The Otaru Snow Light Path Festival was one of my favourite things I did in Japan. It’s held every year at a similar time to the more famous Sapporo Ice Festival. Here’s what I think you need to know before you go…
Igloos, snow hearts, snow mazes and canal side snowman lights – that’s what you can expect at the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival. For ten days in February Otaru lights up and it’s one of the sweetest, most charming, celebrations I’ve ever been to.
The Otaru Snow Light Path Festival 2022 is scheduled to be held from February 11 to 13.
The Otaru Snow Light Path Festival
I was there on the first day and saw hundreds of people mucking in during daylight to help – making snow castles in buckets like they were on the beach, using cookie cutters to create the star shapes and packing snow to form the awesome snow maze. By the time darkness fell it was all ready and the streets of Otaru looked magical.
Most of the action is along the canal with the water flanked by lit up snow creations and floating lights out on the canal surface. Further up into town there are more snow light sites – one with a snow bar, another with a huge heart for the all important photos.
Every February, the snowy city of Otaru in Hokkaido, Japan comes to life in a dazzling display of winter lights. Picture a sleepy canal lined with floating lanterns contrasting to the fluffy snowbanks and warehouses of the canal’s walkways where more lanterns have been set. Once you’ve pictured this magical scene, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what to expect when you visit the Otaru Snow Light Festival.
This snowy wonderland happens for 10 days when the town comes together to light lanterns and decorate the romantic Otaru Canal. The warm lantern lighting filling the snowbanks and floating along the canal create a warm atmosphere that brightens up the bitter winter cold. In the city, many local shop owners decorate their storefronts to add to the magical ambiance that makes Otaru a wonderful winter destination.
There are two main areas to visit during the Snow light festival, each one is lit up every day at the same time and is within walking distance to each other, making the festival easy to experience.
When to go to the Otaru Snow Light Festival
The Otaru Snow Light Festival is held for 10 days in February every year and coincides with the more famous Sapporo Snow Festival which is held for 7 days. This allows visitors to experience both festivals very easily.
The best time to visit the festivals is during the period they overlap so that you are able to visit both at your leisure.
While the Sapporo Snow Festival has always been the showstopper, the Otaru allows an undeniable romantically quaint atmosphere that draws many visitors to the snowy city every year. I actually much preferred the Otaru Light Festival.
Where to go at the Otaru Light Festival
The Unga Kaijo area
The main place to see these beautiful lanterns is the Unga Kaijo area. A 300-metre walking space along the Otaru Canal is lit up by mystical lanterns or candles located within beautiful snow sculptures.
The magical atmosphere is made even more mesmerizing by the gently bobbing floating lanterns released on the canal. The restored warehouses, lit by gas lamps, make the path a romantic walk for anyone who goes.
The Unga Kaijo area is only a short walk from Otaru station and Otaru’s city center where you can also see decorated storefronts.
The Temiyasen Kaijo area
The secondary place to see the Otaru Snow Light Festival is the Temiyasen Kaijo area located between the station and Unga Kaijo.
Stretching along about half a mile beside the former Temiyasen train line is a path lit up by the Snow Light lanterns as well as food stands to enjoy some amazing Japanese dishes. Walk along with the 1800s Japanese architecture as you take in the beautiful sight of lanterns, sculptures, and ramen stalls, and you’ll think that you’ve been transported to a whimsical land.
All over Otaru
The entire city of Otaru is known to celebrate the fOtaru Snow Path Light Festival by decorating their shops and restaurants to match the lantern theme, so no matter where you go in Otaru, it isn’t hard to experience the beautiful winter festival.
Asarigawa Hot Spring Village
Besides the Unga Kaijo and the Temiyasen Kaijo, there’s one other off-the-beaten-path place that celebrates the winter festival in full force. The Asarigawa Hot Spring Village located about 14 minutes away from Otaru is a more hidden location that is keen to celebrate the Snow Light Festival.
A hot spring village, built with peace and healing for people in mind, Asarigawa is known to hold its own celebration and because of its hidden location and nearby chloride hot springs, is perhaps the most magical location for the Otaru Snow Light Festival.
How to go to the Otaru Snow Light Festival
If you’re coming from Sapporo, Otaru is an easy 45-minute ride from the city. Just take the JR Hakodate line towards Otaru and then get off at Otaru station. The Unga Kaijo area is a straight shot from the station to Otaru port and should only take about 10 minutes of walking.
From Unga Kaijo you can either go towards the town centre or backtrack to about the halfway point between Otaru canal and station where you will find Temiyasen Kaijo.
If you want to head to the Asarigawa Hot Spring Village, then you can locate a bus heading towards the hot spring village. Public transport will take you about 40 minutes while a private car will take you only 14 minutes.
What to do in Otaru
While you’re in Otaru and are visiting the different festival sights, there’s plenty to do in and around the city after you’ve experienced the magic of the Snow Light Winter Festival.
Eating in Otaru
The little port city of Otaru is famed for its local cuisine including locally caught sushi, delicious brothy ramen, and sweet mochi. Whether you grab a bowl of steaming ramen from one of the food stalls located along the Temiyasen Kaijo, or you head into the centre to try out one of the local restaurants you will not be disappointed by the unique flavor and style of Otaru cuisine.
One thing that you can’t leave Otaru without trying is its famed ice cream – the entire Hokkaido region is known for its stellar ice cream.
Watch the glassblowing
Another Otaru specialty is glasswork. Many of the warehouses have been revamped into shops where you can find crafts, trinkets, and oddities made from glass. If you don’t want to carry something so delicate around with you, then you will be happy with the vast variety of other crafts you can find in and around Otaru which are usually hand-crafted by local artists.
Walk down Nichigin-dori
One place to check out while in Otaru is the Nichigin-dori, also known as the ‘Wall Street of the North’.
Nichigin-dori is the financial district of Otaru and is lined with a handful of elegant, architecturally beautiful buildings that make a perfect destination for an afternoon walk whether snowing or sunny. A stroll along this famous avenue is also a historical experience as the buildings offer visitors a glimpse into Otaru’s past as a prominent financial hub.
Whether you decide to go for a couple of days, or just make a day trip from Sapporo, Otaru is a lovely destination with an even lovelier wintertime festival. Far from the imposing ice sculptures of Sapporo, Otaru’s winter festival is much homelier in a way that adds authenticity to its Snow Light Festivities.
I loved the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival – it was cute, quaint, and the perfect way to end my five weeks in Japan. It wasn’t overly commercialised and was one of the best uses of snow I’ve ever seen. In fact, I preferred it to the worldwide hyped Sapporo Snow and Ice Festival. The good news is you can do them both as every year there’s some cross over with dates and Otaru is only a 30-minute train ride from Sapporo.