Japan really knows how to throw a great festival, we love them and they usually crop up somewhere in our itinerary. During the winter the big one everyone talks about is the Sapporo Snow Festival and with good reason, it is huge and fabulous, we had the most amazing time and have plans to return but the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival is an easy and worthwhile addition to your trip plans.
The Otaru festival is usually scheduled to coincide with the Sapporo Snow Festival so you can easily enjoy both during your stay in Hokkaido. You’ll find the lanterns lit up between 5 – 9 pm each night which is plenty of time to see the festival areas, have some dinner and take a slow walk back through the town where the local shopkeepers have created their own snow sculptures outside their stores.
Even allowing for the snow, it’s only around a 15-minute walk from the railway station to the canals but if you aren’t used to snow and don’t have grippy snow boots you’ll want to take your time and enjoy the scenery. I almost took an almighty skate striding too quickly across the road and slipping on the black ice.
When is the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival 2024?
The festival is scheduled to run for 10 days from the 10th to the 17th of February 2024. The lanterns are lit between 5 pm and 9 pm each evening.
What is the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival?
Our first winter trip to Japan was also my first experience with serious snow and you couldn’t pick a better introduction to being cold and happy at the same time than Hokkaido. Whether you love snow sports or not Japan has a lot of attractions for the winter traveller and I would definitely put the Otaru Snow Light Path festival on that list.
Is this festival for everyone? No probably not. We love getting out of the main centres and have a real passion for seeking out the less commercial, community-based festivals. The Otaru festival doesn’t have the glitz and glamour of the big city events, what it does have is a fun, friendly and inclusive atmosphere, a chance to really engage with the locals and some GREAT food.
If you are staying in Sapporo it only takes 40 minutes to get to Otaru. You can head out in the late afternoon for dinner and the festival, or come earlier in the day and spend some time exploring the beautiful heritage town first. It’s very easy and well worth the effort if you have a free eveining.
The JR train runs directly from Sapporo station to Otaru. It’s a small station and as you walk out the front you’ll find the first snow sculpture so you know you are in the right place. The year we went the sculpture was right on theme, one of Japan’s much loved Shinkensen or Bullet trains.
We didn’t have much information to go on when we went, we weren’t even sure we’d find the festival but were fairly sure we could find somewhere interesting for dinner so we gave it a go. It turns out it is very easy to find and even without being able to converse in Japanese it won’t be a problem at all.
The Unga Kaijo festival site
When you arrive at the station you can head directly down Chuo-dori, this is the main road from the train station to the canal area. Along the way there are shopping arcades, coffee shops and restaurants so it is easy to get distracted.
The canal area is called Unga Kaijo and along the canal you will see a lot of large heritage warehouse buildings that have been restored. These house a number of businesses, any of them restaurants and this area is one of the two main areas for the festival. It doesn’t really get underway here until after dark, but it’s interesting to watch the locals cleaning up, making minor repairs and getting their candles ready for the evening.
An early dinner in one of the warehouses down on the canal can be a great option while it all gets underway. Starting off warmed from the inside with a full tummy is a good buffer against the cold.
There is a wide range of eateries in this area from high-end to those serving very affordable steaming hot bowls of hearty ramen. The area is well known for its seafood and trying out some of the local favourites is always a good option. We went with one of the more affordable places not really feeling dressed for some of the others in my ski jacket and heavy dusting of snow and the quality was excellent. My seafood hotpot came with a hearty side of sashimi and was delicious.
By the time you are finished with dinner it should be dark enough to really appreciate the canal’s floating lights and the canal frontage being transformed by the soft glow of the candles in their snow holders. The ball candles floating on the canal are suspended in fishing floats keeping with the history of this part of the city.
There is no doubt why they call this the Otaru Snow Light Path festival or in Japanese Otaru Yuki Akari no Michi.
The Tamiyasen Kaijo festival site
When you finish exploring the canal area head back the same way towards the station. Along here on your left is the second main festival area called Temiyasen Kaijo, it’s set up along the tracks of the abandoned Temiyasen railway line.
The Temiya line was Hokkaidos first railway and was used for hauling coal and other freight until it was abandoned in 1985. Some of the heritage infrastructure has been retained and the area is a public park and walkway.
This site was the first place we saw the Japanese igloo called a Kamakura. There are some more snow sculptures, candles and a few yatai (food stalls) along here.
Getting to the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival
Getting from Sapporo to Otaru is easy, from the JR station take either the semi-rapid Ishikari liner or the Airport rapid, it will take between 30-40 minutes depending on the train and time of day and cost Y640 each way. Getting back you simply reverse the process and the trains run well into the evening so you can have dinner, enjoy the snow gleaming and not worry about missing that last train back.
When you arrive at the station head down Chuo-dori, the main street directly in front of the station, to the Unga Kaijo area. Heading back to the station the Temiyasen Kaijo area is off to your left just follow the snow candles, you won’t miss it.
Have you been to the Otaru snow festival? Which do you usually gravitate to, the spectacular commercial events or the simpler, more intimate small town celebrations?