Winter in Japan brings relief from the sweltering temperatures and the humidity of summer. Once the verdant leaves have fallen from the trees some areas of Japan become blanketed by snow. Winter also signals the time of the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. Celebrations and festivals are held across Japan in the season of winter, celebrating both the new and the snow itself.
Sapporo is situated on the northernmost island of the Japanese chain, Hokkaido. This island gets plenty of snow during the autumn and winter months, with some areas of Hokkaido actually becoming uninhabitable to humans. Sapporo is not one of these areas, in fact, in Sapporo the snow itself is used and celebrated. Yuki Matsuri, or snow festival, is held yearly in Sapporo, the origins are small; in 1950 school students built sculptures from the snow and it really took off. Yuki Matsuri is now a popular festival and is gaining fame across the world for it’s gigantic sculptures, with over 2 million people attending! The snow festival features sculptures being built of snow and ice and lit up for a stunning night view. These sculptures are featured across three different sites; Tsu Dome, Susukino and Odori.
The Tsu Dome area is mainly aimed at families and those wanting to play in the snow. Slides are built from the snow which you can ride down, and you can even snow raft! Food stalls are available here too so you can warm yourself up on good hot food. Susukino has around 100 sculptures on offer each year which are lit every day during the festival until 11pm. The largest of all the three sites, Odori, is centrally located in Sapporo. Here you can go and see the largest and most impressive of all the snow sculptures on offer, some can be as big as 25 meters. Again the sculptures are lit in the evenings and here you can also enjoy concerts and events which are performed on snow sculptures.
Dates: 5th to 11th of February 2016 (can change each year)
If playing in snow makes you feel too cold in the depths of winter and all you can think about is getting warm, Wakakusa Yamayaki might be the event for you! Directly translated Yamayaki means burning mountain, which is exactly what this event is. The origin of this festival began many years ago in a dispute between clans over Wakakusa mountain in Nara. During this dispute somehow Wakakusa got set alight and completely burnt down. Since that time, each year a group of priests have been “burning down” Wakakusa again and again.
Yamayaki is not just individual to Wakakusa, many mountains in Japan are “burnt” each year, either to ward off insects or wild boars, or for a variety of reasons. Why does not necessarily detract from the spectacle of a cold winter night lit by burning fires. In Wakakusa, this allows the mountain to be covered by vibrant green grass each spring, and there is a forest at its base that has been protected for over 1,000 years.
There cannot be two events so dissimilar occurring almost at the same time, so choose whether you want ice or fire! Enjoy the individual and unique practices of both ancient and modern Japan in the coldest months.