Winter in Matsumoto and The Ice Sculpture Festival

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After living in Alaska so many years, I can’t help but miss snow. Here on the Kanto Plain of Japan, we get snow flurries occasionally, but it really doesn’t stick. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love going through the winter months only needing a medium warmth jacket, instead of my heavy winter gear, but I just love winter and snow.

I’m always looking for great places to go that will give me that brisk winter feeling. We discovered that heading up to Matsumoto in January is truly a winter experience, especially when you get to experience the ice sculpture festival.

Dragon ice sculpture
A dragon peaks at us from the dawn.

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Matsumoto in Winter – Really?

Even though winter is the perfect time to visit Matsumoto, most of the things we did are available all year round. There’s plenty to do in this small city, one of many great day trips from Tokyo, only a couple of hours north.

Matsumoto Castle with snow on Japanese Alps in background, a fantastic Japan winter destination
Matsumoto Castle and the snow covered mountains in the background.

We started off right at Matsumoto castle park. It was here that the ice sculptures were taking place. We watched as they started setting up the sites for the sculpture competition.

Apparently, on Saturday night starting at 6:00 PM, the teams of two from all around the world begin their sculptures. They have 12 hours to complete their competition entry.

At 6:00 the next morning they are judged, and within a couple of hours the awards have been given and the artists have gone home or to their hotel to warm up and get some much needed sleep.

Artist taking off big chunks of ice before carving horse
A sculptor begins working on his creation for the festival.

The Ice Sculpture Competition

Getting Started

We watched as the town crew cordoned off the competition sites, delivered ice blocks, and set up signs. As fascinating as it all was, we knew we would have to come back in the evening for the real action, so we took this chance to visit the castle and museum.

This is one of favorite castles in Japan, but it is cold in the winter time. Be sure and wear thick socks since you’ll be taking your shoes off at the entrance.

Canadian ice sculpture artist making some of the first cuts after the design is sketched on the ice block
A member of the Canadian team begins work.

Coming back after dark, the competitors were elbows deep into the ice blocks where they were drawing, shaving, and sawing them according to their hand drawn designs. For us spectators, it was frigid.

Everyone was stamping their feet, rubbing their hands together, and trying to eat and drink anything hot that they could find. Luckily the food stands were up to the challenge and hearty soups and warm drinks were on hand. 

Ice shards fly in a cloud as the artist chainsaws away
Ice shards fly as the sculptor works on his creation throughout the night.

Carvers Hard at Work All Night Long

The ice carvers had a tent for warming up, and after a few hours this got used more and more, but overall they were outside in the deepest, darkest, coldest of winter days carving away. It was fascinating to watch a block of ice turn into such intricate and beautiful works of art. I loved the variety of the sculptures, everything from archers to dragons to stags. 

A nighttime view of all the ice sculptures in the Matsumoto Castle park
The ice sculptures and artists from across the Matsumoto moat.

I talked with the Canadian team, who travels all over the world to compete, and he told me that they love putting up with the cold to bring their art to life. As the one man chatted with me, his partner was deciphering some of their design notes, and getting right down to work. I wished them luck and promised to come back in the morning to see the finished product.

A legendary figure carved in ice
The pink sunrise colors the disks on this ice sculpture.

Jim and I lasted a couple of hours, and then we were so frozen that all we could think of was returning to our hotel, taking a hot shower, and going to bed. As I lay down, warm and cozy, I couldn’t help but think that these artists were hardy and talented, with a passion for their work that I could only imagine.

As much as I do love being outside during the winter, staying up all night and freezing to sculpt ice is just not ever going to be on my bucket list. I was just happy to be able to witness it.

The ice sculpture entry from Team Mongolia, with their flag out in front
The Mongolian entry

The next morning, after a couple of hot coffees to brace us for the day, we headed out to the castle park. It had snowed overnight, and the roads were still covered with a little dusting of snow. We were going before most people, so there were only a few tire tracks that had gone before us.

However, we found out that we were too late for the awards ceremony. The workers were already packing up the stage. Competition judges were posting the signs to say who had won, come in 2nd place, etc. We were a little bummed not to see the ceremony, but we hurried to see who had achieved what. 

Pin Matsumoto Ice Festival

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What to Wear in Matsumoto During the Winter

However we were comfortable in our Columbia winter jackets, warm hats and gloves. I’m not sure about you, but in the snow, as long as my feet are warm, I’m usually okay.

So, I definitely drug out my fantastic boots. Some folks, especially younger children wore ski pants as well, which personally I think is a really good idea. At any rate, especially in Japan, you want to layer because yes, it’s cold outside, but as soon as you go inside anything like a restaurant or even a bus, you will begin to swelter.

Ice sculpture of a tiger and dragon
After the judging, the blue signs are put up explaining the art.

Where to Stay in Matsumoto

Usually our favorite places to stay are from a hotel chain called Dormy Inn, and there is of course one in Matsumoto. However, being January, we picked a hotel that was closer to the castle this time since the Dormy was about a 15 minute walk. Some hotels that you might want to choose closer to Matsumoto Castle are:

Artist getting ready to sculpt
One artist working on into the night. Judging begins early in the morning.

How to Get to Matsumoto in Winter

Take the train! Yes, you can drive just a few hours and make it to Matsumoto from Tokyo, but it snows. The roads get covered. As I mentioned, the city roads had not been cleared by the time we went back to the castle grounds, and parking is always at a premium.

It’s just better to take the train. You are warm, and you don’t have to worry about road conditions or parking. Matsumoto is a walkable town, so you definitely don’t need a car. Another alternative is to let our trusted travel partners at Get Your Guide do the driving and take their One-Day Matsumoto Tour out of Nagano.

Train from Tokyo to Matsumoto

The train takes about two and a half hours to three hours and will cost about $70 US. From the Shinjuku Station, take the Azusa train. They leave almost every hour, but try to get the “super” train to get there a bit faster.

Artists with fresh ice ready to start sculpting
Delivering the ice blocks to the festival competitors.

Don’t Miss These Other Matsumoto Attractions

  • The Castle
  • City Art Museum
  • Yohashira Shrine
  • Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
  • Folkcraft Museum
  • Timepiece Museum
  • Tenjin Fukashi Shrine

Conclusion

One of the best times to visit Japan is in the winter. There are surprisingly many things to do from skiing to festivals. Visiting Matsumoto and watching the artists carve these amazing ice sculptures really was fun. 

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