Niigata Prefecture has some spectacular matsuri held each winter. Here are three winter events that will make anyone’s visit unforgettable.
Tokamachi Snow Festival
The Tokamachi Snow Festival is a celebration of winter. Known as ‘snow country’, Tokamachi has an average of two to three metres of accumulated snow each year. Making the most of this enormous snowfall, the festival was created to bring colour and excitement to this remote part of southern Niigata.
First held in 1950, the annual Tokamachi Snow Festival takes place on the third weekend of February. Events kick off on Friday night and continue through to Sunday afternoon. Dotted throughout the town are over 60 amazing snow sculptures of varying sizes built by professional sculptors as well as local teams and school children. The sculptures feature beloved Japanese characters such as Totoro, scenes inspired by Hollywood movies, and impressive original designs.
Over the three days, visitors can also try snow sports, taste local food while sitting inside igloos, and watch elegant kimono fashion parades that show off the region’s textile industry. The climax of the festival is the spectacular Snow Carnival on Saturday night. Locals and visitors alike come together in front of the festival’s masterpiece snow sculpture for a huge music concert, light projection show and fireworks display.
From Tokamachi Station, the sculptures can be visited on foot or by taking the mini tour bus. Bus tickets are 500 yen for a one-day pass. Alternatively, a Snow Festival Passport for 2,500 yen (3,000 yen if bought on the day) includes unlimited bus rides and other benefits.
For details, see the official website.
Koide International Snowball Fight
The Japanese word for snowball fight is yukigassen, which literally translates to snow battle. This is particularly appropriate when referencing one of Niigata’s most enjoyable winter festivals — the Koide International Snowball Fight. This region of Niigata claims to be the spot of Japan’s first ever “snow battle,” dating all the way back to 1535!
Two warlords of the region — Uesugi Sadanori and Nakao Tamekage — were battling it out in the early spring of that year. There were piles of snow still on the ground at the time, characteristic of long Niigata winters, and the warlords quickly became exhausted from the intense fighting. Laying on the ground after ending the battle in a stalemate, Nakao grabbed a fistful of snow, hurled it at Uesugi, and history was made! Paying homage to this, the International Snowball Fight was created, and has been running for over 30 years.
Teams of five participants must be registered before the event, and on the day of the festival they battle it out like the warlords of years gone by. Participants are encouraged to get into the spirit by dressing up in costumes, and whilst it’s not mandatory to do so, it certainly adds to the fun, light hearted atmosphere.
The festival happens at Koide’s Hibikinomori Park, and you’ll find plenty of eats and drinks available at the venue, including locally produced sake samples. The 2019 event is scheduled for Sunday, February 10, and more details will be updated on their website when registrations open.
Urasa Naked Pushing Festival
Held annually on the 3rd of March, Urasa’s Naked Pushing Festival combines spirituality and quirkiness in the one event. The festival centers around the picturesque Bishamondo Temple, which was constructed over 1200 years ago. History dictates that since those times, fully naked men would push and jostle past each other for the honor of being first to worship Bishamon, the temple’s God of wealth and warriors. The practice commenced to ward off bad luck and usher in good fortune coming out of the winter months and is now considered one of Japan’s most unique festivals.
These days, rules have relaxed a little, and participants get to cover up with a loincloth, headband and traditional sandals. However, it’s still mighty chilly in Niigata as winter draws to a close and braving the elements in such minimal attire is challenging. To try and stay warm, you may see competitors enjoying a sip or two of locally brewed sake, something this region of Japan is renowned for.
The main event happens after sunset, but you’ll find the festival fun spans the entire day. There are stage performances, games, and plenty of delicious traditional foods on offer in the streets surrounding the temple, so get there early and soak up the atmosphere.
Urasa’s Bishamondo Temple is located approximately five minutes’ walk from JR Urasa Station. Buses are conveniently available from Narita airport to Niigata City directly. From there, Urasa is accessible in 35 minutes via the Joetsu Shinkansen.
WRITTEN BY CELIA KNOX AND KIM