Tohoku's Winter Festivals Part 2

The Tohoku region, situated in the northern part of Japan's Honshu island, is a profoundly fascinating area of Japan. A few hours from Tokyo, by bullet train, it is worthy of any visitor's time in order to delve deeper into real Japan. Not the Japan you know from YouTube or magazines but the Japan in which real people live and are proud to call home. A region which plays host to superb local cuisine, outstanding sake and festivals which have been celebrated for centuries. It's not Tokyo or Kyoto but it can be infinitely more rewarding — the people are warmer and more generous and the age-old culture comes alive through rigorous preservation and care. Winter is one of the best times to truly see Tohoku in action, so join me this second edition introducing the standout winter festivals.

Tono Dobekko Festival

Between November and March be sure to make a plan to visit the charming Tono Dobekko Festival in Iwate Prefecture. Held in Tono Furusato Village guests can sample some “dobekko” (home-brewed sake) which is sure to warm your cockles on a cold winter’s day. There are some (lethal) all-you-can-drink sake deals as well as local culinary delicacies in addition to sampling some of the fascinating Tono folklore. Iwate is one of Japan’s largest prefectures and is a perfect spot for relaxing and delving into local traditions and culture.

Hanamaki Sky Lantern Festival

Held several times in January and February each year, the Sky Lantern festival is held at Namari Ski Centre and sees the starry winter night sky lit up by hundreds of paper lanterns in unison filled with the wishes of locals and visitors alike. The starry night sky becomes lit up much in the same way envisaged by the acclaimed local writer/astronomer, Kenji Miyazawa, who was originally from the Hanamaki area. More info

Ojiya Balloon Festival

Niigata Prefecture is known as one of Japan’s best producers of rice and sake. In Ojiya City, however, it’s hot air balloons which has put the town on the map. Cancelled in 2020 due to a lack of snowfall, it’s well worth keeping an eye on this festival’s schedule in coming years. A multitude of colorful hot air balloons float over the city’s pure white snowfields creating a stunning visual treat. Japan Sea Cross Country Cup (one of the country’s biggest hot air balloon competitions) also takes place at this festival making it a must for sports and outdoor activities geeks.

The Tokamachi Snow Festival

Niigata’s Tokamachi City is a place covered in snow for nearly half of the year. Rather than grumble about it, the locals have banded together to celebrate the snow and the opportunities that arise from it. Food festivals, snow sculptures, snow activities and games all take pride of place in this endearing festival which highlights the good folk of Tokamachi’s deep relationship with snow.

Kamihinokinai Paper Balloon Festival

Established in the Edo era the Kamihinokinai Paper Balloon Festival, which takes place in the Nishiki area of Semboku City in Akita Prefecture, is a dazzling and must-see winter spectacle. Locals write messages on the balloons before setting them on their way into the winter sky. Like most local Japanese festivals, there are plenty of food and drink stalls to satiate your every need. The balloons are made from paper and wood, so ultimately biodegradable wherever they end up. The Japanese love balloons of every possible variety but there’s something special about balloons on a winter’s night. Heartwarming and joyous, it’s an event that no one should miss.

  • Tono Dobekko Festival
  • The Tokamachi Snow Festival
  • Kamihinokinai Paper Balloon Festival

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