Japan Rail Times
The
Rail Way
to Travel
2402-Left
Seasons

11 Fantastic winter festivals to check out in Nagano and Niigata

11 Fantastic winter festivals to check out in Nagano and Niigata

Updated as of 28 November 2023
Originally published on 21 January 2022

 

Did you know that Nagano and Niigata are the top two prefectures with the highest number of ski resorts in Japan? Since these two prefectures experience high snowfall in winter, it should come as no surprise that they rank #2 and #1 respectively. Collectively, Nagano and Niigata are known as the Shinetsu (信越 Shin’etsu) Region, a name which comes from the first characters of “Shinano”(or "Shinshu") (濃/州, Nagano's old names) and “Echigo” (後, Niigata's old name).

 

During winter, daylight hours are shorter, so local organizations hold creative and colourful festivals and illuminations help lift the residents’ spirits. With an abundance of ice and snow, winter is celebrated through various dazzling festivals around the region, some which feature ice or snow sculptures, stunning illuminations, and brilliant fireworks that light up the long and cold nights.

 

Map of festivals mentioned in this article. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

In this article, let us check out the Shinetsu Region and 11 of its fantastic festivals to enjoy in winter!

 

Niigata Prefecture

① Nagaoka Fireworks Winter Fantasy (長岡花火ウインターファンタジー)

Niigata Prefecture (新潟県) is known not just for its snowy landscape, but also for its amazing fireworks. In Japan, fireworks have long been synonymous with summer, and many fireworks enthusiasts consider Niigata’s Nagaoka Fireworks Festival to be one of the most beautiful in Japan. Nowadays, fireworks are also making appearances during winter, as a way to bring joy in the cold and dark season.

 

Nagaoka Fireworks Winter Fantasy. (Image credit: 長岡花火財団)

 

Though not as large as the summer event, the Nagaoka Fireworks Winter Fantasy (長岡花火ウインターファンタジー Nagaoka Hanabi Uintā Fantajī) also showcases a colourful and captivating display of fireworks. This dazzling fireworks display is held at Echigo Hillside Park in Nagaoka City (長岡市 Nagaoka-shi), over 3 days over two weekends, with the first day being a prologue, and the main events being on the second weekend. During this period, Echigo Hillside Park is illuminated and decked out in Christmas decorations, allowing visitors to enjoy a special scenery: the combination of festive décor and vibrant fireworks.

 

Nagaoka Fireworks Winter Fantasy “Phoenix Fireworks: Wishing for Recovery” segment. (Video credit: katou sino)

 

At the event, visitors can expect mesmerising fireworks that are set off to winter-themed music, as well as large starmine fireworks. As a finale to the 30-minute main events, spectators can enjoy the beloved “Phoenix Fireworks: Wishing for Recovery” segment, which is synchronised to the tune of Hirahara Ayaka's song "Jupiter". This song was written to wish for the recovery and reconstruction of Chūetsu (中越)—a region in Niigata that includes Nagaoka—which was affected by a large earthquake in 2004.

 

The “Phoenix Fireworks: Wishing for Recovery” segment is one of the highlights of the summer edition of the fireworks festival, and is also showcased at the Nagaoka Fireworks Winter Fantasy. To many people, the Nagaoka Fireworks Festival embodies gratitude and hope for the future. Similarly, the Nagaoka Fireworks Winter Fantasy aims to be a symphony of shining hope that illuminates the future.

 

Nagaoka Fireworks Winter Fantasy (長岡花火ウインターファンタジー)
Date: End November to early December. 2023’s edition is on 25 November
Venue: Echigo Hillside Park
Access: Take a 40-minute bus ride from JR Nagaoka Station (長岡駅)
*Ticketed Event

 

② Tokamachi Snow Festival (十日町雪まつり)

Large snow sculptures at the Tokamachi Snow Festival. (Image credit: 十日町雪まつり実行委員会)

 

Due to its geographic location, Niigata receives a lot of snowfall in winter, and in particular, Tokamachi (十日町 Tо̄kamachi) has some of the highest snowfall in Niigata. The high amount of snow might cause inconvenience to the locals, but instead of thinking of it negatively, the snowfall is celebrated with the Tokamachi Snow Festival (十日町雪まつり Tо̄kamachi Yuki Matsuri), where many beautiful sculptures made from snow are created.

 

Fireworks at the Tokamachi Snow Festival. (Image credit: 十日町雪まつり実行委員会)

 

Started in 1950, the Tokamachi Snow Festival is usually held over the third weekend of February. Other than the massive and magnificent snow sculptures entered for the competition, you can also see thousands of snowmen and snow creations made by local residents, schoolchildren, and business owners, which line the streets of the city.

 

There are over 20 festival sites (広場 hiroba) where visitors can enjoy the snow sculptures, but the main festival site is the Community Hiroba (コミュニティ広場), which is located a 10-minute walk from JR Tо̄kamachi Station (十日町駅). At the Community Hiroba, visitors can enjoy dozens of food stalls (屋台 yatai), as well as a “snow play” area to have fun with the abundant snow. Amazake (甘酒), a sweet, non-alcoholic rice wine drink, is also distributed for free to visitors.

 

Tokamachi Snow Festival (十日町雪まつり)
Date: Usually in the middle to late February. 2023’s edition was on 18 February and the 2024 edition will be on 16-17 February.
Venue: Various locations across Tokamachi City.
Access: Tokamachi is served by the Iiyama Line operated by JR EAST and by the Hokuhoku Line operated by Hokuetsu Express

 

③ Yuzawa Winter Fireworks (湯沢冬花火)

Fireworks set off over the ski slopes. (Image credit: GALA Yuzawa and 新潟県観光協会)

 

Niigata has the highest number of ski resorts in Japan, and is also well-known for its fireworks. What do you get when you put these together? Fireworks shows at ski resorts! The Yuzawa Winter Fireworks (湯沢冬花火 Yuzawa Fuyu Hanabi) is a special event where ski resorts in Yuzawa Town come up with their own themes for creative evening fireworks displays. The event takes place from the end of December until late March, and various fireworks shows are held at different ski resorts, usually on Saturdays. Tip: mid to late February has the most events.

 

Winter nights are known to have clear skies with few clouds, so winter fireworks that colour the clear night skies have a different beauty from fireworks set off on summer nights, when skies are usually cloudy. It’s a stunning sight to see the colourful fireworks being set off over the ski slopes, with some of the colours reflecting off the sparkling white snow.

 

Winter fireworks at GALA Yuzawa Snow Resort. (Image credit: GALA Yuzawa)

 

Many ski resorts have accommodations and cater to overnight visitors, so their fireworks shows usually start after dinner time, between 20:00 and 21:00. However, for visitors who are not staying overnight at a ski resort but would still like to enjoy fireworks, they can check out GALA Yuzawa Snow Resort, the only ski resort in the world with its own shinkansen (新幹線 bullet train) station.

 

GALA Yuzawa Snow Resort only operates during the daytime, so their winter fireworks shows usually start earlier, and feature fantastic and romantic displays synced with music.

 

Yuzawa Winter Fireworks (湯沢冬花火)
Date: Various dates between end December and end-March the following year. For 2023, it is between 31 December 2023 and 23 March 2024
For GALA Yuzawa Snow Resort: 20 January 2024
Venue: Various ski resorts around Yuzawa Town
*For more information on the dates, times, and locations, please visit the website here (Japanese only).

 

④ Echigo-Tsumari Snow Fireworks (越後妻有 雪花火)

Echigo-Tsumari Snow Fireworks. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Located in the countryside of Niigata, the Echigo-Tsumari (越後妻有) region is known for the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field, where fascinating art installations are scattered around the area. There are many permanent installations created by both local Japanese artists and international artists from all over the world.

 

During winter, visitors can enjoy a spectacular event, the Echigo-Tsumari Snow Fireworks (越後妻有雪花火 Echigo Tsumari Yuki Hanabi), which combines art, snow, and fireworks for a captivating display.

 

Creative use of LED lights at the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field in winter. (Image credit: Jing Liao 廖品淨 / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

 

The fireworks display itself is already an enchanting spectacle, but what’s special about this fireworks show is that visitors are given LED lights, which they can bury underneath the large snow field. When nightfall comes, spectators can see the colourful LED lights glowing from underneath the snow, creating a fantasy-like atmosphere. Combine this with the dazzling fireworks being shot off, and you’re in for an unforgettable evening!

 

Other than the Snow Fireworks, from late January until mid-March visitors can enjoy a winter edition of the artwork at the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field. The annual winter event has winter editions of exhibitions, as well as various programs for visitors to enjoy the snow in the winter season. There is also a special discounted ticket just for winter, and an official tour that brings visitors around various sites of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field in winter, as it might be difficult to go around on your own due to the high snowfall.

 

Echigo-Tsumari Snow Fireworks (越後妻有 雪花火)
Date: Usually on a Saturday in early March. No plans for 2024 as of time of update
Venue: Atema Kogen Resort Belnatio
Access: Dedicated shuttle bus from JR Tokamachi Station (十日町駅)
*Ticketed Event

 

⑤ Tsunan Snow Festival (つなん雪まつり)

Sky lanterns being set off at the Tsunan Snow Festival. (Image credit: 新潟県観光協会)

 

To round off this list of winter festival recommendations in Niigata, we have the Tsunan Snow Festival (つなん雪まつり Tsunan Yuki Matsuri), which is held in the town of Tsunan (津南). Tsunan is one of the snowiest towns in the world, and its snowfall can reach up to 3m in depth! In 1974, the festival was started with the aim of raising the spirits of the local community, who have to endure the bitter cold of winter.

 

Lanterns floating at the Tsunan Snow Festival. (Image credit: 新潟県観光協会)

 

At the festival, visitors can enjoy various snow activities such as snow banana boating and snow biking, watch a snowboard battle competition and live musical performances, and more. However, the highlight of the Tsunan Snow Festival is undoubtedly the beautiful sky lanterns. Around 2,000 sky lanterns lit up with candles are released into the sky above Tsunan, creating a magical and romantic sight reminiscent of the movie Tangled (Rapunzel). It’s definitely a sight participants will remember for years to come!

 

Tsunan Snow Festival (つなん雪まつり)
Date: Usually in mid-March. 2024’s edition is on 9 March
Venue: New Greenpia Tsunan Ski Resort
Access: Take a 30-minute bus ride from JR Tsunan Station (津南駅) for event ticket holders only
*Ticketed Event

 

Nagano Prefecture

Nagano Lantern Festival (長野灯明まつり)

Heading over to the neighbouring Nagano Prefecture, many foreign visitors to Japan would know of Nagano as a popular winter destination after it hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics. With beautiful powder snow and numerous ski resorts, even today Nagano remains a well-loved winter destination for both domestic and international tourists.

 

Zenkoji Temple illuminated at night. (Image credit: @HIDEMANAKAJIMA)

 

Every year in mid-February, the Nagano Lantern Festival (長野灯明まつり Nagano Tо̄myо̄ Matsuri) is held in Nagano City to commemorate the 1998 Winter Olympics. Zenkoji Temple (善光寺 Zenkо̄ji) is illuminated in the five Olympic colours, and beautiful handmade lanterns decorate the street leading from Nagano Station to Zenkoji Temple.

 

Lanterns on display along the street from Nagano Station to Zenkoji Temple. (Image credit: Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau)

 

The stroll from Nagano Station to Zenkoji Temple takes about 30 minutes, and along Zenkoji-dori (善光寺通り), the main road leading to the temple, visitors will be able to see hundreds of paper lanterns decorated with intricate patterns. These paper lanterns are decorated by local artists, residents, and schoolchildren. Despite the cold weather, visitors will have a fantastic time checking out the creative and unique designs!

 

Nagano Lantern Festival (長野灯明まつり)
Date: Usually in February. 2024’s edition is 9-12 February
Venue: Around Zenkoji Temple and Joyama Park
Access: Zenkoji Temple is a 30-minute walk from the East Exit of JR Nagano Station (長野駅).

  

Matsumoto Castle Ice Sculpture Festival (国宝松本城氷彫フェスティバル)

Illuminated ice sculptures in front of Matsumoto Castle at night. (Image credit:松本市観光温泉課)

 

Over in Matsumoto City (松本市), one of the highlights in winter is the Matsumoto Castle Ice Sculpture Festival (国宝松本城氷彫フェスティバル Kokuhо̄ Matsumoto-jо̄ Hyо̄chо̄ Fesutibaru). Although Matsumoto does not receive as much snowfall as the rest of Nagano, it still has freezing cold temperatures that are very suitable for ice carving.

 

Usually held over a weekend in late January, the Matsumoto Castle Ice Sculpture Festival is not just a festival, but also a national competition, where top ice sculptors from all over Japan gather at Matsumoto to carve stunning ice creations.

 

Ice sculptures during the day. (Image credit: 松本市観光温泉課)

 

Other than the competition ice sculptures, which are crafted between Saturday evening and dawn on Sunday, there are also sculptures made by young sculptors, who work on their pieces on Friday evening. The competition sculptures are on display from Sunday morning until Sunday afternoon, while the rest are on display for a slightly longer time, from Saturday morning until Sunday afternoon. There are also food stalls and live music, which add to the fun atmosphere.

 

Colourful night illumination of Matsumoto Castle. (Image credit: 松本市観光温泉課)

 

In the evening, the ice sculptures are illuminated, and create an ethereal scenery with the majestic Matsumoto Castle and the picturesque Northern Alps in the background. Starting from this year, there will be an exciting addition to the event: the mesmerising illumination of Matsumoto Castle! Dazzling colours and beautiful designs are projected onto Matsumoto Castle, creating a fantastic light show meant to mimic ice crystals glittering in the night.

 

Matsumoto Castle Ice Sculpture Festival (国宝松本城氷彫フェスティバル)
Date: Usually end of January. 2024’s edition is 26-28 January.
Venue: Matsumoto Castle
Access: 15-minute walk from JR Matsumoto Station (松本駅)

 

Iiyama Kamakura Festival (いいやまかまくら祭り)

Kamakura snow hut restaurants. (Image credit: 信州いいやま観光局)

 

Another place in Nagano with high snowfall is Iiyama City (飯山市), where you can find the Kamakura Snow Dome Village (かまくら の里 kamakura no sato). From late January, around 20 kamakura (かまくら snow huts) are built to create the village, which is up for about a month.

 

On the second weekend of February, the Iiyama Kamakura Festival (いいやまかまくら祭り Iiyama Kamakura Matsuri) is held at the Kamakura Snow Dome Village, and visitors can try out delicious local food at kamakura shops, have fun playing in the snow, and enjoy a short fireworks show at night.

 

Enjoying the Kamakura Snow Dome Village. (Image credit: JAPAN RAIL CAFE (top) and JR East / Carissa Loh (bottom))

 

At the Kamakura Snow Dome Village, visitors can enjoy a unique experience—the Restaurant Kamakura Village—where they can dine inside a kamakura! Visitors will be able to sit on seats made of ice while feasting on delicious noroshi nabe (のろし鍋, a warm hotpot dish made of a special blend of local vegetables, mushrooms, miyuki pork, and potato balls. This special experience is definitely something to check out if you are in Iiyama in winter.

 

Iiyama Kamakura Festival (いいやまかまくら祭り)
Date: The festival is usually held on the second weekend of February. 2024’s edition is 10-11 February.
Venue: Kamakura Snow Dome Village
Access: Take a 20-minute bus ride from JR Iiyama Station (飯山駅)

 

Restaurant Kamakura Village
Date: Usually mid January till end Februay. 2024’s edition is 20 January–29 February, only on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays
Venue: Kamakura Snow Dome Village
Access: Take a 15-minute bus ride from JR Iiyama Station (飯山駅)
*Reservations are required for Restaurant Kamakura Village

 

⑨ Lake Suwa Ice Candle (諏訪湖アイスキャンドル)

Lake Suwa ice candles. (Image credit: 諏訪観光協会 and 諏訪アイスキャンドル実行委員会)

 

Located almost in the centre of the prefecture, Lake Suwa (諏訪湖 Suwako) is Nagano’s largest lake. Entering its 28th edition this year, the Lake Suwa Ice Candle (諏訪湖アイスキャンドル Suwako Aisukyandoru) sees about 20,000 ice candles lighting up various locations in the six municipalities around Lake Suwa, which include the Kamisuwa area, Shimosuwa, Okaya, Chino, Fujimi, and Hara.

 

Beautifully crafted ice candles. (Image credit: 諏訪観光協会)

 

Usually held on the first Saturday of February, the festival was started with the hopes of revitalising the region and fostering love for the local area. Many of the ice candles are made by hand by local volunteers, and the committee even has a video teaching viewers how to make ice candles with everyday objects!

 

Most of the festivities are centred around the Kamisuwa area, where this year one of the highlights is a model of Lake Suwa’s famous omiwatari (御神渡り) phenomenon. 1,000 ice candles moulded from milk cartons are arranged in the shape of Lake Suwa, with actual ice from Lake Suwa brought over.

 

Lake Suwa Ice Candle (諏訪湖アイスキャンドル)
Date: Usually on the first Saturday of February. 2024 date is not confirmed as of update
Venue: Various sites around the six municipalities around Lake Suwa

 

⑩ Karuizawa Winter Festival (軽井沢ウィンターフェスティバル)

Illuminations at Shiraito Falls the path leading to it. (Image credit: 軽井沢観光協会)

 

Just a 60-minute bullet train ride from Tokyo, Karuizawa is an upscale highland resort that’s known to be cool in summer and have one of the earliest opening dates among ski resorts: late November. If you visit Karuizawa during winter, don’t miss the Karuizawa Winter Festival (軽井沢ウィンターフェスティバル), which is held from late November to the end of February.

 

The festival kicks off with a small fireworks display, and from then on until the end of February, visitors can check out beautiful illuminations around the town. On selected weekends between mid-December and mid-February, there is a magical light up at Shirairo Falls (白糸の滝 Shiraito no taki), a scenic waterfall about a 30-minute bus ride from Karuizawa Station.

 

Illuminations in front of Karuizawa Station and Nakakaruizawa Station. (Image credit: 軽井沢観光協会)

 

During the festival season, there are various events such as children’s skating competitions, a Christmas Music Festival, a train station festival at Karuizawa Station, an opera performance by locals, and more. Karuizawa is only a short distance from Tokyo, so why not pay a visit if you’re nearby?

 

Karuizawa Winter Festival (軽井沢ウィンターフェスティバル)
Date: Usually starts from end-November till end-February. 2023/2024’s edition is from 25 November 2023 - 29 February 2024
Venue: Various sites around Karuizawa
Access: Walk or take a bus from JR Karuizawa Station (軽井沢駅)

 

⑪ Kisoji Ice Candle Festival (木曽路氷雪の灯祭り)

Ice candles and fireworks at Naraijuku. (Image credit: 木曽観光連盟)

 

Finally, to round up this list of recommendations, we head over to the Kiso Valley (木曽路 Kisoji). Located along the Nakasendo, a former main road that linked Tokyo with Kyoto, the Kiso Valley is filled with picturesque old post towns. These post towns were used as resting places by travellers in the past, and even today, visitors can still enjoy the view of their historic buildings. If you are visiting the Kiso Valley in winter, don’t miss the Kisoji Ice Candle Festival (木曽路氷雪の灯祭り Hyо̄setsu no Hi Matsuri), which is usually held from late January to mid-February.

 

Ice candles at Magome. (Image credit: 木曽観光連盟)

 

At the Kisoji Ice Candle Festival, visitors can bask in the romantic atmosphere of lovely ice candles casting a warm glow on the beautifully preserved wooden buildings. There are also food stalls, and some places even distribute free sake and soup to warm visitors up in the cold winter.

 

The beautiful ice candles are handmade by local volunteers, and are usually set up in various post towns across the Kiso Valley, which include Naraijuku, Tsumago, Magome, Kisofukushima, and more. This year, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the event has been scaled down and will be held at fewer locations compared to previous years.

 

Kisoji Ice Candle Festival (木曽路氷雪の灯祭り)
Date: Usually end January to mid February. 2024’s dates are from 17 January 50 17 February.
Venue: Various towns in the Kiso Valley

 

Getting there

The Shinetsu region is abundant in snow, and as seen from their colourful and creative festivals, winter is a beautiful season to visit. If you are thinking of visiting some of these wonderful winter festivals, check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), which can save you a lot on rail travel.

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are thinking of visiting the Shinetsu Region to enjoy its winter festivals, check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area). At only ¥27,000, it is only slightly more than a round-trip between Tokyo and Niigata (~¥21,000), and cheaper than a return trip to the furthest point covered by the pass between Tokyo and Sakata with a transfer at Niigata (~¥29,080). With 5 consecutive days of unlimited use available, it is of great value if you ride trains often during that period. You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation

 

The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

 

Header image credit: photoAC, 新潟県観光協会, きっかわCC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau
Information may change depending on the situation of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Related Articles

Share this article:
TSC-Banner
2402-Right