Are you looking for some winter adventures in Japan other than the active snowsports like skiing and snowboarding? How about a visit to a Kamakura festival? Kamakura is the Japanese name for a igloo, the handmade snow-hut dome. A kamakura was traditionally a place to worship the gods but it now widely known as a place where you can enjoy some of the welcoming Japanese hospitality. They are a popular form of recreational winter activities and can be found in areas that receive heavy snowfall throughout Japan. The snow huts come in all sizes and serve different purposes, from the ones that are made by little children for fun or those those you can book for an overnight stay or are serving as a shop.
There are several annual events organised throughout Japan where you can experience different types of igloo like snow houses. Some of these events involves the creation of hundreds of kamakura’s! Nothing says winter fun more than a unique kamakura experience. Enter the tiny entrance way, right into the flickering candlelight of one of the spacious snow-huts and enjoy a delicious local meal, drinks and friendly hospitality. For your most memorable Japanese winter experience, we have listed below our recommendation for the five best Snow Hut Festivals.
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1. Yokote Snow Festival, Akita Prefecture
Yokote is located in Southern Akita, amid the magnificent Ou mountain range. The Yokote Snow Festival is one of the most spectacular festivals and features hundreds of kamakura. The festival takes places each year on February 15 & 16 and has a history dating back 450 years. The snow domes were originally built to honor the Shinto water gods, and upon entrance the locals would pray for abundant water, good harvests and the safety of the community. During the festival, the snow huts offer freshly grilled mochi (sticky rice cakes) and amazake (a sweet, low alcohol sake). A free shuttle bus connects to all sites in the city.
Lights inside the hundreds of kamakura create a warm and romantic atmosphere. Hundreds of small snow domes are constructed along the bank of the Yokote River by pre-school through high school students; each contains candles and a wish. You can also build your own kamakura in Komyoji Park during the festival.
The famous local dish in Yokote is yakisoba, the stir-fried noodle with cabbage and meat like you often see at Japanese summer festival stalls. Yokote’s yakisoba, however, uses the thick straight noodle and is topped with an egg sunny-side up and served with Fukujinzuke pickled vegetables.
Yokote Snow Festival
Kamakura rental: ¥3,000 for one hour for a group (advance booking is recommended).
How to access Yokote Snow Festival
The main festival area is in Komyoji Park, in Yokote City, accessible by train from Akita Station. From Tokyo, take the JR Akita Shinkansen to Akita Station. Then take the JR Ou Line to Yokote Station, and board the free seasonal shuttle bus for Shinmeicho.
2. Yunishigawa Onsen Kamakura Festival, Tochigi Prefecture
The remote, nostalgic onsen town of Yunishigawa Onsen is located in a remote valley, deep in the mountains in Tochigi Prefecture. The countless large and small kamakura huts decorate the town in winter. At night, the town is lit up by hundreds of small kamakura with candles, turning the town into a magical winter wonderland. A walk along the Zawaguchi river offers the best views of the festival. The larger snow huts are available for rental (pre-booking required) and a popular local tradition is to have dinner inside the show huts. For a true local and unique experience, reserve the larger kamakura that come with a ready to use traditional BBQ set!
The event also offers many fun activities, such as a kamakura making experience, snow sliding, tasting delicious local food, and other beautifuls illuminations at night. If you have time, there are some traditional hot spring inns around to stay overnight and continue to explore the winter wonderland of Yunishigawa Onsen the next morning in daylight.
Yunishigawa Onsen Kamakura Festival
Late January/beginning of February to early March
Admission: ¥510 (¥300 after 5pm)
Kamakura rental: ¥1,600 for 50 min. + ¥1,700 per person for the BBQ (including food).
How to access Yunishigawa Onsen
Yunishigawa Onsen can be reached by direct hourly buses from Kinugawa Onsen Station and Yunishigawa Onsen Station.
3. Hirosaki Castle Snow Lantern Festival, Aomori Prefecture
Hirosaki Castle, a famous spot for cherry blossoms in Aomori, is exceptional in the winter as well. The heavy snowfall in the most northern prefecture of Japan’s main island, creates a completely different but even so magical atmosphere. Hirosaki Castle Snow Lantern Festival features a few hundred snow lanterns, as well as hundreds of small snow huts and snow sculptures. All the huts and sculptures are constructed by local citizens and the locally posted Japan’s Self-Defense Force. At night, the park’s illumination of the pine trees and the snow-covered Tenshukaku (castle tower) creates a fascinating atmosphere. For families, the playground has games and two large snow slides. On the main evening of the festival period there is a spectacular fireworks show.
Hirosaki Castle Snow Lantern Festival
Early to mid-February
How to access Hirosaki Castle Snow Lantern Festival
From Tokyo, board the Tohoku Shinkansen to Shin-Aomori Station, which takes around 3.5 hours. From there take a 40-minute local train to Hirosaki. From Hirosaki Station, it is a 15-minute bus ride to the festival grounds.
4. Iiyama Snow Hut Village, Nagano Prefecture
Iiyama Snow Hut Village, Kamakura no Sato in Japanese, is located just outside of Iiyama city in Nagano. This area records heavy snowfall every year and is a popular destination for winter sports. The village is open for about one month and is made up of over 15 to 20 huts snow-huts, varying in size. After a day on the ski slopes, enjoy the comfort of the kamakura and try the famous local dish noroshinabe (hot pot dish) at the Kamakura-mura Restaurant. At night the snow domes are beautifully illuminated by lanterns, creating a fairytale-like atmosphere.
During the second weekend of february the Kamakura Festival takes place at the snow hut village, with live music, snow activities, and a firework show at night.
Combine a visit to the Iiyama Snow Hut Village with Nagano’s famous Snow Monkeys, a 30 min drive from each other.
Iiyama Snow Hut Village
Late January to late February
Admission village: free
Restaurant ¥3,500 – ¥4,000 per person with noroshinabe (booking required)
How to get to Iiyama Snow Hut Village
Board a shuttle bus from JR Iiyama station to the festival grounds.
5. Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan, Hokkaido
Lake Shikaribetsu is the highest elevation lake in Hokkaido (800m) and the longest freezing lake in Japan. Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan is an annual festival that takes place literally on the frozen lake and it consists of a man-made ice village constructed on the frozen lake water. Kotan translates into village in Ainu, the language of the indigenous people of Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands. The village is completely made out of ice and snow and lasts for about two month, as long the weather is cold enough!
The winter event offers an open-air hot spring bath on the frozen lake, and several ice igloos (in Shikaribetsu, kamakura is made with ice instead of snow). You’ll like the ice-made bar that serves drinks with ice-made glasses. There is also a concert hall with live music, a chapel, and several lodges. At night, this place offers some an amazing star gazing opportunities, a highly memorable experience!
Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan
~60 days in January – March
Onsen schedule: 6.30am-6pm (mix)/ 6pm-8pm (male only) 8pm-10pm (female only)
How to access Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan
A shuttle bus is available 4 times a day from Obihiro Station during the festival. To get to Obihiro, fly from Tokyo to Tokachi-Obihiro Airport or from Sapporo Station, it takes around three hours to reach Obihiro Station by train.
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These Japanese winter festivals make for a remarkable experience, well worth the effort of getting there, no matter the weather. After all, the cold weather provides the best conditions to enjoy the magical winter wonderland and feel the warmth even in the coldest season. As these festivals are very weather dependant, check the latest information before making your way down to these somewhat remote areas. After this, put on your warmest winter clothes and go find your favorite beautifully lit and cozy kamakura, where you’ll be welcomed with hot food, local drinks and hot springs! Don’t miss this memorable Japanese winter experience!
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