When it comes to festivals in China and Japan, we have a selection for you to choose from. There's the Harbin Ice Festival which Explore Product Manager Hannah Methven shares her experience of below. Or you can choose from Japan's Sapporo Snow Festival or Festivals of Yunnan in China.
Located in the far north of China and subject to long, extremely cold winters, Harbin perhaps isn’t the first place that springs to mind for a festival destination. However, once a year this city plays host to a fantastic display of ice sculptures and snow carvings which are well worth braving the cold for. The festival was established in 1985 and typically runs for a month starting from 5th January each year, but of course it is very much dependant on the weather.
Deciding to travel to China in winter was met with a few raised eyebrows, but for me it was ideal: we experienced cold, crisp days with brilliant blue skies, tourist sites were blissfully quiet and we even had a sprinkling of snow as we wandered around Tiananmen Square.
The temperature in Beijing hovered around minus 10 degrees centigrade. This sounds bad but, with thermals, decent gloves and a hat plus plenty of stops for hot, green tea we happily made our way around the sights before hopping on an overnight train to Harbin.
Stepping out of the station there was a noticeable drop in temperature. As we were getting a taxi straight to the hotel we hadn’t put on more than our ‘Beijing layers’ which in hindsight wasn’t the best plan! A quick temperature check at the hotel confirmed that it was minus 22 degrees centigrade that afternoon, but again the sky was perfectly blue so we layered up and headed out. Zhongyang Dajie, the main street, gave us our first taste of the ice sculptures. The sheer variety was incredible, from love seats to figurines to giant beer bottles.
At the end of the street we found the Songhua River and where the real festival atmosphere started. The river had frozen solid and there were hundreds of people playing games, taking horse and carriage rides and even playing paintball on the river. Walking across the ice, which took at least 30 minutes as we slid around and tried to push each other over, we reached the Sun Island Park. This park is set in a quiet residential area and during the festival is home to enormous snow carvings. The main sculpture was a version of St Basil's Cathedral, mixed in with ethereal figurines and cartoon-style characters. The sheer scale was incredible and I can only imagine how long it takes to carve the sculptures.
The highlight of the festival, Ice and Snow World, is located just out of the city. We arrived at around 4.30pm just as the sun was setting; perfect timing as it happens - at 5pm there was a huge fireworks display. The temperature at this point was minus 25 degrees, the coldest point of the trip. But wearing thermals, fleece-lined trousers, four tops, two fleeces and a waterproof jacket plus two pairs of gloves, two scarves and a hat, we spent three hours happily exploring the brightly coloured sculptures, sliding down ice slides and stopping for the odd cup of tea when our fingers got too cold from taking photos.
If you fancy experiencing Harbin for yourself then join our Harbin Ice Festival tour which also takes in Hong Kong and the incredible Chinese New Year fireworks over the harbour.
Japan also makes for a fantastic winter destination and plays host to its own snow and ice festival in the city of Sapporo. Running for one week each year the festival is centred on Odari Park but sculptures are also scattered along the main streets in Susukino. Explore’s Sapporo Snow Festival tour spends time exploring Sapporo and nearby Otaru’s Snow Light Festival, where lanterns and sculptures line the city’s canal creating a magical winter scene. Winter is also the ideal time to visit the charming snow monkeys in Yudanaka. These clever primates use the natural hot springs to keep warm as the air temperatures plunge.
Festivals of Yunnan
If all that snow and ice doesn’t sound appealing then China’s Yunnan Province offers several unique, colourful festivals and New Year’s celebrations. Our new Festivals of Yunnan tour spends a day watching the lama’s chanting and offering blessings at the Dejilin Monastery and a chance to join locals parading from the temple to town square as part of the Ancestor Worship Festival in Zhoucheng Village. This unique and rarely visited region of China is home to the Bai People, known as masters in the arts of silk painting and sculpture and joining them at festival time is one of the best ways to learn about their unique culture.