4 Essential Winter Experiences in Japan
Japan is famous for its cultural engagement with, and contemplation of, the natural world, so it will come as no surprise to know that winter in the land of the rising sun is celebrated like nowhere else on earth. There are dozens of winter festivals and events scattered all over the northern part of Honshu and and northernmost Island of Hokkaido, all of which are made easy to access with the JR Pass. This week, we take a look at four essential experiences to seek out if you’re in Japan over the winter months.
Sapporo Snow Festival
In early February, ice sculptors from around the world travel to Sapporo to create enormous, elaborate sculptures out of ice and snow.
Located at Odori Koen in the centre of the city, the sculptors compete across a wide range of categories including large scale replicas and artistic sculptures, as well as child friendly designs. Other festival attractions include concerts, activities, and local food vendors.
Sapporo can be accessed by taking the Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station, and then taking the Hokuto line to Sapporo Station.
Yokote Kamakura Snow Festival
Every February for the last 400 years, the residents of Yokote in Akita prefecture have built 3-metre-high snow dome houses called Kamakura to worship the water god Suijin. Running over just two nights, the Kamakura become a beacon of hospitality, with children inviting passers by into their Kamakura in order to serve them amazake (a fermented rice drink) and grilled mochi. In addition to the hundred or so full sized Kamakura, the town is also dotted with innumerable mini kamakura, each lit inside with tiny lights which create a fairytale atmosphere.
From Tokyo Station, Yokote can be accessed by taking the Akita Shinkansen to Omagari Station and then taking the Ou Line to Yokote Station.
Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan
A more modern (but no less exciting) event over wintertime is Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan, where visitors come to stay in a temporary ice village built over the frozen lake each winter season.
The igloo shaped buildings are built out of compressed ice and include lodges, an ice bar lounge, and an ice chapel. Other features of the village include an outdoor hot bath, an ice maze, and an ice movie theatre.
There are also plenty of activities including cross country skiing, nature walks in the surrounding woods, and snow mobile hire, as well as ice cup and ice sculpture making classes.
The northern island of Hokkaido can be accessed by taking the Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station, and then taking the Hokuto line to Sapporo Station. From Sapporo, the best way to reach Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan is by local bus.
Plum Blossom viewing
When the weather is grey and miserable, the hardy plum trees (ume) bloom in fragrant hues of pink, red and white. Plum blossom viewing parties have a long tradition stretching back to the 7th century and it is considered quite an elaborate affair, with people even donning kimonos to visit popular viewing spots. Kairaku-en in Mito (Ibaraki prefecture) is one of the best places to view the plum blossoms, as the park boasts over 3,000 plum trees and hosts the annual Japanese Plum Festival (ume matsuri) between February and March.
From Ueno Station in Tokyo, Mito can be accessed directly by taking the Hitachi-Tokiwa Line to Mito Station
The best way to take in Japan’s wintertime celebrations is using the JR Rail Pass. Choose unlimited travel on the JR network for 7, 14, or 21 days and enjoy quick, easy access to the snow-clad wonderlands of northern Honshu and Hokkaido.