Winter Trips in Japan

Popular Snow Festivals/Ice Festivals

Sapporo Snow Festival, Hokkaido

The Sapporo Snow Festival, in Sapporo, Hokkaido is arguably Japan’s best-known winter festival. This event takes place every year in early February at venues all over Sapporo: dates for 2012 are February 6 to 12. Over two million visitors come to Sapporo for the festival, including about 50,000 tourists from abroad. The gigantic snow sculptures erected by Sapporo citizens and Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force can truly be considered works of art. Themes for structures at the 2011 Sapporo Snow Festival included musical Lion King, The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests(China) and an Nishi-Hongan-ji temple (Kyoto). The sculptures are illuminated at night, and the main street leading from the Sapporo rail station is all done up in lights.

A winter sports event organized in conjunction with the Sapporo Snow Festival takes places at the Tsu-dome, a sports facility in Sapporo’s Higashi Ward. The attractions there include sliding down an ice slide five meters high and 12 meters long, snow rafting and skiing on bamboo skis.

Access to the Sapporo Snow Festival

Odori site:
Immediate access from Odori Station on the Sapporo Municipal Subway
Tsu-dome site:
8 min. walk from Sakaemachi on the Sapporo Municipal Subway

Susukino site:
Immediate access from Susukino Station, Sapporo Municipal Subway

Asahikawa Winter Festival, Hokkaido

Asahikawa, well known as the site of Japan’s northernmost zoo, holds the Asahikawa Winter Festival from February 8 to 12. This festival’s snow sculptures are known for their size. For example, a sculpture representing Suwon Castle in the city of Suwon, Korea, had a volume of 103,591 m3 and was inscribed in the Guinness World Records as the largest snow structure in the world. The principal snow sculptures at this festival reputedly use six tons of snow.

In 2011, the subject of the principal sculpture was kachofugetsu—the beauties of nature. From its balcony four stories above ground, visitors have a panoramic view of the site.There’s a wealth of activities they can try: ice sculpting and snow sculpture making, snowball fights, cross-country skiing, riding a mini-train that runs on the snow, and so on. The World Ice Sculpting Contest is held at the same time. The competition attracts able ice sculptors from Japan and abroad, who vie for the title of “best ice sculpture.” The music and fireworks at the opening show are also powerful and thrilling, and the illuminated ice sculptures glowing softly in the night are not to be missed!

Access to the Asahikawa Winter Festival

Asahibashi site on the Ishikari River (main site):
Approx. 10 min. by complimentary bus from JR Asahikawa Station

Tokiwa-koen site:
Approx. 3 min. on foot from the main site

Shichijo-ryokudo site:
Approx. 5 min. on foot from the main site

Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan, Hokkaido

The Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan event, which takes place from January 28 to March 31 features an ice village built on frozen Lake Shikaribetsu, Hokkaido. Igloos, an ice lodge furnished with chairs, tables and beds, an ice bar with counters and glasses made of ice, as well as an ice theater and an ice hall, are built on the ice for the event. The open-air bath on the ice is a popular attraction too, and visitors soaking in the hot spring waters in the round tub, which, by the way, is the only thing that isn’t made of ice here. Come and visit this ice village and experience it for yourself.

Access to Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan

Approx. 1 1/2 hrs by Hokkaido Takushoku Bus from JR Shintoku Station to the Shikaribetsu-ko bus stop

Yokote Kamakura, Akita Prefecture

Kamakura, a typical winter sight in Akita, are snow domes created by hollowing out mounds of snow three meters high. Kamakura had originally been erected to worship Suijin, the god of water, at “little New Year,” a holiday celebrated on January 15. Inside the kamakura, the far wall has an altar to Suijin where coins are left as an offering to pray for happiness for the family, prosperity in business and an abundant harvest. For the Yokote Kamakura held in Yokote, Akita Prefecture, in mid-February, approximately 100 kamakura are erected throughout the city. Children in the kamakura call out to passersby to enter the kamakura and serve them amazake, a sweet, low-alcohol drink made from fermented rice, and grilled mochi rice cakes. The best thing about this local traditional observance is the warm hospitality of local residents. Sitting in a kamakura and chatting with local people is bound to be a heart-warming experience. The area is also dotted with countless mini-kamakura about 30 centimeters high. The lights shining from inside the kamakura brighten the dark winter night give a dream-like atmosphere. German architect Bruno Taut, who visited Yokote in 1936, described the scene as follows in his work A Rediscovery of Japan: “I had never seen anything so exquisite before, nor had I expected anything like this.”

Access to Yokote Kamakura

Kamakura sites (at various places in Yokote): convenient access offered by the circulating bus operated during the event

Tokamachi Snow Festival, Niigata Prefecture

The Niigata Prefecture town of Tokamachi, known for its heavy snowfall, is considered the originator of modern era snow festivals. It is famous for the artistic snow sculptures on display at its yearly Tokamachi Snow Festival. In 2012, this festival will run from February 17 to 19, featuring snow sculptures depicting various traditional Japanese gods displayed throughout the town. On the large stage made of snow, which made the Guinness World Records in 1982 for their size, erected for the occasion, women will model kimono made from fabric woven here, a local specialty, and there will be live singing performances. The grand finale of the event will be a fireworks display with the snow sculptures as a backdrop.

Access to the Tokamachi Snow Festival

Snow Carnival (Jogaoka Pure Land): about 25 min. on foot from JR Tokamachi Station Snow art, o-matsuri hiroba (festival squares): at various sites in Tokamachi

The winter events described here are just a brief outline of what goes on here during this season. So, bundle up, get outside and enjoy winter in Japan!

For information on winter events in Japan, go to:

Lots of Other Ways to Enjoy Snow Too

Winter usually brings to mind skiing and snowboarding. But Japan’s ski hills have lots of other activities for adults and children to enjoy too. Whether you’re a snow beginner or expert, you’re sure to experience the grandeur of nature in winter.

Snowshoeing is something that’s recently come into the spotlight in Japan. Snowshoes, as the name implies, are gear that makes it easy to walk on snow; many ski areas offer guide-led snowshoe tours. Making tracks in virgin snow, marveling at the frost-encrusted trees and untouched expanses of pristine snow, seeing wildlife such as kamoshika (Japanese serow) and hares, stopping for lunch atop the snow in the clear winter air—snowshoeing is a great way to enjoy the outdoors in winter at one with nature.

Cross-country skiing, which many people associate with sports competitions, is actually a great way to walk on the snow too. Walking at your own pace, stopping to take in the beautiful scenery or listen to birdsong—cross-country skiing is appealing because it offers more freedom than skiing and is faster than walking.

But if you want a more exhilarating experience than skiing, snowmobiling is it. Snowmobiles are small ride-on machines seating one or two persons, and snowmobiling is attracting growing interest as a sport. Many ski areas offer snowmobiling trails now too, and experiencing the thrill of zipping over the snow leaving a trail of fresh powder in your wake is something you might want to try.

At some ski areas, you can try snow rafting, riding on a raft or banana boat drawn by a snowmobile. This is something that young children, accompanied by adults, can enjoy too. Another amusement popular with kids and adults is snow tubing, riding a giant rubber tire or ring down a snowy slope. Faster than sledding, snow tubing offers quite a thrill.

Some ski hills offer kids-only slopes for skiing or sledding, so young children can enjoy outdoor winter activities there safely.

For a listing of Japan’s best-known ski areas, go to:

Surf & Snow:

My Winter Experience in Japan
The Warmth of Kamakura
Kim Song-yi, teacher of Korean, Korea

Akita Prefecture was one of the locations for a TV drama that was highly popular in Korea two years ago. Seeing the kamakura that appeared in a winter scene in the program reminded me of the pleasant warmth I experienced when I was inside one myself.

That happened when I visited Akita with a college friend who was from there, who took me to the Kamakura Festival organized by the city of Yokote. I had heard about kamakura before, but my visit to Akita was the first time for me to see an actual kamakura, a mound of hard-packed snow that stood taller than me.

Kamakura are created by hollowing out snow mounds to create space inside, but their pure-white color made them look soft and inviting. Children inside a kamakura called out, inviting me to enter, and served me amazake (sweet sake). Even though the roof and walls of the kamakura were made of snow, it was very warm inside, maybe because of the concentrated body heat in a small space protected from the elements.

kamakura, standing about 30 cm high, lining the banks of the Yokote River. Some of them contained candles that were lit at nightfall. The sight of myriad tiny yet warm-looking lights flickering in the dark was a breathtaking, magical experience.

Korea has cold winters and snow too, but kamakura are a uniquely Japanese enjoyment. My kamakura experience is an unforgettable memory of my winter trip to Japan.