Photo:Hokkaido’s Famous Winter Festivals! 4 Events that Shouldn’t Be Missed
Travel Information

Hokkaido’s Famous Winter Festivals! 4 Events that Shouldn’t Be Missed

2022-03-24

There are few destinations in Japan colder and more magical than Hokkaido in February. This time of year, the region received its heaviest snowfall, and many of the cities like to celebrate with snow festivals.

IMG_6737.jpg Chitose Shikotsu Ice Festival 2022. Picture courtesy of Chitose Tourism Convention

From the world-famous Sapporo Snow Festival to more laid-back displays of Otaru Snow Light Path, the unique styles of Asahikawa Winter Festival, and the Chitose Shikotsu Ice Festival, these events are nothing short of a winter wonderland adventure. We introduce four festivals that prove Hokkaido in winter is an experience you can't miss.

Sapporo Snow Festival

c100-011.jpg

Sapporo Snow Festival – known in Japanese as 'Sapporo Yuki Matsuri' – is essentially Hokkaido's flagship snow festival event, making it the best place to start your winter festival journey through the region. The festival typically kicks off from the first week of February, running through to the middle of the month.

c100-001.jpg

The origins of the festival can be traced back to 1950 when local high school students started building snow sculptures in the city's central Odori Park, which remains the main venue of the event. The first version of the festival also featured snowball fights, snow sculpture exhibitions, and a carnival. Locals had assumed that the turnout for this event would be low, but around 50,000 people visited the site, starting what would be one of Sapporo's most anticipated annual events.

c100-048.jpg

In 1953, the festival saw the arrival of the festival's first large-scale sculpture, the 15 meter tall "Ascension." By 1959 around 2,500 participants joined the making of the snow sculptures, so you could say the event 'snowballed' into something far bigger than anyone expected.

1.jpg

The 2021 and 2022 events were canceled for visitors and held online, but prior to these years, the event saw around two million visitors from Japan and abroad make their way to the capital to admire these legendary, larger than life sculptures.

2.jpg

Today, the event occupies three key destinations in Sapporo, with Odori Park still being the main site, home to roughly a dozen large snow sculptures and hundreds of much smaller sculptures, as well as live events and performances. The other two locations are The Susukino Site, located in Sapporo's largest entertainment district, where illuminated sculptures dazzle the late-night crowds. A little out of the city, there's also the Tsu Dome Site. Popular with families, this site features kid-centric attractions like snow slides, snow rafting, food and snack stands, as well as, of course, more snow sculptures.

A central piece of the culture and history of Sapporo City, a visit to Hokkaido in February isn't complete without a visit to Sapporo Snow Festival, so do be sure to make the time to see it if you can!

Asahikawa Winter Festival

009.jpg

Asahikawa holds the region's second-largest winter festival. The city is a fun little change of scenery for those who want to explore a little beyond the capital. Like Sapporo's event, the Asahikawa Winter Festival typically runs through the early weeks of February, meaning that it's easy to align your travel plans in a way to see both in one trip. Asahikawa is just over an hour and a half from Sapporo by the direct JR Lilac-Kamui Limited Express train.

Asahikawa is one of Hokkaido's key culinary destinations for those unfamiliar with the city. A city with great local food, including excellent Asahikawa ramen, it's a worthy weekend or overnight trip, from Sapporo or Niseko, especially during the snow festival.

The festival started back in 1947 when it was initially known as "Iyomante" (Bear Festival in Ainu language). It was launched to inspire and bring folks together during the coldest few days of the year. After 1960 it became the winter festival we know today, with ice sculptures, lights, displays, laser shows, food, drink stalls, and more recently, snowmobile rides, horse-drawn sleigh rides, and an ice bar!

016.jpg

Most of the celebrations are located in the Asahibashi Site and along Heiwa Dori pedestrian street. Heiwa Dori is typically home to 50 ice sculptures as part of the festival's ice sculpture competition during the celebrations. While over at Asahibashi Site, most of the festivities revolve around soaking up the creative and fun-loving atmosphere of Asahikawa, with a rotating display of attractions on-site, including the aforementioned food stalls, rides, and performances.

007.jpg

Although it may not be as well known as the Sapporo event, Asahikawa Winter Festival also has the proud title of being home to the largest snow sculptures in Japan. Each year, the organizers erect one massive sculpture that's also used as the stage for live performances and events. In fact, the 1994 Korean fortress replica made into the book of Guinness World Records as the largest snow construction built, that's reason enough to visit!

Otaru Snow Light Path

pixta_83398780_M.jpgPhoto by Pixta

Known locally as one of the region's most scenic winter cities, the quaint and historic Otaru is even more spectacular in February when it celebrates the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival. Known as the Otaru Yuki Akari no Michi in Japanese, the event runs around the same time as Asahikawa and Sapporo's snow festivals, but the atmosphere couldn't be more different.

pixta_6556969_M.jpgPhoto by Pixta

Essentially the festival is structured around the arrival of small igloos and snow lanterns, bathed in the glowing golden light of candles and electric powered lights. There are also illumination displays that incorporate smaller-scale snow statues and sculptures.

As you explore the city during this time of year, you'll often also find that many businesses, shops, cafes, and the like join in on the celebrations hosting their own little pop-up displays throughout the city adding to the fairytale-like ambience of Otaru.

pixta_78026768_M.jpgPhoto by Pixta

While there are several venues where the event is held, the two main sites are the Otaru Canal area and the Former Temiya Railway Line area.

This festival is an after-dark event, with the illuminations running between 17:00 and 21:00. The site located along the Otaru Canal runs for around 300 meters, backdropped by the canal's iconic restored warehouses. With the flickering lights reflecting off the glassy surface of the water, it's a truly romantic strolling spot.

The Temiyasen venue, situated between the canal and Otaru Station, runs for about 500 meters along the now-defunct Temiya railway line tracks. The path is lined with unique displays created with lights and snow; it’s wonderful to enjoy a leisurely walk while viewing them up close.

If you're feeling ambitious or just want to take advantage of the beauty of Hokkaido during the winter period, it's well worth adding this winter festival to your Otaru travel itinerary. The event offers something a little different from the other two celebrations, and during this time of the year, the city is at its most beautiful.

Chitose Shikotsu Ice Festival

Lake Shikotsu_0909.jpg

Another winter event that you shouldn’t miss in Hokkaido is the Chitose Shikotsu Ice Festival. Located right by the banks of Lake Shikotsu in Chitose (part of Shikotsu-Toya National Park), the festival runs longer than the others, from late January to late February.

However, if you're in the area in January, you can also witness the spectacular ice structures being built, which is a sight in itself and will give you a new level of appreciation for the sculptures displayed. Please note that viewing the making process requires a participation fee and a reservation in advance. There are also guided tours, ice structure workshops, as well as special programs for visitors who stay overnight in Shikotsu Onsen, so please check the official website for details.

IMG_6718.jpgChitose Shikotsu Ice Festival 2022. Picture courtesy of Chitose Tourism Convention

The ice structures are made by pumping the lake's water through a series of hoses, then spraying the pre-designed structure skeletons with the lake water, which then freezes in the sub-zero temperatures.

The outcome is a series of dazzling, uniquely shaped, almost waterfall-like ice displays that boast a design best described as part man-made, part naturally formed. The site is staffed 24 hours a day to make sure each display is safe and at its most beautiful.

Lake Shikotsu_0941.jpg

In the daytime, the structures are stunning, glittering in the crisp winter sunlight, but at night as the sun begins to set and the brightly colored illumination displays come out (between 16:30 - 20:00), the event is at its most magical.

IMG_6741.jpgChitose Shikotsu Ice Festival 2022. Picture courtesy of Chitose Tourism Convention

Our tip is to try and get to the festival site late afternoon, so you can witness both. Before the pandemic, the site also hosted food stalls and firework displays.

Lake Shikotsu_0932.jpg

The ice displays are a mix of structures. There are towering ice pillars to be admired, giant ice walls that can be scaled – and offer excellent views from the top – and large, house-like structures inside of which you'll find intricate objects made of ice. A highlight of the display for the 2022 season was the torii gate and small ice shrine.

An easy, accessible destination, Lake Shikotsu is a little over an hour from Sapporo city and about an hour from New Chitose Airport by public transport, making it the perfect half-day winter adventure destination.

Enjoy Hokkaido’s Winter to the Fullest!

While there's a lot to see in Sapporo in winter, luckily, all of these events run both at the same time and long enough to cover all if you feel so inspired – and we recommend you try – because all of these spectacular celebrations are worth braving the cold for! Just visit and see.

RETURN
Photo:Hokkaido mountains, my home.
TRAVEL INFO.
Travel Information Hokkaido mountains, my home.
Photo:Hokkaido’s Cherry Blossoms: 5 Recommended Spots and Related Tips
TRAVEL INFO.
Travel Information Hokkaido’s Cherry Blossoms: 5 Recommended Spots and Related Tips
Photo:Enjoy Snow Sports! Hokkaido’s 15 Best Snow Resorts: Access and Features
TRAVEL INFO.
Travel Information Enjoy Snow Sports! Hokkaido’s 15 Best Snow Resorts: Access and Features

MOVIE

HOKKAIDO LOVE! Project concept video