Winter in Japan’s Tōhoku region is harsh. The people of Tōhoku have a long tradition of late winter festivals that represent a celebration of the approaching spring, as well as people’s wishes for good health and bountiful harvests in the year ahead. In modern times, new festival traditions that emphasise aesthetics and entertainment have joined the age-old festivities. Whatever their origin, the winter festivals of Tōhoku play an important role in keeping the regional communities together through the hardships of winter. This tour will provide you with a sampler of the diverse winter festivals of regional Tōhoku, including Yokote’s famous Kamakura (Snow Igloo) festival, and smaller festivals that are largely unknown to the non-local. Outside of festivities, you will explore the treasures of Tōhoku’s regional towns, including their rich craft and culinary traditions.
[N.B. Unlike our normal tours, this tour itinerary features mainstream tourist destinations such as Kakunodate and Ginzan-Onsen, and mostly uses hotel accommodation for logistical reasons. Nevertheless, the itinerary features plenty of ‘off-the beaten-track’ experiences, including the little-known winter festivals, and private visits to artisan workshops.]
DAY 1—PAPER BALLOON (GIANT SKY LANTERN) FESTIVAL: Depart Tōkyō (Shinjuku) in the morning and travel to Kakunodate, the historic ‘little Kyōto’ of Akita Prefecture. After enjoying afternoon tea and some of the renowned local traditional sweets, head out to the Paper Balloon Festival, a Japanese New Year (formerly in early February) celebration with origins traced to the 18th century. Be mesmerised by dozens of giant hot-air paper balloons (sky lanterns) painted with traditional designs drifting into the night sky over the snow-covered valley. Return to town to warm up over a late dinner. Accommodation at a mid-range city hotel in the heart of the quiet town.
DAY 2—SNOW LANTERN FESTIVAL: Travel during the day to Yonezawa, breaking the journey at Shinjō for lunch. In the late afternoon, arrive in Yonezawa, the historic southern gateway to Yamagata Prefecture and the former stronghold of the powerful Uesugi Clan during the Edo Period. Take a twilight walk through the quiet snow-covered streets of town to the Snow Lantern Festival. Absorb the dreamy atmosphere as you wander among dozens of snow lanterns in the shape of Japanese stone lanterns lending a warm orange glow to the freezing winter night. Sample rustic Tōhoku country and street food from the festival stalls. Accommodation at a mid-range city hotel.
DAY 3— YONEZAWA TEXTILES AND HISTORY: Spend the day discovering Yonezawa’s renowned textile traditions and history. Visit small textile workshops to learn about traditional natural dyes and hand-weaving methods, and shop for beautiful textile products in one of the larger showrooms in town. Visit some of the historic sites scattered throughout town, including the imposing Uesugi Clan Mausoleum set among a grove of towering Cryptomeria trees. Sample some of the local specialities for dinner, whether it’s a sumptuous course of Yonezawa Wagyū beef, or a simple but perfectly created bowl of Yonezawa rāmen. Accommodation as per Day 2.
DAY 4—GINZAN-ONSEN AND FIREWHEEL FESTIVAL: After an early breakfast, travel to Ginzan-Onsen, a small town whose unique timber ‘high-rise’ townscape was made world-famous by the 1980s TV series ‘Oshin’. For lunch, try the celebrated local soba (buckwheat) noodles or the slow-simmered Black Wagyū curry. In the afternoon, travel to Kakunodate again. Drop off your luggage at your accommodation, a boutique hotel with classic Japanese decor in the histroic town quarter, before heading out to a preview of the Firewheel (Hiburi-Kamakura) Festival. Be amazed as burning rice-straw ropes are rapidly spun around in the winter darkness as a prayer for bountiful rice harvests and good health. Enjoy dinner at one of the cosy eateries popular with the locals.
DAY 5—KAKUNODATE CRAFTS AND HISTORIC TOWN WALK: Spend your day discovering the wonderful craft traditions and historic townscapes of Kakunodate. Visit family-run workshops to watch artisans producing Kakunodate’s renowned Itaya-zaiku wickerwork, made from hand-split slivers of maplewood and vines, or Kaba-zaiku woodwork, featuring cherry-bark veneer that take on a magical glow upon polishing. Amble through the atmospheric old quarter and take a look at one of the Samurai houses. Shop for other local crafts, including beautiful traditional ceramics. At night, join the locals for more fiery spectacle on the main day of the Firewheel Festival. Accommodation as for Day 4.
DAY 6—YOKOTE TOWN WALK AND SNOW IGLOO FESTIVAL: Travel during the morning to Yuzawa to drop off your luggage, then take a short train ride to Yokote, the regional centre of southern Akita Prefecture. Explore the fascinating pockets of history that remain in town, including the Yokote Castle lookout commanding extensive views over the fertile Omono River valley (N.B. the original castle no longer exists). As twilight sets in, walk through town to watch the light come on inside the numerous snow igloos built for the Kamakura (Snow Igloo) Festival. Enjoy little morsels and conversations in the igloos, as local children call out to invite you in. Warm up over a dinner of Yokote-style yakisoba (stir-fried noodles) or another local speciality of your choice before returning to your accommodation in Yuzawa, a mid-range city hotel.
DAY 7—BONDEN FESTIVAL, HISTORIC VILLAGE WALK AND LACQUERWARE WORKSHOPS: In the morning, return to Yokote to watch the colourful festival floats being paraded down the main street, as part of the Bonden Festival marking the finale to the Kamakura Festival. Continue your excursion to a laid-back historic village in a rural area of Yokote with a distinct and fascinating architectural style. Enjoy a lunch of Inaniwa-udon, a local noodle speciality cooked to al dente perfection. Travel to Kawatsura village in the late afternoon and visit a museum and an artisan workshop showcasing the elegant local lacquerware tradition. Accommodation as per Day 6.
DAY 8—SAKE BREWERY TOUR: During the morning, visit one of the renowned sake breweries of Yuzawa, a major centre of sake brewing in Tōhoku. On a short guided tour, learn how the snowy humid climate and clean volcanic waters of Akita Prefecture assist in brewing their aromatic, award-winning sake, and how the four-hundred year-old brewery upholds traditional methods—to the extent of manually affixing labels to their bottles! Enjoy lunch at one of the local restaurants serving creative cuisine that skilfully use sakekasu, the fermented residues of sake brewing now recognised as a nutritional superfood. Alternatively, choose from a diverse range of ramen styles at one of the many small noodle shops. After lunch, travel from Yuzawa to Tōkyō (Shinjuku), where the tour will conclude upon arrival in the early evening.
5 nights in mid-range city hotels with Western-style beds
2 nights in a an upper mid-range boutique hotel with Western-style beds within a modernised traditional Japanese house in a town setting
DEPARTURE DATE: Saturday 10 February 2018; itinerary subject to change depending on, but not limited to, accommodation availability, transport timetabling and weather conditions.
BOOKING REQUIRED BEFORE: Friday 15 December 2017
MAXIMUM GROUP SIZE: 6 persons
COST: from AUD $4000 per person (4–6 persons); from AUD$4500 per person (3 persons); from AUD$5000 per person (2 persons); POA for 1 person.
FINAL PAYMENT DATE: Thursday 11 January 2018.
Full tour planning and guiding—8 days
Ground transport (rail, bus, taxi)—8 days, departing from Tōkyō (Shinjuku), returning to Tōkyō (Shinjuku)
Admissions and fees for all attractions and activities listed in itinerary
Relevant information material
PHYSICAL FITNESS REQUIREMENT—MODERATE: all days of the tour involve periods of walking on surfaced and unsurfaced roads and footpaths mostly on gentle to moderate gradients. Participants must be able to walk for up to 10 km per day, and continuously for up to 3 km at a time, on gentle to moderate gradients. You will be required to walk for extended periods of time on snow, ice and mud with an uneven and slippery surface that the unaccustomed may find exhausting. Under these winter conditions, it is easy to fall over; you must inform us prior to departure if you suffer from health conditions that makes you susceptible (more than a normal person) to fractures, muscle injuries, bruising or bleeding. There may be short sections of steep terrain including stone steps. The weather conditions are likely to be poor with frequent periods of windy, snowy weather and low temperatures typically between minus 10°C and 0°C. During sunny spells, sun-sensitive people will require protection against the intense glare, such as sunscreen and sunglasses.
CULTURAL TOLERANCE REQUIREMENT—MODERATE: all accommodation on the tour feature Western-style beds. Most meals will be traditional Japanese style, including a range of country-style foods, and non-Japanese food options may be unavailable. The tour features festivals that are crowded with spectators; you must be able to tolerate crowds and a certain amount of jostling.