Top 5 Winter Events in Japan
By guest blogger, John Blagys
There is so much in Japan to explore and winter may be the best time to do it! With world-class skiing and unrivaled cultural experiences to be had, the Japanese winter season is a travel enthusiasts dream. Here are some of the amazing events happening this winter.
Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (Sapporo Snow Festival) January 31st – February 12th
Sapparo comes to life in the winter as the host of the world’s premier winter festival. 2 million visitors flock to the northern island of Hokkaido every year to take part in the festivities. There are several sites throughout the city but the main attraction is Odori Park which runs through the heart of Sapporo for 12 city blocks. The attractions here include massive snow sculptures (some 45 feet in height!), stages built of ice and snow with live music, half pipes for boarders and skiers, food, drinks, and so much more. The sculptures are illuminated in the evening until 11 PM creating breathtaking visuals and an intimate atmosphere. The festival is easily accessible from some of Japan’s most popular ski resorts including Niseko, Furano, and Rusutsu.
Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival January 17th
Those looking for a unique Japanese cultural experience should look no further. Nozawa Onsen is a Japanese ski resort approximately 3 hours west of Tokyo famous for its 30 free onsens (hot springs), powder snow, and Fire Festival.
While the Sapparo Snow Festival celebrates the season through cooperation and creativity, the Nozawa Fire Festival focuses on conflict and destruction. Each year villagers cut down trees from the mountain and create a massive wooden structure as a petition for the health and growth of firstborn sons. After a Shinto priest performs a ceremony blessing the structure, the fire-setting battle begins. Two groups of men square off; one group made up of 25 and 42-year-old men defend the shrine and the other groups wield torches and works to burn down the structure. The tower always burns but the whole spectacle can take up to 4 hours! But don’t worry, free warm sake is provided throughout the battle to keep spectators warm and happy.
The Free Ride World Tour January 19th-26th
The Free Ride World Tour, which is a worldwide circuit of freeride snowboarding and skiing with the best riders in the world competing on five of the most challenging alpine faces, will open its competition in the Hakuba Valley this year. Hakuba, which hosted the 1998 Nagano Olympics, is among the most popular ski destinations in Japan, boasting 11 resorts and over 30 feet of annual snowfall. January will be a great time to visit the valley as the competition and associated festivities combined with great snow conditions will leave visitors with plenty of options on and off the slopes.
Looking to experience mountain village life as it existed centuries ago? Shirakawa-Go is home to the best preserved gassho-zukuri farmhouses in Japan. These thatched roof homes were first built in the 18th century and were named gassho-zukuri as the locals believed they resembled hands clasped in prayer. Dozens of the homes are still standing today, and the entire village has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site.
During the following nights, the farmhouse will be illuminated creating a beautiful winter wonderland scene.
- January 14th
- January 20th
- January 27th
- Feb 3rd
- Feb 11th
- Feb 17th
Many of the homes have also been converted to family run bed and breakfasts and offer some of the most authentic traditional experiences available in Japan.
Tokyo (January 13th to January 27th)
A Trip to Japan is not complete without a stay in one of the world’s largest cities. The sprawling metropolis of Tokyo is home to world-class restaurants, museums, nightlife, and so many more experiences that could not possibly be packed into one visit. But if you’re traveling to Tokyo in winter you’re in luck because every January Tokyo hosts the Sumo Grand Tournament.
Watch as these giants of men collide over and over again for an entire day of unforgettable fun. The first matches begin at mid-day and continue until early evening with the most talented wrestlers appearing at the end. Enjoy your own food and drinks, take in the pageantry, and throw your seat cushion if you witness a major upset (this is technically prohibited but is a practice dating back centuries that is still common at sumo tournaments today). The tournament sells out quickly so be sure to buy tickets well in advance.
John is an American ex-pat who has lived in Japan for the past 4 years. He loves Japanese baseball, cycle touring and living in the mountains. John manages Hakuba.com, the one-stop-shop for everything Hakuba.