The Sapporo Snow Festival is amazing to experience, but there are plenty of Japan winter festivals to enjoy—from burning rituals to paper lanterns, there are some unique celebrations to see this winter!

Japan winter festivals
Photo by Daita Saru used under CC

The north of Japan is filled with celebrations in the colder months—with sculptures, fire-cleansing and snow slides making appearances from Akita to Nagano and everywhere in between. As well as seeing incredible creations, you can combine your trip with some skiing or soaking in onsen towns if you choose them right! Here are some of the top alternative Japan winter festivals:

Nozawa Onsen Dosojin Matsuri

Nagano  |  January 13th – 15th  |  120 minutes from Tokyo

Photo by U-ichiro Murakami used under CC

One of the three great fire festivals in Japan, the Nozawa Fire Festival is a spectacular sight with towering flames surrounded by snow. The shrine is built from local trees and villagers carry them down through the town before constructing the shaden. The local Kosuge Shrine sends a priest to bless the structure and endow it with a dosojin, a god who protects the foreign travelers.

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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, therefore it is the village’s men of these ages who must participate in 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—or consider staying somewhere nearby like Myoko and getting a shuttle to the event.

Getting to Nozawa Onsen Dosojin Matsuri

From Tokyo you can catch the bullet train to Iiyama and from there hop on the local Iiyama line for Togarinozawa Onsen which takes 10 minutes. The journey costs just under ¥9,000 and is covered by the Japan Rail Pass.

Iwate Snow Festival

Iwate  |  Feb 2nd – Feb 11th  |   190 minutes from Tokyo

Taking place at Koiwai Farm in Morioka, this is one of Tohoku’s biggest snow festivals and is attracting growing numbers of visitors each year. Almost 4,000 people have carefully crafted snow statues and domes as well as a huge snow slide and snow train. There are food stalls and a great chance to try local specialties like milk-ramen to warm up as well as meeting the locals as you settle down to eat in one of the many kamakura (snow domes). In the evenings there will be a fireworks, music and illuminations—book a spot at a local onsen guesthouse so you can enjoy the festival without worrying about catching the last train back!

Getting to Iwate Snow Festival

Catch a train from Tokyo to Shizukuishi  with a change at Morioka—the second train is under 2 minutes and the whole journey is covered by the JR Pass.

Zao Snow Monster Festival

Yamagata  |  Feb 1st – 3rd  |  210 minutes from Tokyo

Zao Snow Monsters
Photo by 8ware used under CC

The snow monsters may not be exactly what you’re expecting, but they are undeniably impressive, covering the mountains with shadowy figures in the winter months. During heavy snowfall the trees take on unusual shapes and become juhyo, the backdrop for an impressive and unusual snow festival on the snow slopes of Zao Snow Village. On the Saturday evening of the festival you can watch as hundred of skiers and snowboarders make their way down the Uenodai slope carrying burning red torches as they slide and jump through the air. Mascots follow and the event ends with an impressive firework display. The monsters are illuminated in the evenings of Late December to Early March and you can take the ski lift up whether you are a skier or not—it costs ¥2,600 return. The town also has  a great selection of onsen to try, so this is an excellent weekend getaway if you were looking for some sport and onsen action to go with your festival.

Getting to Zao Snow Monster Festival

From Tokyo you can travel for just under 3 hours to reach Yamagata either via Sendai or direct (covered on the JR Pass). From Yamagata you can catch a bus to Zao Onsen bus terminal which costs ¥1,000 each way and run roughly each hour between 6:50am and 6:55pm with an 8pm bus available on weekdays.

From Sendai Station (East Exit Bus stop 76) there is a daily bus to Zao Onsen between Dec 21st and March 17th leaving at 8am and arriving at 9.40am. The return bus leaves Zao Onsen at 4:30pm and this route does accept reservations by phone although it has to be in Japanese.

Hirosaki Castle Lantern Festival

Aomori   |   Feb 8th – 11th  |  400 minutes from Tokyo  

Photo by Shinya Ichinohe used under CC

Another of the five great Tohoku snow festivals, Hirosaki Castle is brightly lit and surrounded by snow figures for a magical weekend of snow-filled festivities. Take a chance in the giant snow slide and explore the tiny kamakuras and snow sculptures that surround the castle. they are all crafted by locals and the Ground Self-Defense Force to bring joy to visitors and the community in the harsh winter, and are exceptionally creative! In the evening candles are lit and projection mapping takes place against the vast snowy creations, bringing them to life. The illuminations take place from 4:30pm until 9pm  and the light mapping happens every half hour in the same time frame.

Getting to Hirosaki Castle Lantern Festival

A bit of a trek unless you are already in the area, Hirosaki is over 6 hours from Tokyo, taking a bullet train to Akita and then switching to a local to reach Hirosaki. It will all be covered on the JR Pass but otherwise will cost the princely sum of ¥18,750. You can catch a bus from the station (¥100 loop bus) to get to Shiyakushomae bus stop and walk for 5 minutes to get to Hirosaki Park. Alternatively it is a 30-minute walk from the station. 

Otaru Snow Light Path Festival

Otaru, Hokkaido  |  Feb 8th – 17th  |  30 minutes from Sapporo 

Otaru Snow Festival
Photo by かがみ~ used under CC

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 and relaxing atmosphere, but also due to the fact that it coincides with the  Sapporo Snow Festival and is only 30 minutes away by train. The city of Otaru has a variety of displays, with two main areas and then countless private displays that join together to light the city as a whole. Schools and groups and even businesses like KFC create displays that range from adorable to terrifying.

The canal is covered with floating candles as well as a couple’s sanctuary and heart monument on the Asakusabashi Bridge. The other main spot is the former Temiya railway line which has a snow tunnel and various different constructions with plenty of great photo spots. If you’re keen to try an onsen 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 is a wonderful place to explore and the atmosphere is fantastic—from the very dangerous-looking but extremely fun snow slides (do it, trust me) to the German beer hall—this is one of the most community-driven festivals that’ll welcome you with open arms.

Getting to Otaru Snow Light Path Festival

If you’re already in Sapporo this is an easy 30-minute train journey on the JR Hakodate line to Otaru. If you’re traveling from Tokyo, it can be cheaper to fly that use the train—check our transport guide for Tokyo to Sapporo or our guide to getting to the famous Sapporo Snow Festival as they are on at the same time!

Kamihinokinai Paper Balloon Festival

Akita  |  February 10th  |  240 minutes from Tokyo

Lantern paper balloon Festival
Photo by Mikael used under CC

Dating back to the Edo period, the original purpose of the paper balloon festival in Akita was to pray for a good rice harvest and each year by releasing beautifully decorated balloons covered in the wishes of participants into the skies. With some as tall as 8m, the balloons are decorated with colorful depictions of famed characters 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 have businesses hopes on).

The balloons are all made with paper and sealed with a glue made from rice. Exactly two months before the festival, people from all 8 districts of the town join together to make the balloons in time. It is recommended that you arrive before 5pm to see the full event and to have an opportunity to write your own wish on one of the balloons. There will be food stalls selling local specialties as well as drinks in the park

Getting to Kamihinokinai Paper Balloon Festival

Catch the bullet train from Tokyo to Kakunodate and switch to the Jukan railway to take you to Kamihinokinai Station, which is a 5-10-minute walk to the main area. The last 40 minutes on the Jukan railway will not be covered by the JR pass, and will cost ¥760. The full journey would cost just over ¥17,000 without passes.

Tadami Snow Festival

Fuskushima  |  Feb 9th – 10th  |  227 minutes from Tokyo

A small town hosting a big festival, Tadami is well known across the region for its snow celebration which features fireworks, sculptures and more. The main statue rivals the Sapporo Snow Fest in size and grandeur and is certainly impressive, with enough snow in the town to craft buildings, statues and more.

There is a competition for local sculptors who have only 20 days to create their masterpiece 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 Shinto dance in the snow where men carry the portable shrine through the celebrations. Plus music, dance performances, food stalls and a fireworks show to end each evening.

Getting to Tadami Snow Festival

To reach Tadami from Tokyo you can catch the bullet train to Echigo-yuzawa and then transfer to the Joetsu line to Koide where you catch the Tadami line. This costs just over ¥8,000 one way and would be fully covered by the JR Pass.

Yokote Kamakura Snow Festival

Akita  |  Feb 15th – 16th  |  220 minutes from Tokyo

Photo by Chris Lewis used under CC

As well as being a popular city near Toyko, kamakura means a hollow carved out from snow, which is exactly what you’ll find, in a more decorative sense, at this winter wonderland festival in northern Japan. With a history dating back over 450 years, this festival features dozens of igloo-like snow structures throughout the city each containing a snowy altar allowing people to pray to the water deity.

The main spots are at the Kamakurakan Castle which is open specially for the festival and is found just past the Janosaki Bridge. The river also has a stream of glowing miniature kamakuras and the local elementary school has a great display too. Locals will be grilling rice cakes on charcoal grills and serving up warming amazake (a low-alcohol traditional drink) to keep everyone in high spirits. There will also be some creative snow sculptures and traditional food stalls so close to the Kamakurakan Hall so that’s a great place to start your tour!

Getting to Yokote Kamakura Snow Festival

You can reach Yokote quite easily from Tokyo, it takes about 220 minutes with one change at Omagari from the bullet train to the local Ou line to Yokote. The journey costs just under ¥17,000, but is covered completely using the JR Pass.

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