See the Skylanterns at Tsunan’s Famous Snow Festival

By Matt Klampert

The town of Tsunan has just celebrated their 48th annual Snow Festival. Also known as the “Skylantern Festival,” this winter festival has been gaining popularity among those who are fans of authentic rural matsuri, and in 2019 it was ranked first nationwide in “Spectacular Winter Spots to Visit” by popular booking website Jalan. Seeing this normally sleepy town come alive in celebration is really a sight to behold. Let’s learn all about it!

What is the Tsunan Snow Festival?

The festival itself is actually split into two main areas: the Ohwarino festival grounds in Tsunan’s downtown area, and a large staging area located outside Hotel New Greenpia Tsunan. The hotel New Greenpia is by far the largest accommodation in the remote town of Tsunan. This resort hotel is located amidst the picturesque river terraces of Tsunan’s highland area at an altitude of 650 meters with a great view of the vicinity of majestic Mt. Naeba, and is truly massive, with enough space for approximately 600 guests. In fact, the entire property of this Sakura Quality hotel is 3.79 square kilometers, which is approximately the size of 81 Tokyo Domes! Many people choose to stay at accommodation in Tsunan during the festival’s duration, and among the many rooms at New Greenpia are dog friendly rooms where you and your pet can stay together. Click HERE for more info about pet friendly stays in YUKIGUNI.

Things to Do

Festivities at the Tsunan Snow Festival usually begin around 11:30 and continue throughout the day. Enjoy a wide variety of musical and dance performances, as well as delicious festival treats from dozens of food stalls. At the Ohwarino festival site is a giant igloo called a “kamakura,” which guests can enter while wearing period clothes like mino coats and hats made of wara, and pose for pictures in this deep winter scenery. This sort of clothing has a long history in YUKIGUNI: Prior to the introduction of mass transit, locals would often go from town to town in Snow Country on foot while wearing such garments, as well as special snowshoes called “kanjiki.” The newly renovated Yukigunikan Museum in Yuzawa is a great place to learn about such history, click HERE to see more!

At the New Greenpia site, enjoy sledding and snowmobile rides, riding on snow cycles and hanging out and toasting marshmallows in a takibi tent. The New Greenpia Site features an actual “snow shrine” to pray and receive a fortune slip! Art is also an important aspect of the festival: you can see live painting from “Gravityfree,” who have created installations at Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale- a large rural art festival with multiple sites around Tsunan and nearby Tokamachi. Learn all about it HERE.

Local Festival Food and Sake

The delicious food available at the Tsunan Snow Festival includes some of the best local specialties of Niigata. When you think of Japanese festival food, you generally imagine delicious fried meats or fish grilled on skewers. However, a highlight here are Tsunan’s special carrots! Freshly picked carrots known as “yukishita ninjin” ripen underneath the snow and are said to be sweeter than most carrots, and are the pride of Tsunan. Among the food stalls are some of which participated in “B-Class Gourmet,” a nationwide initiative showcasing delicious and local Japanese cuisine. Another local highlight is Jiji Kitchen and their special kakunidon rice bowls made with Tsunan pork. If you are interested in more good eats in YUKIGUNI, you can also visit B-1 Gourmet restaurants in the area including izakaya such as Kyou in Minamiuonuma and Shiten Tempura Restaurant in Tokamachi.

For those of you with a sweet tooth, you can enjoy specialty sweets and parfaits courtesy of Kura Café, a charming shop located in a real kura, an old-style Japanese wooden storehouse, in Tsunan’s downtown area. Though currently closed for the winter season, they are known for their homemade brownies, coffee and homestyle welsh cakes. Another delicious gift item at the festival are Matsuya Bakery’s “Sen no Akari” manjyu cakes.

At the New Greenpia site, the longest lines were not for food, but for sake! Tsunan Sake Brewery’s amazake is perfect for a cold winter’s day, and their other selections show off the best of YUKIGUNI sake. A relatively new brewery, it was founded in 1996 as a collaboration between local farmers and sake brewers. The location of the small brewery- tucked away in a remote part of Tsunan- was chosen due to its proximity to nature and the most important ingredients for premium sake: fresh water, which comes straight from nearby Mt. Naeba, site of the Naeba-Sanroku Geopark. Click HERE for local brewery tour information.

Local Performance and Music

Both the Ohwarino festival site and New Greenpia have stage areas with electric performances by musical guests the likes of Marleys – who performed at the 2014 Fuji Rock Festival in nearby Yuzawa (LINK) – and Eito, a singer-songwriter known for his 2019 hit single “Kosui” and has performed at both at Japan’s Kohaku Uta Gassen and around the world. There are also dance performances by local dance troupes, whether they be traditional tengu dances or contemporary hip hop. Events like soap bubble workshops are fun for the whole family!

See the fantastic Tsunan Skylanterns

The Tsunan Snow Festival ends on a bang with a procession through town and the launching of thousands of “skylanterns!” Skylanterns were said to be used for centuries as a means of communication, but the Tsunan Skylanterns first began to commemorate the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Best yet, anyone can join! Please check the Tsunan Snow Festival Website for details on how to register your group, and send your own skylantern up into the Snow Country sky!

The Tsunan Snow Festival is just one of the many unique and exciting winter festivals you can see in YUKIGUNI. Click HERE for information about other winter festivals including the so-called “Strange Festivals” of Snow Country!

Information for Travelers

Tsunan Snow Festival & Skylanterns

Address: 585 Shimofunatobo, Tsunan, Nakauonuma District, Niigata 949-8201 (Ohwarino)
12300 Akinari, Tsunan, Nakauonuma District, Niigata 949-8313 (Hotel New Greenpia)
Access: Shuttle Bus service available from Tsunan Town Hall to Hotel New Greenpia (1,000 yen for round-trip ticket)