Japan's Northern Festivals Of Fire And Ice

5 December 2016

If you’re planning a visit Japan’s most northern island, the chances are good that you’re going in search of winter. Hokkaido is righteously famous for the fluffy powder snow that blankets the higher reaches of the island prefecture with dazzling consistency, and locals celebrate their frosty blessing in ways that include more than just skiing. Schedule your trip in around one of these sister festivals to add a touch of unique magic to your ski escape!

Otaru Snow Light Path Festival - Otaru Yuki Akari No Michi 

Otaru Canal during the lantern festival Photo: Getty Images

This gorgeous celebration of fire and ice is located in Otaru, just a one hour drive from Sapporo and two from Niseko. A historical fishing port complete with cobbled streets and a famous music box shop, Otaru is the perfect gallery for the festival’s wintery masterpieces.

Snow is patted, rolled and coaxed into ingenious shapes, and illuminated from within by tealight candles. The concept is simple, but the effect of the glowing snow lanterns set along a path of strolling winter wanderers will transport you straight into the realm of fairytales.

 

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The iconic Otaru Canal is studded with hundreds of twinkling lights, and a stroll along its banks will reveal more imaginative snow lanterns. From houses to animals to good old fashioned lanterns, local and international artists contribute their own snow renderings to the glowing parade.

The canal walk, or Unga Kaijo is the main point of interest, but the Temiyasen Kaijo area between the canal and the train station is a more intimate pathway of light. Local and international artists claim their own section of the display, but local businesses also get into the spirit of things, with even the local KFC boasting a kerbside display. It’s not unusual to stumble upon a private snow lantern garden on the outskirts of town.

 

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Know before you go: Yuki Akari no Michi 2017 will be held between 3rd - 12th February, and accommodation books up quickly, particularly over the weekend dates. Another tip for international travellers - it gets colder than you can imagine, so be sure to rug up so you can enjoy a leisurely stroll. There is plenty in the way of festival food and drink stalls, and seafood lovers will be in heaven.


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The Sapporo Snow Festival - Sapporo Yuuki Matsuri

Sapporo aerial shot during snow festival Photo: Getty

Sapporo’s biggest winter event started in 1950, when local high school students built six statues and displayed them in Odori Park in the heart of the city. Much to their astonishment, a huge crowd turned out to see them, and thus the yearly celebration was born.

In 1955, the Japan Self Defence Force joined in with a massive snow sculpture, and set the tone for what the festival has become today; a mind boggling display of gigantic snow creations.

The festival theme usually honours an important happening or trending event from the year before; last year’s event boasted a giant Star Wars tribute, which crawled with costumed storm troopers during the regular, live shows. There was also a gorgeous display celebrating the connection of the Hokkaido Shinkansen line, and a giant Park Air jump, where skiers and snowboarders tried their tricks in front of an appreciative crowd.

Each year, several of the giant sculptures are further enhanced with projections of pictures and animations that make the snow come to life in an awe-inspiring show of colour and movement.

Know before you go: 2017’s Sapporo Yuuki Matsuri is to be held from 6th - 12th February. Needless to say, early accommodation booking is essential. Once again, international travellers are urged to dress warmly, and enjoy the many food stalls that offer intriguing Japanese street food. Be sure to check the schedule of events and incorporate the light shows into your itinerary, and don’t forget to check out the ice sculptures in Susukino!


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Emma Lee

Emma is a travel writer and blogger living in Brisbane, Australia. She followed the snow around the world for many years, and still considers Lake Louise Ski Resort her happy place. Emma's other passion is food; a love that has led her down many sketchy looking alleys in Asia, South America and Europe.