Winter in Hokkaido is long and frigid with a lot of snowfall. Even so, it never hinders the locals from embracing the season just as other parts of Japan do, and one of the things the locals like to do is participating in winter festivals.
Packed with fascinating events and activities such as fireworks displays, live performances, games, contests as well as food stalls that serve up belly warming delicacies, these festivals ensure that everyone is having a great time amid freezing temperatures. In this article, I will introduce you some of the famous winter festivals in Hokkaido.
Sapporo Snow Festival さっぽろ雪まつり
Snow sculpture inspired by Star Wars
Started small in 1950 with just six student-made snow sculptures at the Odori Park, the annual festival has now developed into the biggest winter festival in Hokkaido with more than 2 million visitors coming to Sapporo in February just to take part in the one-week celebration. In general, the festival takes place in three locations:-
Odori Park 大通公園 Focusing on snow sculptures, the highlight is undoubtedly giant snow sculptures crafted into shapes of prominent characters and famous buildings from around the world. It is also where the International Snow Sculpture Contest is held.
Even the stage for performances is made of snow
Susukino すすきの Focusing on ice sculptures instead of the ones made of snow, which look even more dazzling in evenings when the neon lights the entertainment district is famous for reflecting its lights off the crystalline structures. Also taking place here are the Ice Sculpture Contest and the Susukino Queen of Ice beauty Contest.
Tsudomu つどーむ Located about 10 kilometres away from Odori Park, the community dome is transformed into a playground with recreational facility made of ice and snow, including very large snow slides and snow rafting area. It is suitable for families with kids.
A good way to enjoy the Odori Park site is to go up the Sapporo TV Tower (720 yen) which commands a sweeping view over the park. Otherwise, come to the park a few days earlier to see the sculptures being made, or the day after the festival ends to see the majestic sculptures turn into a pile of snow in an instant. It is an alternative yet very popular way of enjoying the festival!
Otaru Snow Light Path Festival 小樽雪あかりの路
Being named as one of the great winter festivals in Hokkaido after Sapporo Snow Festival and Asahikawa Winter Festival, the Otaru Snow Path Light Festival is a 10-day celebration that takes place about the same time as its counterparts. The festival is arguably the best time to observe the iconic Otaru Canal, when the freezing surface of the river is decorated with glittery lights and the surroundings will be beautifully illuminated.
It sees the snowy port city especially around the Otaru Canal 運河会場 and the now-abolished Temiya railway line 手宮線会場 being lit up by thousands of snow lanterns and candlelight. Many adorable snow statues that line the walkways further add to the lovely atmosphere. Not just spectacular but also very romantic, it definitely makes a good location for Valentine celebration.
Asahikawa Winter Festival 旭川冬まつり
This festival is held simultaneously at two locations: Asahibashi Bridge and Heiwa Dori Shopping Street. The Asahibashi site is where the attendees can observe the snow structures including the massive, elaborate stage of snow sculpture that the festival is known for. The Heiwa Dori site on the other hand displays ice sculptures from the World Ice Sculpture Contest; visitors get to see how a few slabs of ice can be transformed into marvelous ice sculptures in 36 hours.
Taking place over a week in February around the same time as the Sapporo Snow Festival, this festival is comparatively less crowded but no less interesting given the effort put in to make sure the event is enjoyed by everyone. You can’t miss it if you are heading to Sounkyo for the Ice Waterfall Festival or to the eastern coast for drift ice viewing. Don’t forget to ward off the cold with a bowl of piping hot ramen which Asahikawa is famous for.
Sounkyo Ice Waterfall Festival 層雲峡氷瀑まつり
A picturesque gorge located in Daisetsuzan National Park, Sounkyo is known for its autumn foliage and freezing cold winter – as suggested by the name of the festival, the waterfalls in the area turn into giant popsicles during winter! Held from late January to end of March along the Ishikari riverbank, each year the festival would feature an impressive main building which looks like an ice castle. As you meander through the halls, caves, walls and tunnels made entirely from ice, you feel like you are in the world of ice, literally.
To fully enjoy the event, overnight stay at one of the hotels or ryokans in the nearby Sounkyo Onsen hot spring town is recommended, as the ice structures do look more magical in evening with the colourful light display. There are also fireworks at night on specific days.
Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival 支笏湖氷濤まつり
Held from late January to mid-February at the lakeside hot spring town of Shikotsu-ko Onsen, what is special about this festival is that the ice sculptures here are made from the water of Lake Shikotsu, Japan’s second deepest lake located in the Shikotsu-Toya National Park. The bluish-white colour of the ice structures perfectly highlights the unparalleled clarity of the lake water.
In the daytime, visitors can marvel at the ice structures while feasting their eyes on the views of Lake Shikotsu and Mt. Eniwa (it is scenery worth travelling for). Into the evening, the festival acquires a different atmosphere with colourful illumination transforming the site into a magical land. Come on the weekends and you will be treated to highlight events such as powerful Wadaiko performance and fireworks displays.
Keeping Warm is Important
With all the breathtaking scenery, activities and events to enjoy during the winter season, Hokkaido is surely a great destination for a winter holiday. But do take note, it gets very cold in winter, with minus 10 degrees Celsius and below is not uncommon in some areas. Look on many winter dressing guides available out there for an idea how to wear to keep warm during the winter months in Hokkaido.
One tip here is that you layer the clothes so that they are easy to put on and take off (you don’t want to get too warm inside the buildings and transportations with heating system). Also, don’t forget the waterproof winter boots. Dressing right would ensure that your winter trip in Hokkaido is a pleasant and an enjoyable one.