretched out with my legs within intending to take a short break, only to find myself waking up two hours later because of how cosy it is! It is all too easy to see why eating mikan while in a kotatsu is the quintessential image of winter in Japan.


Another thing that I enjoy about winter in Japan is the countless number of winter festivals that entertain both locals and tourists. This is especially true of Hokkaido (北海道), where the cold season lasts longer than in other areas of Japan, and tourism is centred mainly around summer and winter. Read on to find out more about some of the winter festivals you can find in Japan, ranging from the traditional to the more exotic!


Sapporo Snow Festival: The grand dame of them all

Ōdori Site

The Ōdori site of the Sapporo Snow Festival as seen from the viewing deck of the Sapporo TV Tower. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)


When one mentions winter festivals in Hokkaido, it would be criminal to not mention the most famous of them all—the Sapporo Snow Festival (さっぽろ雪まつりSapporo Yuki Matsuri)! So grand it is that it is spread out over three venues within Sapporo (札幌市 Sapporo-shi), each with its own main feature.


The outdoor skating rink at the Ōdori site lit up in pink. (Image credit: Bryan Tay)


The main venue, the Ōdori site (大通会場 Ōdori-kaijō), is spread over the entirely of Odori Park (大通公園 Ōdori Kōen), a huge park spanning 1.5km in length that was originally designed to be the main street of Sapporo, but later got converted into a park in the post-war years. To walk from one end of the park to another, visitors must cross pedestrian crossings between the 13 blocks that make up the park, and the events of the Sapporo Snow Festival are divided between these blocks. For instance, the first block right next to the Sapporo TV Tower (さっぽろテレビ塔 Sapporo TV-tou) features an outdoor skating rink brightly lit up in rainbow colours where one can skate away to one’s heart’s content, while taking in the beautiful view of the illuminations and the Sapporo city lights at night. 


Sculptures made by Team Singapore. The one on the left was taken in 2013 and titled “Saving Gaia”, while the one on the right was taken in 2020 and titled “XYZ Star”. (Image credit: Kevin Koh / Bryan Tay)

There is also a ski jump slope where one can watch jumpers compete in various events such as ski jumping and snowboarding, as well as a whole assortment of snow sculptures in all sizes made by teams not only from Japan, but from various countries all over the world as well. Imagine my surprise when I saw a snow sculpture made by a team from Singapore! (I wonder where they practised, and what they used in place of snow…)  


A snow slide for young children at the Sapporo Snow Festival. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)


There is also an open-air food court in the middle block where one can sample all sorts of Hokkaido delicacies including seafood and Genghis Khan (ジンギスカン), the trademark barbecued lamb dish of Hokkaido, as well as a corner featuring Snow Miku (雪ミクYuki Miku), the “sister” of famed digital singer Hatsune Miku (初音ミク) and whose conception came about from a snow sculpture of Hatsune Miku created in the 2010 festival. With so many things to see and do at the Ōdori site, it will take you an entire evening just to experience everything in the park!


Sapporo Snow Festival Ōdori Site (さっぽろ雪まつり大通会場)
Period: Typically 1–12 February annually (For 2022, it will be held between these two dates)
Address: 7 Ōdori-nishi, Chuo-ku, Sapporo, Hokkaido 060-0451
Nearest station: Ōdori Station (大通駅) / Sapporo Station (札幌駅)
Access: Right outside Ōdori Station / 15-minute walk from Sapporo Station
Tel: +81-11-281-6400

Writer’s note: The telephone number given above is for the organising committee of the Sapporo Snow Festival.


Susukino Site

A very detailed ice sculpture on display at the Susukino venue. (Image credit: Low Ka Wei)


Within walking distance from the Ōdori Site is the Susukino Site (すすきの会場 Susukino-kaijō), situated in the Susukino District, a bustling nightlife area with many eateries and drinking holes. Perhaps as a nod to all the ice being used at the F&B venues in the area, the theme of the Susukino Site is ice, with many ice sculptures and carvings on display, and even an ice slide that both children and adults can enjoy! 


Fish and other seafood in ice, courtesy of Sushi Zanmai, a large conveyor belt sushi chain. (Image credit: Bryan Tay)


Perhaps the most head-turning (and perhaps even controversial for some) display at the Susukino Site, though, would be the “fish ice” (魚氷 sakana-gōri), an ice aquarium of various types of fish frozen in blocks of ice. The spectacular display, first started in 1984, was meant as a homage to the many varieties of seafood that could be caught in Hokkaido, including salmon, atka mackerel, crabs, and others. In years with warmer winters, though, it does get cleared away before the end of the festival period if it starts to melt, so whether you get to catch it or not (bad pun intended) depends on when you visit!


Sapporo Snow Festival Susukino Site (さっぽろ雪まつり すすきの会場)
Period: Typically 5–12 February annually (Cancelled in 2022)
Address: Minami 4-jo Nishi 4-1, Chuo-ku, Sapporo, Hokkaido 064-0804
Nearest station: Susukino Station (すすきの駅) / Hōsui-Susukino Station (豊水すすきの駅) / Sapporo Station (札幌駅)
Nearest tram station: Susukino Station (すすきの駅)
Access: Right outside of Hōsui-Susukino Station, Susukino Station, and Susukino Tram Station / 20-minute walk from Sapporo Station
Tel: +81-11-518-2005

Writer’s note: The telephone number given above is for the Susukino Tourism Association.


Tsu Dome Site

Fireworks at one of the event stages at the Sapporo Snow Festival. (Image credit: Bryan Tay)


For those interested in more than colourful lights and sculptures and would like to play in the snow, head over to the Tsu Dome Site (つどーむ会場Tsu Dome-kaijō)! The outdoor venue features snow slopes which one can slide down on a rubber float, and even a golf course in the snow for those who want to try something a little different! If you are cold or need a break, head over to the indoor venue inside the dome, which houses a rest area with a few food and drink stalls, as well as a stage with live performances. For energetic kids who still wish to play while their parents take a breather, there are also indoor attractions like inflatable playgrounds, mazes and even Japan’s largest inflatable slide for them to enjoy themselves, so there is definitely something for everyone at the family-friendly Tsu Dome Site!


Sapporo Snow Festival Tsu Dome Site (さっぽろ雪まつり つどーむ会場)
Period: Typically 1–12 February annually (Cancelled in 2022)
Address: 885-1 Sakaemachi, Higashi-ku, Sapporo, Hokkaido 007-0852
Nearest station: Sakaemachi Station (栄町駅)
Access: 15-minute walk from Sakaemachi Station
Tel: +81-11-281-6400

Writer’s note: The telephone number given above is for the organising committee of the Sapporo Snow Festival.
Just as with this year, there will be an online component to the 2022 edition of the Sapporo Snow Festival running from 5–28 February 2022more details about the online component, including the URL of the page, will be revealed at a later date. 


Access to Sapporo

To get to Sapporo by train from Tokyo, take the Hokkaido Shinkansen (北海道新幹線) to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station (新函館北斗駅 Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto-eki), and transfer to Limited Express Hokuto services to Sapporo Station. The whole journey takes 8 hours in total. Alternatively, if you’re flying into New Chitose Airport (新千歳空港 Shin-Chitose Kūkō) via domestic flights from Haneda Airport, there are frequent rapid services between New Chitose Airport Station (新千歳空港駅 Shin-Chitose Kūkō Eki) and Sapporo Station that take around 40 minutes. The Sapporo Municipal Subway (札幌市営地下鉄 Sapporo-shiei-chikatetsu) can be accessed via the Sapporo Subway Station that is connected to JR Sapporo Station.


Otaru Yuki-akari no Michi: A quieter, more intimate experience

The entrance to the Temiya-sen Site of the Otaru Yuki-akari no Michi. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)


For those who would like to get away from the hustle and bustle of Sapporo and prefer to enjoy a winter festival that is a little quieter and a little more intimate, how about the Otaru Yuki-akari no Michi (小樽雪あかりの路)?


Most of you would have heard of Otaru (小樽市 Otaru-shi) as a popular day trip from Sapporo. However, Otaru is just as charming at night, when the dark, still waters of the canal reflect the lights of the lampposts, not unlike stars in the night sky. This is especially so during the period the Yuki-akari no Michi is held, when the city is lit up with special illuminations, including the canal, the lights draped across it making it look like the Milky Way.


Otaru’s famed canal, with lights draped over it. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)


Just as with the Sapporo Snow Festival, Otaru’s is held at a few venues across the city, although its compact size means that almost all of the venues are within walking distance from each other. This makes it possible to cover the festival entirely on foot, and within a relatively short period of time as well.


The snow candles making for a very romantic backdrop... (Image credit: Kevin Koh)


As the name Yuki-akari (雪あかり snow light) implies, a major highlight of the Otaru Yuki-akari no Michi is snow candles, formed by placing candles inside little snow domes, known as kamakura (かまくら), to form lamps that emit a soft glow, almost as if they were emanating warmth. Just like at the Sapporo Snow Festival, these domes are made into different shapes, and there are also many small snow sculptures and snowmen accompanying them. Unlike the Sapporo Snow Festival, though, where machines are involved in the making of the huge sculptures, those at the Otaru Yuki-akari no Michi are all handmade, which further adds to the warm and homely atmosphere surrounding this particular winter festival. 


Wax bowls lit up and on display. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)


If you have a little time to spare during this festival, why not try your hand at making a wax bowl of your own? Although I did not have the time to on my previous trip (the process takes an hour or so), I did have a look at the procedure—balloons are dipped in melted wax and left to cool for the wax to harden, before the balloon is popped and removed. Once the bowl has formed, one can decorate it with the provided dried autumn leaves and flowers, and your very own personalized wax bowl is complete! 


The wax bowl is used as a candle holder, and there are quite a few on display at the wax bowl creation venue, so you can have a look and decide how you would like to personalize your own bowl before giving it a go. The wax bowl is yours to keep once it is completed, so it also makes for a unique souvenir of your trip to Hokkaido, or as a very special gift for that particular someone!


The entrance to one of the venues for the Otaru Yuki-akari no Michi, with ice blocks carved into shapes and decorated with dried flowers and leaves. Note the date on the ice panel—it is changed everyday! (Image credit: Kevin Koh)


Apart from the snow lights and illuminations, there are also various other events happening during the course of the festival, such as live performances at the Otaru City Museum of Art (市立小樽美術館 Shiritsu Otaru Bijutsukan) and various venues around the city, and stargazing at the Otaru Museum (小樽市総合博物館 Otaru-shi Sōgō Hakubutsukan), so why not extend your stay in Otaru for a few more hours and enjoy an evening in the canal city, plus partake in its intimate snow festival?


Otaru Yuki-Akari no Michi (小樽雪あかりの道)
Period: Typically for a week in early/mid-February (For 2022, the Otaru Yuki-Akari no Michi has been shortened to over a weekend from 11–13 February.)
Address: 1-15-14 Ironai, Otaru, Hokkaido 047-0031
Nearest station: JR Otaru Station (JR小樽駅)
Access: 7-minute walk from Otaru Station
Tel: +81-13-432-4111 (ext. 7267)

Writer’s note: The address given above is for the Temiya-sen Site, one of the main venues for the festival. 


Access to Otaru

Otaru is around 50 minutes from Sapporo via local trains, or around 35 minutes via Rapid Airport trains that continue on to Otaru from New Chitose Airport Station.


Kitami Genkan Yakiniku Matsuri: BBQ in sub-zero temperatures!

All smiles at the entrance of the Kitami Genkan no Yakiniku Matsuri grounds! (Image credit: 北見市観光振興室 観光振興課)


Sure, winter illuminations and all are spectacular, but there are only so many lights one can look at before they all start blurring into one—this is especially true for seasoned travellers, who are presumably on the lookout for something a little more unique, an experience a little different. There are plenty of such winter festivals in Hokkaido that offer something else apart from snow sculptures and candles, and one particular festival in Kitami City (北見市Kitami-shi) may just be what you are looking for!


Meat and onions being grilled on the provided charcoal stoves. It’s a test of one’s patience… (Image credit: 北見市観光振興室 観光振興課)


Just like how Yamagata Prefecture has the most ramen shops per 100,000 citizens, and Nagano Prefecture the most soba shops, Kitami City in the Okhotsk Subprefecture (オホーツク総合振興局 Okhotsk Sōgō Shinkōkyoku) in Eastern Hokkaido is also well-known for the number of yakiniku (焼肉) restaurants it has per 10,000 citizens—coming in third in the most recent nationwide ranking and losing only to Ishigaki City in Okinawa and Iida City in Nagano. 


The festival venue, smoky from the fumes emanating from the charcoal grills. (Image credit: JAきたみらい)


One reason why yakiniku is said to be so popular in Kitami is because there used to be an abattoir right behind Kitami Station (北見駅 Kitami-eki), meaning that fresh meat and offal could be obtained easily and cheaply, leading to the proliferation of yakiniku restaurants in Kitami. In addition, offal is exceptionally cheap compared to pork, which also promoted the consumption of innards like intestines and liver as a commoner’s food, further boosting the popularity of yakiniku. Personally, though, I also like to think part of why yakiniku is so popular in Kitami is due to the city’s bountiful harvest of onions, that quintessential vegetable found in all vegetable sets ordered when at yakiniku!


And here in Singapore we complain that 20 degrees is cold… (Image credit: JAきたみらい)


But perhaps the most interesting way to savour this local delicacy would be at the Kitami Genkan no Yakiniku Matsuri (北見厳寒の焼肉まつり)! Held in the depths of winter in early February, what makes this festival so unique would be that it takes place in the open at night, when ambient temperatures drop to -10˚C! So cold it is that the dipping sauce for the meat sometimes freezes over in its foil saucer, and one ends up eating their yakiniku with dipping sauce slush!


The meat, onions and other things you get when you exchange your ticket at one of the booths at the venue. (Image credit: 北見市観光振興室 観光振興課)


The festival is definitely a sight to behold, though, with families and friends gathered around charcoal grills chatting and laughing while grilling meat and drinking alcohol, the smoke from the charcoal grills rising into the air, and the smell of grilled meat all around.


Though the price for the entrance ticket to the festival may seem a little steep at ¥2,000 yen, it does come with 300g of cut meat, as well as Kitami’s famed onions and even a souvenir of pre-packaged soup mix, making it quite worthwhile. In addition, included in the price is all-you-can-drink shōchū oyuwari (焼酎お湯割り), shochu mixed with hot water, perfect for the frigid temperatures and guaranteed to warm you up from the inside.


If you have good local meat, pair it with a good local drink! Maple Hotty is an alcoholic drink by Okhotsk Beer served hot, guaranteed to warm you up in the cold . (Image credit: 北見市観光振興室 観光振興課)

For those of you who want extra meat, there are also booths selling cut meat and other foods like onigiri, as well as other alcoholic beverages, so you do not have to worry about running out of food and drinks at this festival! There is also a stage with live performances by local singers to keep you entertained while you wait for your meat to be cooked, though I would presume most people are too busy looking at their grills to ensure their meat is done just right to pay attention to the stage events… (At least, I know I would be!)


Try not to leave your drinks out for too long, though, lest this happens… (Image credit: JAきたみらい)


Every year, around 2,000 tickets for the festival are sold, and they are all quickly snapped up by both locals and tourists, making this a festival you must plan for in order to attend, but enjoying yakiniku outdoors in winter is a novel experience that will remain in your memories for a long time afterwards!


Kitami Genkan no Yakiniku Matsuri (北見厳寒の焼肉まつり)
Period: Typically on the first weekend of February (For 2022, the Kitami Genkan no Yakiniku Matsuri will be held on 4 February.)
Address: 1-3-22 Izumi-chō, Kitami, Hokkaido 090-0811
Nearest station: JR Kitami Station (JR北見駅)
Access: 3-minute walk from Kitami Station
Tel: +81-15-732-9900

Writer’s Note: The address given above is for the Kitami Arts & Culture Hall, the festival venue, while the telephone number given above is for the Kitami Tourism Association. Due to the COVID-19 situation, tickets to next year’s festival are priced much higher than in normal years (¥10,000, but each tickets allows for up to four people to enter, plus 400g of meat will be included), fewer of them are being sold (240 in total for a maximum of 960 participants), and only people residing in the Okhotsk Subprefecture will be allowed to purchase tickets.


Access to Kitami

Kitami is a 4.5 hour ride on the Limited Express Okhotsk from Sapporo (2 services a day). Alternatively, take the Limited Express Lilac to Asahikawa (旭川) and transfer to the Limited Express Taisetsu (2 services a day).



(Image credit: Low Ka Wei, Bryan Tay)


Even though winter in Hokkaido is perhaps synonymous with skiing, there are a plethora of other activities to do, and places to explore. The same goes for winter festivals—though those in Sapporo and its surrounding regions are stunning, there is a whole world of snow and ice to be discovered beyond the biggest city in Hokkaido, so do keep an eye out for winter festivals off the beaten track, and you will be rewarded richly with all the experiences offered by these festivals!


Header image credit: Low Ka Wei, Bryan Tay


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