The best winter festivals Japan has to offer
Whether you’re a skier or snowboarder, or have a penchant for festivals and onsen, winter in Japan has you covered
- June 2018
It may not boast the prettiness of spring or the blaze of brilliant colour that heralds autumn, but there is more to winter in Japan than epic dumps of powdery snow (although there’s no shortage of the white stuff if that’s what you’re seeking). Though its neon lights shine as brightly as ever, winter lends a magical, almost otherworldly enchantment, proving that Japan really is a country for all seasons.
With some of the most reliable and heavy snowfall in the world, Japan’s 500-plus snow resorts offer skiers and snowboarders plenty of powder, world-class facilities, affordable prices, onsen (restorative natural hot springs) and an atmosphere that lures visitors from all over the world.
But you don’t have to be a ski enthusiast to fall under the spell of Japan’s winter. If cultural immersion, nabbing a bargain, colourful festivals and some of the world’s best food are your thing, winter really is the season to be jolly – at least in Japan.
A visit to Nagano prefecture’s Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park is a must-do while visiting Japan. Located about an hour from Nagano Station, gateway to some of Japan’s most popular ski-resorts, the sight of cheeky snow monkeys (Japanese macaque) frolicking in the hot springs is an absolute delight.
Getting to the monkey’s pools does require a hike, about 30 minutes through frozen forest from Kanbayashi Onsen to the park’s entrance, so it’s best to leave the Louboutins behind.
Get it onsen
Onsen can be found both indoor and out, and are particularly popular at snow resorts for a soak after a long day on the ski fields. While slipping naked into a public outdoor bath surrounded by snow may sound a little foolhardy (not to mention carrying with it a high risk of shrinkage), the sensation of extreme cold and heat on the body is exhilarating, and as the Japanese believe, restorative.
For this quintessential Japanese winter experience, it is important to follow appropriate onsen etiquette. Getting all your gear off is compulsory (large towels and bathers are generally not permitted) and you will be expected to shower thoroughly before entering the baths. You may take a small onsen towel in with you, but not into the pools – do as the locals do and balance it on your head instead.
’Tis the season
Rather than hibernating during the colder months, some towns are transformed with a little ice magic, others come alive with light and colour – you’ll quickly discover Japan loves a festival. While Christmas isn’t a special religious holiday in Japan, celebrations do take place on Christmas Eve and the decorations are spectacular. In Tokyo, huge Christmas trees and dazzling light installations are a common sight, so grab a bucket of the Colonel’s finest and enjoy the show. It might be hard to believe but feasting on KFC is a Japanese Christmas tradition so join the locals noshing on takeaway chook.
Shogatsu (New Year), however, is a national festival, the highlight of which is hatsumode, the first Shinto shrine visit of the Japanese New Year. Hatsumode festivities occur at practically every shrine and temple across Japan and popular shrines such as Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine and Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari attract more than a million visitors during the first three days of the New Year, which are public holidays. The atmosphere is electric but if you’re not keen on rubbing shoulders with the hordes, perhaps leave a visit until the festivities have died down.
It’s worth noting that while visiting over the New Year can be loads of fun, it can come at a cost as many attractions, shops and restaurants are closed for a few days over the holidays, often from around 29 December to 4 January.
Fire and ice
Don your beanie and join the party at Hokkaido’s seven-day celebration of the white stuff, the Sapporo Snow Festival. During the festival in early February, elaborate snow sculptures and enormous ice carvings line the centre of Sapporo. There’s also an epic amusement zone with giant ice slides and snow tubing.
Scheduled to coincide with the Snow Festival, The Otaru Snow Light Path is worth the 45-minute side trip from Sapporo as Otaru’s pretty canal transforms into a wonderland of glowing lanterns and sculpted snow. Hokkaido offers plenty of alternative off-piste activities including ice fishing. Take a break from the festivities to dangle a line into a frozen Barato River to catch smelt, which your guide will turn into tempura. Many operators host fishing tours between January and March, but Hokkaido Nature Tours will custom-design a tour just for you.
A visit to the Yokote Kamakura Snow Festival in Akita is like wandering into the pages of a Japanese fairy tale. For two daysin mid-February, small candlelit kamakura (ice houses), each containing an altar with rice wine and daifuku (glutinous rice cake filled with red bean paste) offerings for the water gods, line Yokote’s streets. The locals may even lure you in for a taste and how could you say no to a dish worthy of a deity?
If you prefer your festivals on the warmer side, Dosojin Matsuri (15 January) will warm your cockles. During this cleansing ritual (said to dispel evil spirits), the 25- and 42-year-old men (unlucky ages) gather to build an enormous wooden structure. A sake-sozzled mob then takes to it with flaming torches as the rest of the village watches on. If you’d rather warm up without the risk of getting flambéed, get your gear off and leap into one of the town’s steaming outdoor hot springs.
For something a little more explosive, though equally sake-fuelled, time your visit to coincide with Dontoyaki Snow Hanabi Matsuri Fireworks Festival in Suginohara or the Dosojin Fire Festival in Nozawa (15 January).
If all that fire and ice doesn’t appeal, a bellyful of oysters might. Miyajima Oyster Festival is held on pretty Miyajima Island in Hiroshima Prefecture (11-12 February). Restaurants and stalls showcase a multitude of fresh oyster-infused dishes, but don’t stop until you’ve devoured one of the sublime noodle-stuffed okonomiyaki pancakes, adorned with oysters.
Winter is also snow crab season, with December and January the peak time for crab consumption. Delicately sweet, the snow crab is best devoured in simple dishes to savour the flavour. You’ll find the delicacy throughout Japan but Sapporo is a standout, with many of the restaurants alongside the local fish markets serving up snow crab as sushi and sashimi, or fried, steamed or boiled.
The hotpot reigns during winter with shabu-shabu and sukiyaki, dishes of thinly-sliced meat and vegetables in a steaming broth, the most popular. It’s also worth trying oden, their cheaper cousin, an addictive convenience store alternative of eggs, daikon, konjac, and fishcakes in dashi broth.
Another favourite is chanko-nabe, a stew eaten in vast amounts by sumo wrestlers. Healthy when eaten in moderation – as opposed to the quantities sumo scoff to maintain their prodigious waistlines – chanko-nabe restaurants are gaining in popularity. In Tokyo’s Roppongi, visit a sumo-beya training house to catch the sweaty athletes in all their loincloth-clad glory, then hit up a chanko-nabe restaurant for a little sumo training of your own.