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Otaru Light Festival

February 14, 2016

Every year the village of Otaru puts on a light festival in conjunction with the Sapporo Snow Festival. While the Sapporo Snow Festival feels big and corporate the Otaru Light Festival feels smaller and more spiritual, which is exactly how the village residents who put on the festival every year intended for it to be.

The festival has become increasingly popular over the years with foreign visitors and the tiny event can quickly feel very crowded with just a few busloads of tourists. However, the villagers have done a bang up job of keeping the event quiet, reflective, and spiritual - despite the growing throng of camera wielding onlookers.

Otaru is about 40km from downtown Sapporo, or a one hour train ride on the Hakodate Line, but since we had a car we opted to drive instead. We arrived in Otaru late in the morning and with several hours till sunset my wife and I parted ways - she went shopping in the cute downtown district while I headed out to ski at Otaru Tenguyama Ski Resort (which is only 10 minutes from downtown Otaru).

Otaru Tenguyama Ski resort is quite small. There is a gondola that tourists can pay ¥1,400 to ride to the top of Tenguyama and one double chairlift that accesses the entire mountain for the skiers and riders (Note: there is a single chair lift at the top of the mountain but it is primarily used to access the very gentle slopes found on top of the mountain). The resort is quite small and when I visited half the mountain was closed for some odd reason (I may or may not have explored both halves...) despite the more than adequate snow base of about 1.5+ meters (~five feet)!

The city of Otaru seen through the trees and snow of Otaru Tenguyama Ski Resort.

Despite the limited terrain I had a blast and found some great tree runs and even at the end of the day there were still huge patches of untouched corduroy. I only waited in a lift line once, despite the mountain only having one double, mostly due to the fact that there were 20 people skiing when I first arrived. I have read though that if you come on the weekend the place is crowded and the lift lines can become quite long. The best time to visit this resort is mid week (more info here).

Trails A & D were quite surprising with a pitch of 40°+! There were some very soft (read: a lot of fun) moguls on one and bullet hard, yet surprisingly edgeable, hard pack on the other. The conditions on both made for some impressive descents and spectacular crashes to watch while riding the lift for another go.

With the sun close to setting and a great first day of skiing in Hokkaido under my belt I returned my rental skis and headed down into town to join my wife and see the Otaru Light Festival. (Note: The rental skis were a little pricey coming in at ¥4000 - they charge ¥500 to rent ski poles. If you are going to visit for more than two days it is more cost effective to Black Cat your gear than rent.)

Canal is part one of a three part festival spread throughout the village of Otaru.

Off the main road a few blocks from the canal is a wide path between apartment buildings, homes, and bars that the villagers have painstakingly turned into a winter wonderland of exquisite ice and snow sculptures lit with candles. It is quite charming, absolutely beautiful, and very peaceful.

From time to time as you are wandering down the path you come across villagers roasting potato wedges and mochi over large fires. They hand them out willingly and the price is a smile :)

After taking in the sites of Otaru we returned to the heater in our rental car and headed out to Asarigawa Hot Spring Ski area to see the third part of the Otaru Light Festival!

This portion of the festival is set in (literally) the Asarigawa and along its tree and snow covered banks. It is quite small but the highlight for us, besides the beautifully candle lit paths and boulders mid-stream, was the food. We sipped on delicious hot apple cider and snacked on the Japanese version of a crunch wrap supreme with squid and cheese while sitting in a beautiful warming hut! After our delicious supper we headed back to our hotel in Sapporo; our minds filled with the dancing flames of a million candles and the warm smiles of total strangers.

Written by Isaac Tait who now lives in San Diego but dreams of returning, one day, to Japan. You should follow him on Twitter