Sponsored by Yonezawa City
Yonezawa City is no stranger to snow. Located in southeastern Yamagata Prefecture, near the Fukushima border, the city is close to the mountains and firmly in the northern part of Honshu Island. With that geography comes notoriously heavy snowfall, with some nearby areas easily getting two meters or more in the winter months.
The city has embraced its white winter wonderland with the annual Uesugi Snow Lantern Festival. Held the second Saturday and Sunday of February on the grounds of Uesugi Shrine and Matsugamisaki Park, there are over 300 carefully crafted snow lanterns that are built for the festivities. Each has its own candle, illuminating the area at night, when locals and visitors flock to the festival grounds to enjoy the beautiful scene.
Snow Lanterns and a Candle-lit Winter Landscape
Yonezawa was once a major castle town for the Uesugi clan, including the renowned Uesugi Yozan, who ruled in the late 1700s. This historical figure is beloved in Yonezawa and credited with bringing industry back to the area and improving the lives of residents. The festival now bears the clan’s names and take place on the former castle ruins.
Alongside the Uesugi snow lanterns are over 1,000 snow lamps. Some of the festival candles are tucked inside crevices made in snow walls, creating stunning, candle-lit pathways.
The technical skill is just as impressive as the scenery. The man power needed to create and maintain these lanterns and keep the candles lit is enormous. Volunteers are on hand during the festival weekend to make sure all the lanterns are illuminated. Other candles are placed inside elaborately carved bamboo poles, several of which line up to spell “YONEZAWA” at the entrance to the festival.
Outside the main festival area you can stroll through the quiet, winter night and admire the lanterns spread across the shrine grounds. It’s quite striking to see the lanterns backdropped by pillows of white snow. It also couldn’t be more photogenic. When I visited, it was snowing lightly throughout the evening. Despite the cold, families and dates were out enjoying the festival and taking in the scenery.
More than a stunning picture, though, the Uesugi Snow Lantern Festival captures the beauty and traditions of Japan’s Tohoku (northern Honshu Island) region. Taking the circumstances of frigid weather and prohibitive levels of snow, and turning it into a celebration.
Enjoy the Matsuri Festivities
While the snow lanterns are rightfully the first and foremost attraction of this event, like any matsuri, there are plenty of happenings on the festival grounds. At the center of it all is a replica of the Yonezawa Castle made of snow. Uesugi Snow Lantern Festival is held every year, in part, on the castle ruins. As a dedication to this history, the festival organizers construct this elaborate snow sculpture and using spotlights to turn it into a colorful illumination.
Local elementary schoolers also contribute to the festivities with their own small paper lanterns. Many of the multicolored lanterns have an undeniable adorable factor, with drawings of parents or friends on them and making a wish. Organizers line up several rows of the creations on the far edge of the festival grounds.
At any matsuri, yatai (food stalls) are fundamental. Uesugi Snow Lantern Festival is no exception, with a large assortment of street foods, sweet and savory, for festival-goers to enjoy. Some more general matsuri classics like okonomiyaki (savory cabbage pancakes), takoyaki (fried octopus balls) and yakiimo (roasted sweet potato) as well as Yonezawa’s local foods are available for purchase.
I also enjoyed a Yonezawa specialty, a grilled beef skewer, for 1,000 yen. The Yonezawa area is renowned for its beef; alongside Kobe and Matsusaka it is considered one of the three most famous beef brands in Japan. While the yatai skewer was not prime-grade meat, it was nonetheless delicious.
If you’re considering a trip to Yonezawa City or Yamagata Prefecture, the second Saturday and Sunday of February is the perfect time to enjoy this region of Northern Japan and experience this impressive winter festival.
|Name||Uesugi Snow Lantern Festival|
|Address||1 Chome-4-13 Marunouchi, Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture 992-0052|
1 Chome-4-13 Marunouchi, Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture 992-0052
|Opening Hours||Candle lighting begins nightly at 17:30|
|Price Range||Free Admission|
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