The Sapporo Snow Festival is an amazing experience, but there are plenty of other spectacular winter festivals in Japan. The north of Japan is filled with celebrations in the colder months — with sculptures, fire-cleansing, and snow slides making appearances in places like Akita, Nagano, and everywhere in between.

As well as seeing incredible creations, you can combine your trip with some skiing or soaking in onsen towns. Read on to learn about Japan’s top winter festivals and how to reach them from Tokyo, with or without a rail pass.

1. Sapporo Snow Festival

February
2 hours 30 minutes from Tokyo
Hokkaido

Ice sculpture of a building at the Sapporo Snow Festival
The world-famous snow Festival in Sapporo, Hokkaido. | Photo by iStock.com/mu_mu_

The Sapporo Snow Festival is one of Japan’s biggest events, and by far the most famous festival in the north. Taking over Hokkaido’s capital city for a week each February, it has three sites filled with incredible snow sculptures, light shows and snowy activities, along with plenty of food stalls to keep you fueled. Visitors can admire the intricate creations crafted by teams from around the world, as well as enjoy live performances and interactive elements too.

The Odori Park and Susukino sites have been used consistently to display sculptures, and after a brief Covid-hiatus, the Tsudome site is making a welcome return in 2024, with snow-activities for all ages.

Since the festival takes place in the heart of Sapporo, you can see some of the city’s sights at the same time, with the Sapporo Beer Museum, famed clock tower and markets galore, not to mention exploring Sapporo’s incredible food scene.

Getting to the Sapporo Snow Festival

The quickest way to reach Sapporo from Tokyo is to fly to Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport. The flight time is 1.5 hours, and then it’s just under 40 minutes on the train to Sapporo. Look at low-cost carriers like Airdo, Peach and Jetstar for cheap tickets.

If you want to take in the sights, the bullet train will take you from Tokyo all the way up to Shin-Hakodate, where you can hop onto a Limited Express to Sapporo. The journey takes between 7-8 hours and costs nearly ¥28,000 one way though, so we can’t really recommend it unless you have a JR Pass. Check out our full guide on travel from Tokyo to Sapporo for tips on getting a through-ticket discount — plus some bus and ferry options!

2. Zaō Snow Monster Festival

December to February
3 hours 30 minutes from Tokyo
Yamagata

Zaō’s “snow monsters”. | Photo by iStock.com/kororokerokero

During heavy snowfall, the trees covering the slopes of Zaō Snow Village take on unusual shapes, becoming juhyōsnow monsters. In the evenings from late December to February, the monsters are illuminated. You can see them from the Zao Ropeway (¥3,800 return), which doubles as the ski lift.

The town also has a great selection of onsen to try, so this is an excellent weekend getaway if you are looking for some sport and onsen action to go with your festival.

There are also a few special events during the Zaō Snow Monster Festival. From 8 p.m. on Saturday, February 3 you can watch as around 1000 skiers and snowboarders make their way down the Uenodai Slope, carrying LED lights as they slide and jump through the air.

Getting to the Zaō Snow Monster Festival

The nearest transit hub for Zaō is Yamagata, which is a stop on the Yamagata Shinkansen. The journey from Tokyo takes 2 hours and 45 minutes and costs around ¥11,250. From Yamagata, catch a bus, which costs ¥1,000 each way and takes 40 minutes, onwards to Zaō Onsen Bus Terminal. The line runs roughly hourly; full timetable here.

You can also reach Zaō Onsen via direct bus from Sendai during the event period. The bus departs daily at 8 a.m. from bus stop no. 76 (outside the east exit) and arrives at 9:25 a.m., give or take a minute or two. The return bus leaves Zaō Onsen at 4:30 p.m., giving you a full day out. Reservations can be made online here (in Japanese only).

Train travel between Tokyo and either Yamagata or Sendai is covered by the countrywide Japan Rail Pass, as well as by several regional rail passes from JR East. Both visitors and foreign residents alike can take advantage of JR East’s Tōhoku Area Pass, which covers travel to Yamagata.

3. Nozawa Fire Festival

January 15 every year
2 hours 30 minutes from Tokyo
Nagano

One of Japan’s three great fire festivals, the Nozawa Fire Festival is a spectacular sight with towering flames surrounded by snow. A shaden (shrine) is built from local trees, which villagers carry through the town before construction. The local Kosuge Shrine sends a priest to bless the structure and endow it with a dōsojin, a god who protects travelers. The festival is also known as the Nozawa Onsen Dōsojin Matsuri.

Then, on the 15th of January each year, a battle takes place, culminating in the shaden being set alight with burning torches. The ages of 25 and 42 are considered unlucky for men in Japan, therefore it is these ages who stand against the festive fire-lighting.

Sake is handed out and locals revel in the celebrations late into the night, so staying local is key if you want to join in! Accommodation in the area fills up fast, so be sure to book early if you want to attend (Chouchinya and Lodge Matsuya are some decently priced and centrally located options). Or consider staying somewhere nearby like Myōkō and getting a shuttle to the event.

Getting to the Nozawa Onsen Dōsojin Matsuri

From Tokyo, catch the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Iiyama Station (1 hour 45 minutes). From there, hop on the bus to Nozawa Onsen VIllage — it takes around 30 minutes and costs ¥600. Alternatively, you can take the JR Iiyama Line to Togari Nozawa Onsen Station, and then take a 10-minute taxi ride.

The whole journey from Tokyo costs approximately ¥9,500. The Shinkansen journey is covered by the Japan Rail Pass, as well as JR East’s Nagano & Niigata Area Pass.

4. Tadami Snow Festival

Second weekend of February
4 hours from Tokyo
Fukushima

A small town hosting a big festival, Tadami is well known across the region for its snow celebration featuring fireworks, ice sculptures, and more. The main sculpture rivals those seen at the Sapporo Snow Festival in size and grandeur.

There is a competition for local sculptors, who have only 20 days to create their masterpieces before judging takes place. At night, the main sculpture is illuminated and a fire-cleansing ritual takes place to alleviate misfortune and pray for good health. There is also a Shintō dance in the snow that sees men carry a portable shrine through the celebrations. You can also expect music, dance performances, food stalls, and a fireworks show to end each evening.

Getting to the Tadami Snow Festival

Tadami is in eastern Fukushima Prefecture, near the border with Niigata. To reach Tadami Station from Tokyo, take the Jōetsu Shinkansen to Echigo-Yuzawa or Urasa, where you can change for the JR Jōetsu line for Koide. At Koide, transfer to the JR Tadami line for Tadami Station. The total journey takes anywhere from 3 to 5 hours (depending on transfer time) and costs around ¥10,000. The Tadami Line in particular runs infrequently.

The whole journey is covered by the Japan Rail Pass, as well as by several regional rail passes offered by JR East. The Tokyo Wide Pass, which costs ¥15,000 for 3 days of travel, also covers the Shinkansen journey to Echigo-Yuzawa.

Note: The festival site is in front of Tadami Station.

5. Otaru Snow Light Path Festival

Early to mid-February 
30 minutes from Sapporo
Otaru, Hokkaidō

Otaru Winter Illuminations
Photo by iStock.com/Sean Pavone

This once-small festival has been growing ever since it began in 1999, now attracting over 500,000 visitors each year. This is partly due to the magical displays of candle-lit snow, but also due to it being held around the same time as the Sapporo Snow Festival. And Otaru is only a 30-minute train ride away from Sapporo.

There are a variety of displays in two main areas and then countless private ones that join together to light the town as a whole. Schools, community groups, and even businesses (like KFC!) create displays that range from adorable to terrifying. The town’s central canal, one of the main spots, is covered with floating candles. The other main spot is the former Temiya Railway line, where there is a snow tunnel and plenty of great photo spots.

If you’re keen to try a hot spring to warm up in the cold, you can head out to Asarigawa Onsen Town, which has its own light displays along the river, as well as plenty of nice warming baths available.

Otaru itself is a wonderful place to explore, and the festival atmosphere is fantastic. From the very dangerous-looking but extremely fun snow slides (do it, trust us) to the German beer halls, this is a community-driven festival that’ll welcome you with open arms.

Getting to the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival

From Sapporo, Otaru is an easy 30-minute, ¥1,590 limited-express train journey on the JR Hakodate line. (Or a 45-minute local train ride that costs ¥750). Traveling from Tokyo, it can be cheaper and quicker to fly to Sapporo than to use the train system — check our Tokyo to Sapporo transport guide for details on getting between the two cities.

Pro tip: A Sapporo–Noboribetsu Area Pass from JR Hokkaidō covers rail travel — including travel on limited-express trains — between New Chitose Airport, Sapporo, Otaru, and Noboribetsu Onsen over four days, for ¥9,000.

6. Kamihinokinai Paper Balloon Festival

February 10 every year
4 hours from Tokyo
Akita

The original purpose of the Paper Balloon Festival in Akita was to pray for a good rice harvest by releasing balloons, beautifully decorated and covered in wishes. The festival dates back to the Edo period; however, these days, the wishes aren’t limited to bountiful grain.

Some balloons are as tall as eight meters and require a small team to engineer their successful release into the night sky. A second release follows with smaller lanterns covered with personal wishes on them (since the larger ones tend to be covered in businesses’ hopes). The balloons are all made with paper and sealed with glue made from rice. You can find some decorated with colorful depictions of famed characters. Exactly two months before the festival, people from all eight districts of the town join together to make the balloons.

It is recommended that you arrive before 5 p.m. to see the full event and to have an opportunity to write your own wish on one of the balloons. There are food stalls selling local specialties, as well as drinks in the park.

Getting to the Kamihinokinai Paper Balloon Festival

Catch the Akita Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kakunodate (3 hours), and switch to the Jukan Railway to take you to Kamihinokinai Station, from where it is a 5- to 10-minute walk to the main festival area.

The final 40-minute journey on the private Jukan Railway is not covered by any rail passes, and costs ¥780. However, you can use a JR Pass or either a Tōhoku Area Pass or a East–South Hokkaidō Pass from JR East to cover the Shinkansen journey. The full journey would cost around ¥17,800 one-way without a rail pass.

7. Yokote Kamakura Snow Festival

February 15 to 16 every year
3 hours 30 minutes from Tokyo
Akita

Yokote Snow Festival (Kamakura)
Photo by Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization

Kamakura, in addition to being a popular day trip from Tokyo, means something like “snow hut” in Japanese — and that’s exactly what you’ll find at this winter wonderland festival in northern Japan. With a history dating back over 450 years, the Yokote Kamakura Snow Festival features dozens of snow structures throughout the city, each containing a snowy altar for people to pray to the water deity.

The main spots are at the Kamakurakan Hall, which is open specially for the festival and is found just past the Janosaki Bridge. The river also has a stream of glowing miniature kamakura and the local elementary school has a great display, too.

Local residents will be cooking rice cakes on charcoal grills and serving up warming amazake (a traditional non-alcoholic drink made from rice) to keep everyone toasty. There will also be some creative snow sculptures and traditional food stalls around the Kamakurakan Hall, so that’s a great place to start your tour!

Getting to the Yokote Kamakura Snow Festival

You can reach Yokote Station quite easily from Tokyo; it takes about 3 hours 30 minutes to 4 hours, depending on transfer time. Take the Akita Shinkansen to Ōmagari Station (3 hrs and 15 mins) before changing to the local JR Ou line for the final 15-minute journey to Yokote. The whole trip costs approximately ¥17,350 one-way, but is completely covered by the countrywide JR Pass as well as the Tōhoku Area Pass and the East–South Hokkaidō Pass from JR East.

FAQs: All you need to know about snow in Japan

Still have questions? Is each as individual as a snowflake? Hopefully not, but we’ll do our best to answer them anyway.

Ski lifts at Niseko with Mt. Yotei in the background
Niseko’s Mt. Yōtei resembles Mt. Fuji. | Photo by Keattisak A/iStock/Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

How cold does it get in Japan?

Japan is a long country, with everything from ski resorts to tropical islands, so this depends heavily on where you are. In Hokkaido (the nation’s northernmost island) the average temperature in January is -2°C (28°F), whereas in Tokyo, it ranges from 2°C (35℉) to 10°C (50°F). If you branch down to Osaka and Kyoto, you’ll have daily averages of around 5°C (41°F), whereas in tropical Okinawa you can enjoy a mild average of 15°C (59°F).

Does it snow in Japan?

Japan definitely sees snow, and the famous snow-capped Mt. Fuji is just the start. While Hokkaido and northern Japan see the most consistent snow (from late November to March), the capital Tokyo may only see a few days of snow each year. In Kyoto and Osaka, it can snow often; however, it rarely sticks, meaning you’ll only get around 3-4 chances to see the postcard version of Kinkakuji Temple.

Where does it snow in Japan?

The majority of northern Japan has reliable snowfall throughout winter, but for the rest of Japan, it depends on the lay of the land. Mountainous regions as far south-west as Shikoku and Hiroshima see snow most years, and even the city of Fukuoka on Kyushu has occasional snow. While Tokyo only sees snow a couple of times a year, with around 5-10cm (2-4 inches) to play with, neighboring areas like Fuji, Nagano, and Niigata have enough for smaller ski resorts (check out our list of ski resorts near Tokyo if you fancy a trip).

What winter holidays are celebrated in Japan?

Japan has a host of traditional (and less so) holidays and festivals in winter. Christmas has been adopted and takes on a more symbolic couples theme, with Christmas Eve and Christmas Day being major for dates and even proposals. New year in Japan sees the tradition of the first shrine or temple visit (called hatsumode), special symbolic dishes called osechi ryori, and sending New Year’s cards called nengajo. A little later in February, there’s Setsubun, a day where throwing beans at demons offers you good luck for the year. If you’re looking for more local festivals, check out our guide to the best winter festivals in Japan.

What is the biggest winter festival in Japan?

Known worldwide, the Sapporo Snow Festival is undoubtedly the biggest winter festival in Japan. Check our number 1 listing above for more details and make sure you book early as hundreds of thousands visit each year! The nearby Otaru Light Festival (mentioned above) is only half an hour away and adds a whole new area to explore.

While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change. This post was originally published in December 2017. Last updated: December 2023.

Get the best Japan Cheapo hacks direct to your inbox