COLUMN: Celebrating winter with festivals

Winter festivals in Toyokoro, Japan feature ice sculptures, food, icy slides and dancing lights

Janet Jory

As North American lifestyle news discussed what various groundhogs were forecasting, we in Hokkaido knew the answer to the “more winter?” question is “yes, six weeks and then some.”

The answer to handling it is to embrace it.

Winter festivals feature ice sculptures, food, icy slides and dancing lights.

The Tokachi area festivals all centered around the first weekend of February, so one has to make hard choices. I missed out on the Obihiro ice festival, and the Rikutbetsu Shibare Festival.

Rikubetsu’s claim to fame is as the coldest place in Hokkaido, and “shibare” is a Hokkaido dialect word for “cold.”

Instead, tempted by the offer of a sushi roll making party to follow, I chose to drive just an hour north to join friends in Ashoro for the Wood Candle Festival.

The town square was decorated with both ice candles and wood candles. The wood candles are formed from lengths of Ashoro larch trees. Chainsaws are used to make crosswise splits, three quarters of the way down the logs. Candles are placed at the bottom of the splits, so the logs burn from the inside out.

The ice candles are made by freezing water in buckets, and using salt to melt a hole in the centre. Remove the ice from the bucket, place a candle in the middle, and voila! A heart shaped snow alcove outlined by ice candles provides the setting for the ubiquitous Japanese photo op.

In the Town of Toyokoro, the big attraction is “Jewelry Ice.”

The term was coined relatively recently by a well-known local photographer, and the fame of the phenomenon is growing.

Last year, an article even appeared in the New York Times.

The little fishing village of Otsu, at the mouth of the Tokachi River, is now overwhelmed at dawn throughout January and February, by car loads and bus loads of sight seekers and photographers wanting to catch the colours as the rising sun shines on and through the chunks of wave polished ice.

Janet Jory is in Summerland’s sister city of Toyokoro, Japan as the assistant English teacher.

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