This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of CONNECT.
Thomas Coleman (Hyogo)
As the cold days set in, I have always tried to make the most of my freetime and nenkyu when going into the holiday period. Japan is filled to the brim with exciting adventures and yet, I know what a struggle it can be to decide which ones to embark on. Below, I have written a few accounts of my incredible winter experiences and the profound impressions that they have left on me. I hope the reader may find inspiration in my fond reflections, and seek their own cultural journey this winter time.
Sapporo Snow Festival, 4–11 February 2024
Located at the heart of Sapporo in its city parks lies once a year a snowy kingdom enchanted by a winter magic that truly takes your breath away. As you tentatively step through the front gates and walk down the kingdom’s carefully constructed streets alongside travellers from far and wide, you will be greeted by its cute and jolly inhabitants. These residents are all cultural icons, ranging from Pikachu to Kirby to Doraemon, or even the minions, standing marvellous and proud in their glistening snowy forms. But beyond Sapporo Snow Festival’s mighty spectacle, there is also something that, if you are not careful, can be easily overlooked: that is the deep sense of cultural connection at the festival. The beloved characters not only inspire a giddy excitement, but also act like a charming mirror which reflects “Japan” itself. Walking around you will see not only great pieces dedicated to current popular anime and games, but also fun tributes to things like Cup Noodle. You cannot help but feel its passionate nod to wider Japanese pop culture and society. Past this exterior, foundationally too, with the Japanese Self Defence Forces (SDF) helping out in the labour for some of the more impressive structures, there is a fascinatingly complex cultural layer to the festival. These layers also weave across communities with awe-inspiring creations made for the International Snow Sculpture Contest. When visiting, you might even be beholden to unique experiences. In 2019, I was lucky enough to see a magnificent model of Helsinki Cathedral and an ice sculpture made by the U.S. Navy. At Sapporo Snow Festival, as you wander around the magnificent sights the kingdom has to offer you, it would be difficult to deny that its regal grounds may be anything but one of Japan’s greatest cultural monuments.
Otaru Snow Light Path Festival, 10–17 February 2024
Just outside the bustling city of Sapporo is a smaller, quaint town that deals an equally impressive cultural punch. Every February, the locals of Otaru come out and charm fellow residents and travellers alike with their wonderful lantern displays, which shine like hundreds of twinkling stars lighting up the winter night. As you wander down from Otaru Station to the Otaru Canal, you will be spectacle to superb walled grounds and corridors shaped out of the knee-high snowy blanket that canvases Otaru’s streets. Resting inside these slopes are a bunch of small lamps and cute snow creatures made by residents of Otaru. They too are gathered inside the snowy perimeters, chatting with each other, cooking and passing mochi around, and marvelling at their great snowy creations. The locals are more than happy to engage with visitors in their special annual event, making travelling around Otaru at this time of year fill you with a warm sense of the town’s cosiness and community. Compared to the pop culture commotion of Sapporo Snow Festival, the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival’s features are gentler and more grounded in its locality. But, at the apex of the trip at Otaru Canal, you are left equally as mesmerised by the beautiful patterns of lights that dance delicately on the water’s surface. With the crowds of people also taking in the sight, it’s hard not to feel enveloped in the shared cultural experience. So, if you are looking for a small community-driven immersion this winter, then a trip to Otaru might be an exciting addition to your winter plans.
The Kobe Luminarie, 19–28 January 2024
Gazing up at the great dazzling illuminations gracing the sea of people around you with its warm and welcoming light might knock you right back to your childhood. However, the Christmas decorations around my neighbourhood that left me enchanted as a child pale in comparison to the beauty of the impressive display of lights in Kobe’s city centre. Just like the cold January winds circling in and out of the streets, so do the great number of people huddled together like penguins on migration towards the great illuminated arches of the Kobe Luminarie. When they finally arrive at the great street filled with the astonishing exhibition of lights, they are lost in wonderment. There are countless tourist hot spots in Japan that attract large masses of people. However, the hubbub of the winter crowds combined with the gentle, romantic atmosphere in the air, and the sense of anticipation for a chance to glimpse the magic feels refreshingly unique. There is also a wider community-driven beauty which complements the aesthetic beauty of illuminated arches, as Luminarie stands in memorial for those affected by the Great Hanshin Earthquake. The meaning permeates through the wonderful display and makes the experience all the more special. While Kobe Luminarie is quite a modern cultural phenomenon leaning into its inspirations from Christian traditions, it is at the same time authentically Japanese and tied to the collective memories and emotions of the people of Kobe. For people wishing for a more moving winter vacation, Kobe is unmatched.
Hatsumode at Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, 31 December–1 January 2024
Kyoto is Japan’s cultural titan when it comes to its almost endless plethora of historic temples and significant landmarks. However, what is probably less known is the unique gathering at Yasaka Shrine in the dead of night on 31 November. As the clock strikes midnight, you will find crowds upon crowds of people neatly tucked into the streets of Shijo Dori. There, they patiently wait to enter the 1,350 year-old shrine that stands ever watchful over them like an unwavering Shinto guardian. As I steadily ascended the steps to the red front gate of the temple and gazed back over the glimmering of lights of Kyoto’s inhabitants amassed in the street, only then was I struck by the scale and importance of Japan’s new year tradition. Hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the year, is both a public and personal affair that can be enjoyed with friends or alone, but it is above all an opportunity to offer appreciation for the year and hopes for the coming year. The huge gathering tied together through thankfulness and aspiration makes hatsumode at Yasaka Shrine a wonderfully unifying moment. Once inside the shrine, people converge on the flagstone and gravel to offer their prayers at the offering hall. Once their private ritual is complete, they grab a quick snack from the many yatai selling delicious street food. The steady flow of people into the shrine combined with this homogenous energy and activity really helps you feel one with the tradition. A harmonising experience on New Year’s Eve will definitely start your year off right, so why not also join in the fun of the hatsumode tradition in Kyoto?
These have been a collection of my favourite moments travelling around Japan and why, from a cultural perspective, they are certainly worth your time. But whatever you end up doing over the winter vacation, make sure you have a cultural experience that you will remember.
Thomas is a third-year JET from the U.K. who is currently working as an ALT at two senior high schools in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture. As a humanities graduate, he has a keen interest in history and culture, and loves travelling around and exploring Japan’s abundance of historical sites. Alongside these adventures, he also enjoys studying Japanese, playing video games, and has even picked up kendo, too!