If you love festivals, go to Japan. If you love snow, go to Japan. If you love snow and festivals, attend a yukimatsuri. Unlike many other Japanese festivals yukimatsuri festivals are ruleless and as a result no two are the same. So, If you came to Yuzawa to see a castle entirely sculpted out of ice you will cry with disappointment (that was in Sapporo). Likewise, If you came to see 48 highschool girls in not entirely appropriate winter wear sing ’I love you, I need you’ again crying may ensue (that was in neighbouring Tokamachi).
So why come to Yuzawa yukimatsuri? In comparison to its rivals in Sapporo and Tokamachi it’s positively tiny, on average drawing in only a few hundred people. Well size isn’t everything, at least when it comes to Japanese snow festivals.
Opening ceremony of the 66th Yuzawa Yukimatsuri
Bullet train – Shinkansen. Travelling in Japan can be painfully slow. Local trains seem to stop at every house, farm or field and roads are infested with traffic lights. The shinkansen by comparison is a godsend. Direct from Tokyo, the Joetsu shinkansen whistles to Yuzawa at speeds topping 240 km/h in just 70 minutes. Exhilarating right? Not at all. Inside is silent. Motionless. Sadly, all that power comes at a price. 7,490yen each way to be precise ($70US). However, international passport holders can get a great discount by buying the Tokyo Wide Pass for 10,000yen ($95US). The Tokyo Wide Pass allows holders 3 days of unlimited travel on selected routes within Tokyo and Kanto. Echigo Yuzawa Station is just inside this area. The JR Tokyo Wide Pass can be bought at Narita Airport, Haneda Airport, Tokyo, Shinagawa, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, Ueno, Yokohama and Mito stations.
Shinkansen (bullet train) pulling out of Echigo Yuzawa station.
Famous produce – meibutsu. All over Japan prefectures define themselves by their meibutsu. Niigata is famous for rice and consequently sake. This has given birth to the Echigo Yuzawa Sake Museum, a collection of over 100 local and national sake for your tasting pleasure right in the station. A steal at 500 yen ($5US) for 5 cups.
Ponshukan (Sake tasting museum)
Shooting range – shateki. Pull yourself away from the museum while you are still standing, head out of the station’s west exit and turn right. As with many Japanese towns, ekimae (area in front of the station) is the busiest part. The main festival is on this street around a 10 minutes walk away at Yuzawa Kogen Ski Field. Why not take a break and see if the sake has affected your accuracy at the shateki.
Families queuing to win prises at the ‘shateki’ (shooting range)
Locally produced beverages – jizake. In recent years Niigata has become famous for brewing beer, and right before you get to the festival there is a exceptionally well stocked Jizake store. Try a Ruby IPA made by the Echigo microbrewery right here in Yuzawa or one of the many other Niigata beers on sale.
Hyoridou Ajiichi – well stocked with local rice, sake and beer.
Food stalls – yatai. Just past the Hyoridou Ajiichi store the main festival area starts. This section of the road is closed off to allow yatai vendors to set up shop and offer festival goers all kinds of delicious treats. Be sure to try some poppo yaki, similar to a donut this Yuzawa meibutsu can’t be found anywhere else!
A yatai (food stall) selling poppo yaki.
Snow caves melted by candles – Honyaradou. Yuzawa yukimatsuri is run by locals primarily for locals. As a result it is still very authentic and traditional. There are an array of interactive snow sculptures and caves to play with. Great for young children and adults that still think they are young children. Some of the most beautiful sculptures are the simplelist. They feature Honyaradou which is famous in Niigata.
Honyaradou (snow caves melted by candles)
Portable shrine – Omikoshi. In Japan, religion is a part of everyday life, with the vast majority of Japanese participating in a combination of Buddhist and Shinto ceremonies on key occasions around the year. Yuzawa yukimatsuri is no exception to this, having a ‘Omikoshi’ (portable shrine) procession. Unlike going to a shrine to pray this procession is just for general good luck. Generally the shrine is carried by officials but if you get lucky they might let you help. Just don’t drop it, it’s probably listed as an excluded item on page 137 of your travel insurance contract.
Good atmosphere – funiki ga ii. After the opening ceremony has finished there is live music from local musicians. It has quite a grown up feel, with soulful singer / songwriters playing a mix of original music and covers. While the whole festival is free, high rollers can opt to pay 1000 yen ($10US including a drink) to sit in the VIP area above the stage.
Children playing in front of live music with VIP seating in the background.
Torchlight descent – taimatsu. For the braver festival goers there’s a torchlight descent to participate in (by advance application only). A great spectacle, with participants yielding bright flare-like torches for all to see. Once down the torches are bundled together into a fire, sending smoke pillowing high into the sky.
Candle light descent with fire on the right
Fireworks – hanabi. The highlight of the evening is, hands down, the firework display. The steeply ascending slopes of Yuzawa Kogen provide an awesome reflective backdrop of snow for the bright explosions above. Festival goers are free to walk over the ski field, so finding a great vantage point is no problem.
Fireworks exploding high above the snow.
Where to stay
$ Sansan Yuzawa cafe, bar and backpackers is located near the station and offers beds in dormitories from 3000 yen ($28US)
$$ Yuzawa hotel is located right near the festival and offers rooms from 12000 yen ($110US)
$$$ Takahan is the most famous traditional style Japanese hotel in Yuzawa just a five minute walk from the main festival area (shuttle from the station available). Room only plans from 15,000 ($140US).
(prices valid at time of publication)