By Lorenzo Martin
It’s no secret that Japan has one of the best train networks that span the entire country, but did you know that the same network also makes snow activities easily accessible from Tokyo? An hour away from the capital via the Joetsu Shinkansen lies a heaven of the highest quality of snow, Echigo Yuzawa in Niigata prefecture – the gateway to Snow Country. The inspiration for the Nobel prize-winning novel “Snow Country”, by Yasunari Kawabata, Echigo Yuzawa is best known for attracting winter sports enthusiasts from all over the world. However, Yuzawa is also a train ride away from numerous awesome winter festivals in the neighboring towns. Here are a few that are roughly within a one-hour local train ride from Echigo Yuzawa station:
Minamiuonuma Snow Festival (Around the 1st week of February)
A 17-minute train ride along the Joetsu line from Echigo Yuzawa station would take you to the town of Muikamachi, where the festival proper is just a quick walk through the rural landscape. The smell of delicious Japanese festival food would greet you as rows of food stalls await near the entrance. The stage hosts various performances, including a traditional Japanese drum performance, to keep visitors entertained throughout the day. Spend the day by watching (or participating in) a snow sports exhibition, riding inflatables pulled across the winter snow, or soaking your hands and feet in an onsen. Be sure to stay until the candles in the little snow igloos are lit for that perfect shot in your Instagram page.
Tokamachi Snow Festival (Around the 2nd week of February)
Arguably the biggest winter festival in Snow Country, the Tokamachi Snow Festival is held in the heart of the Niigata Alps. Tokamachi city receives snowfall for nearly half the year, making it the perfect place to celebrate in the snow! This Winter Festival is organized into multiple plazas called “hirobas” which offer different activities in each one. You can make your way past a snow wall labyrinth, glide down an ice slide, or enjoy a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in the snow. The winter wonderland fantasy-like atmosphere of the Festival is reinforced by adorable snow sculptures scattered all over town, greeting you as you walk between hirobas. There are also bus routes to access other plazas where the giant snow sculptures are waiting to be photographed. End your trip with a bang by watching the fireworks display on the giant snow stage! The Festival can be accessed from Echigo-Yuzawa station via a 31-minute train trip along the Joetsu and Hokuhoku line bound for Naoetsu.
Urasa Naked Man Festival (Around the 1st week of March)
If Japanese culture and tradition is something that excites you, then book a train ticket to Urasa for the Bishamondo Naked Man Festival. A festival that dates back to winter of 1,200 years ago, it is said that this winter festival started because people were pushing each other to pray to Bishamonten, one of the seven gods of luck in Japan. Chants of “Sanyo San” echo the area around the temple as local males strip down to nothing but a loincloth and brave the cold winter snow of Japan. Volunteers carrying 30kg candles lead the procession to the temple where participants take a quick cleansing dip before jousting against each other to reach their goal – to pray to Bishamonten. The Urasa Naked Man Festival is indeed one of the more cultural and unique festivals in Japan. Urasa station is the shinkansen stop after Echigo Yuzawa station; it is also a 32-minute local train ride along the Joetsu line from Echigo Yuzawa.
Snow Country Experience
While all these snow festivals are within a two-hour train ride from Tokyo, squeezing all the excitement in a day-trip itinerary will definitely leave you wanting more. So, make the most out of your shinkansen ticket by staying the night in a traditional ryokan in Yuzawa to immerse yourself in the Snow Country experience. Counter the cold winter air by soaking in the warm waters of the numerous onsens in the area. Enjoy a unique sake-tasting experience from sake vending machines (Ponshukan) or take a sake-infused onsen bath in Echigo Yuzawa station. Spend the extra day experiencing the Snow Country culture by visiting the Yuzawa Museum of History and Folklore. Enjoy a cup of Niigata’s famous koshihikari rice to go along with your meal from the numerous restaurants around the area. Travel up the mountain and glide through the amazing slopes of the different snow resorts in the area. All of these while taking in the majestic fantasy-like scenery of the winter wonderland called Snow Country. That would be the perfect snow festival weekend experience that started with the train that came out of the long tunnel into the Snow Country, where the earth lay white under the night sky.