What kind of places do you visit when traveling to a new country? Beaches? Statues? Historical buildings? Or perhaps you’d rather meet the locals and live like one?
If you fancy the latter, then going to a festival is the one thing you should be doing when in Japan. As one of the most favorite destination in Asia, Japan has a long list of festivals that you can attend throughout the year. Ranging from the famous and cold Sapporo Snow Festival to Gion Matsuri in Kyoto, the list comprises of diverse theme you can pick from according to your preferences.
Having been to Japan on winter, I seek to participate in a cold and snowy festival. But since my trip didn’t include Hokkaido area, I went to another prefecture which is also widely popular for it’s winter festivals, called Fukushima. When winter hit the area, numerous festivals are held to celebrate its annual presence, such as Tadami Snow Festival, Ouchijuku Snow Festival, Mishima Town Festival and many others. If we were not limited by time, back then we would have crashed all of the festivals. Luckily, we managed to be in at least two different festivals in Fukushima, and I’m here to share the mezmering experience with you. “Rediscover Fukushima” really helped us to get acquainted with the prefecture and what it can offer. Do check out their exhaustive list of snow festivals here.
Ouchijuku Snow Festival
Ouchijuku is a small Edo-style town in the Fukushima Prefecture, built in 1640. It lies approximately 20 miles away from the city of Aizuwakamatsu.
During the winter, a rare view of Japanese traditional houses covered in thick snow is one you can hardly find elsewhere. Every second weekend of February, the town hosts a sizeable snow festival which attracts thousands of locals and travellers all around the world. The festival features plenty of events and performances that visitors can participate in, such as a soba noodle eating contest, traditional Japanese theatre performances, picking up mochi competition and witnessing the world’s largest dango stick. At night, Ouchijuku turns into a dark haven with lanterns and fireworks.
We went to the festival on Sunday, and we’re thrilled to join the crowd in decorating trees with dango. Other than that, witnessing the remarkable view of the town up from the viewing point is definitely one of the highlight of our trip to Ouchijuku, no questions asked. The snowfall was so heavy that it took us a solid 30 minutes just for a short climb to the viewing point. Narrow passageway along the area makes it a bit tricky to compete with the crowd; expect to do some serious climbing on steep surfaces in order to obtain a decent photo with no photobombs.
After soaking in the view and the wonderful winter ambiance, I highly recommend travelers to try some of the town’s finest cuisine. Leek Soba (negi soba) is a famous local delicacy of Fukushima, the one you definitely have to try. Grab a bowl of negi soba directly in its birthplace, Misawaya. Negi Soba was surprisingly mild for me, but I could really taste the leek flavor in every bite, considering you use the proper and recommended technique (utilizing leek as a substitute for chopsticks). Multiple food stalls are also present along the streets of Ouchijuku. I happened to try out a random miso soup from one of the stalls and it tasted heaven-like. Some of them provides packaged mix of base condiment that you can purchase and bring home for a delicious miso to prepare back home.
Getting to Ouchijuku is easy, as long as you pay attention to the departing hours of trains and buses heading to the town. To help you get the ides, here is the online reference for train and bus timetables. The easiest way to reach the festival is by taking the train from Aizu-Wakamatsu Station to Yunokami Onsen Station, and connect with the Enyu Go bus afterwards.
Aizuwakamatsu Painted Candles Festival
Without having to move from the city of Aizu, you can still attend a majestic winter festival that will leave you breathless. Honestly, we didn’t specifically plan to see the Painted Candles Festival, having not known that there would be a festival during the time that we were visiting the Tsuruga-jo castle.
The festival usually lasts for 2 days in a year during early February. It is a special occasion when you can witness flocks of lights projected from thousands of erosoku, covering the historical sites of the city. Erosoku (painted candles) is a traditional craft of the Aizu region and Fukushima prefecture that originated about 500 years ago. Tsuruga-jo castle looks absolutely stunning in the snow. It lits in purplish hue as the lights went on through the night. Stroll around the whole area – and I literally mean the whole area. Take part in the beauty of mystical lights and lose yourself into it.
Painted Candles Festival was also the moment when I ate the best dango of my whole Japan trip. I highly encourage you to stop by the food stalls right on the parks near Tsuruga-jo castle and immerse yourself in a flood of tasty Japanese cuisine.
Transportation inside the city might be a little too hard to understand for non-Japanese speakers. We knew that there was supposed to be buses running towards the castle and back, but then failed to locate the stops and ended up walking two miles under a heavy snowfall just to get back to the hotel. To avoid walking pointlessly, do your research beforehand. It wouldn’t hurt to also have Google Translate with voice recognizion ready on your phone.
Japan is undoubtedly the King of Asia when it comes to being a travel destination. Travelers need to know that Japan is more than just Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka; that the real gem lies in the heart of the country, where civilization is pure and authentic. Grab yourself a JR Pass and wander the hidden parts of the country. It will be the best decision you will ever make.