Archives for posts with tag: Snow Festival

Zao Onsen, Yamagata

Not impossible without a car but whichever way you go it won`t be quick. By shinkansen it’s going to take 6 hours via Omiya and Yamagata, followed by a short ride on a local train. This will take around 3 hours and set you back over 10,000yen.
When I tried to search for local trains I was recommended to fly to Yamagata Airport  instead – not surprising since it would take over 7 hours and cost nearly 6,000.

The easiest way is to take a bus from Shinjuku Bus Station. These are mostly overnight buses, which take about 7 hours and cost 6000yen. An alternative is to join a large organised tour which has hired a private bus – snow sports clubs like Tokyo Snow Club ( or Tokyo Gaijins ( run package tours. These are usually done over a weekend, and they will also arrange accommodation, lift passes, and rentals if required. Although it can take away some of your freedom over travel times, going with a big group has advantages like getting discounts on passes or bus fares. 


Obviously if you’re planning on skiing or snowboarding then winter is best. The peaks are usually open and snow covered from December to late February, but you might get a longer season during cold years.


Where to stay
Zao Onsen has some ski-in hotels right at the bottom of Uwanodai, one of the main slopes, and these are by far the best places if you want to avoid walking up to the slopes, or waiting around for shuttle buses. They serve meals and have drying rooms or gear storage areas. There aren’t many independent restaurants, so try and get a hotel which does food.

I stayed in Jingisukan Lodge, which had beautiful tatami rooms. It was warm and comfortable, had great service, and the food was mostly good.

Skiing or snowboarding  are the sports most travellers come for. There`s a range of courses to suit all abilities, ranging from bunny hills to suicidally steep, and lots of ski lifts to take you up. The longest run goes from the peak of Mount Sanpokojin, standing at over 1,600 metres high, but requires using more than 1 lift to get up. The most direct route uses only 2 lifts, but expect waits of over 40 minutes for both of these at peak times. Sanpokojin has a landscape of `Ice Monsters`, trees so thickly covered in snow that they look more like surreal sculptures or bizarre sleeping creatures.  Not much on the slopes themselves except the occasional restaurant tacked onto a ski lift, but on the positive side the slopes look much more wild and natural.

I went during an unexpected warm spell during the peak season, so the lift waits on the most direct route were around an hour. Apparently all the snow on the Ice Monsters had melted off anyway

Lift passes are around 5000yen for an adult 1 day pass during the `regular season`, but cheaper if you go outside this time: either before late December or after late March. 2 day passes are around 9000, 3 days 12,500, and 4 days will set you back around 15,000.  Children under 12 are half adult price. Theres another option, the `Exciting 10 day Pass`, but sadly I couldn’t find out why it was so exciting – although you can use it any time during the season. Lifts are mostly open 8.30am – 4.30pm. Night skiing passes are available from the end of December to the end of March for a few of the slopes which stay open until 9pm.

There`s also a snowboard park for those looking to practise jumps, a family snow park for small children, and the chance to try snow shoeing. Snow shoeing tours run between late January and late March. Zao Wakanjiki offers guided tours conducted in Japanese on 2 routes, both of which cost 4000yen and take up to 5 hours. Zao Chuo Kogen Kanjiki don`t offer guided tours, and cost 2500yen.

The onsen has a reputation for being very hot and acidic, but is rumoured to aid some skin conditions and will probably feel great after a long day out too.



The Zao Juhyo Festival offers an incredible fireworks display right on the slopes at Uwanodai in early February, as well as the chance to watch jumping (I don’t know if confident bystanders can join in)

Moonlit walking tours are available on late February weekends with a full moon, which cost just over 2000yen. The tour is conducted in Japanese


There aren’t many shops in Zao. There`s a few restaurants in the village, which are all pretty far apart, and one convenience store near the bus station, and … that’s about it. Take a lot of cash and snack food with you, and don’t expect nightlife

Zao is fantastic for snow sports, but there isn’t a lot more going on here – no museums or things like that. It’s a very small town, so either go out on the slopes or be prepared to make your own fun.


Train Times –

Accommodation –

General information –


Head up north to the wide snowlined streets of Sapporo, the biggest city in Japan’s northernmost Hokkaido island

Taj Mahal

Plane or boat?
Flights from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport are usually pretty cheap, booking 2 months in advance gets you a return ticket for about 20,000 and if you’re a little flexible with dates there might be even better deals. Try not to spend too long in Haneda – the Domestic Departure Lounge contains one shop selling overpriced souvenir snacks, and overpriced souvenir airplane-themed toys. Unbelievably for Tokyo there’s no restaurants: microwaved food is available from the shop but you’ll have to stand up and eat it
Take sandwiches

Boats are not for the fainthearted – the sea separating Aomori and Sapporo is rough, stormy and freezing cold in winter – but if you’re feeling adventurous or simply cant bear the thought of delays in Haneda Airport then a boat could be for you. I don’t know of a direct Tokyo-Sapporo ferry, but you can head out to Oarai north of Tokyo. From there you can get a 19 hour ferry to Tomakomai, a city about an hour south of Sapporo. It’s cheap at just 10,000, but to travel at peak times or in “first class” comfort (ie a bed in a semi private room) you might pay twice that. The basic style is sleeping on a tatami mat floor in a common room.
Take earplugs and travel sickness tablets just in case

The Sapporo Snow Festival is held in the first 2 weeks of February. A slight rise in temperatures mean the snow and ice sculptures start melting later in the month – to prevent this the sculptures are bulldozed down after the last weekend of the festival and the extra snow dumped in a nearby river.
This is the busiest time to visit, so expect to pay a bit more.
Hokkaido is a popular winter sports destination from January to March. Many Japanese will also visit in summer to escape the hot humid weather further south.

Where to stay
Central Sapporo has a ton of hostels.  Susukino is the nightlife area, a little similar to Tokyo’s Shinjuku, buzzing with bars, restaurants and stumbling tourists. It’s very near the Snow Festival.
For a more relaxing stay check out  the hot spring town an hours drive from Sapporo, and wander between onsen and ryokan.

Things to do
The Snow Festival is held in Odori Park, a long narrow park bizarrely situated between two main roads and broken up by sidestreets into 10 small blocks. Perhaps because of the unusual layout of the park, the larger sculptures take up one block each, while smaller ones are arranged in 2 or 4 rows. These range from 10 metre blocks elaborately carved by the Japanese Self Defence Force, international entries in blocks about  3 metres square, and smaller ones made by local students. Highlights from 2012 include a replica of the Taj Mahal, a huge underwater scene with sealife leaping out, and giant models from popular manga.

Light show on the sea life sculpture

During the day shows and performances are held in front of, or even on, the larger sculptures. Unfortunately most of these are organised by the sponsors, and definitely aren’t very impressive – a promotion for local apples, bingo,and a Coca Cola drinking contest are typical examples. At night the larger ones are illuminated with multicoloured lights and some of them even have specialised light shows, where carefully choreographed lights pick out details in the sculptures.

It gets crowded – over 2 million visitors come during the 2 weeks of the festival – so a ‘one way system’ is used to stop overcrowding and chaos as people bash into each other trying to get to the most popular sculptures. Volunteers in day glow jackets help at busy crossings by herding visitors en mass across the side streets.
These crowds will quickly tread fallen snow into thin dangerous layers of ice, so liberal amounts of grit are applied to the pavements. This makes the surface very uneven in places, so it might be difficult for disabled visitors, pushchairs, or high heels.
To fully enjoy it, wrap up warm. Youre walking outdoors for a few hours, between snow sculptures, in temperatures between -1 and -15 degrees. You can buy heat pads (hokkairo) which can help keep toes or fingers warm, and theres tons of food stalls selling hot snacks or warm wine too.

Real frozen fish

The sculptural fun continues round the corner in Susukino, where dozens of ice sculptures are displayed in 2 long rows, sprinkled with stalls and ice bars. Most of these are lit up at night too.

Other stuff
Snowboarders and skiiers can take the subway one stop to Niseko, a popular slope. You’ll pay up to 10,000yen for a lift pass and rentals during the festival, so if you dont mind travelling there’ll be better deals further from the city. If you go with a big group you can get some good discounts.

In the north of the city is Mount Moiwa Ropeway, which takes you up nearly 1,200 metres to the top of a ski lift. On a clear day you’ll get a good view over Sapporo.
I went up at night, unfortunately clouds obscured the night view of the city lights, but the lights from the ski slope made weird colours and patterns in the snow. Psychedelic, if you can deal with freezing wind and the odd mini blizzard… I lasted about 3 minutes.

The onsen town is about an hour and twenty minutes bus journey from Sapporo Station. Theres loads to choose from, offering a vast range of indoor and outdoor baths. Some even have bars in the outdoor area, if you want to sit in a hot bath, surrounded by snow, while drinking cold beer.

Eating in Sapporo can be a day’s activity in itself. On the top floor of Isetan Tower (in Sapporo station) are several ramen shops crammed in, each with its own specialty sauce or topping. Crowds wait patiently in queues that often circle right round the shop, so try to avoid going at lunchtime on a weekend.
Jingisu Kan (pronounced a bit like “Genghis Khan”) is a local stew of lamb and potatoes, pretty unusual ingredients in Japanese food.
The seafood is ace, and especially kani, the huge crabs found around Hokkaido. Gluttons will love the all-you-can-eat deals involving these king-sized crabs.