Firecrackers and Ice: 5 Must-See Festivals in Asia This Winter

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For many people, the joys of winter center on strapping on skis, snowshoes or skates and getting outdoors. Of course, that is no less true in many parts of Asia. But with climates ranging from the famously snowy Japanese island of Hokkaido to the tropical forests of Malaysia, the continent offers a wide variety of wintertime delights for travelers who are seeking something different from a day on the slopes. Fresh-caught mountain trout sashimi, anyone? Here are five festivals to check out this winter.

South Korea

The chance to pluck a sancheoneo, or mountain trout, from a frozen river draws thousands of visitors every winter to a cold-weather-loving corner of South Korea. The annual ice festival, held in Hwacheon County from Jan. 6 to 28 this year, doubles as a tribute to a cherished local fish.

To join in, first, buy plastic bait and a pole on the boardwalk along the Hwacheon Stream. Then venture onto the thick ice and claim a predrilled hole in the fishing area. Now, it’s time to start luring some trout. Pro tip: It’s all in the wrist. And in case your aquatic adeptness still feels lacking, experts dart about sharing fishing tips. Between their advice and the abundance of trout in the river, even an amateur’s chances of success are pretty good.

Whether or not you fish, you can still get a taste of the fresh catch (alas, not your own) near the fishing area, where a restaurant tent sells the trout fried, grilled and sashimi-style. Order every preparation and savor each with a local beer.

After fishing, warm up with some ice sports. Visitors can skate, sled, pedal the fanciful contraption that is an ice bike, and even scoot around crouched or seated on a wooden plank, steering themselves with two sticks (sounds hard, but it’s well worth the exertion once you get gliding).

Some brave souls take a dip in the river, inspiring shivers among the spectators. If you’d rather stay dry, walk about 10 minutes from the river to an indoor ice castle and sculpture landscape that make for exquisite Instagram posts.

Most guests wrap up their festival visit around the corner from the ice castle site, with an evening stroll up a street bedecked with a canopy of holiday lights — a bright ending to the day. Hwacheon is about a 90-minute bus ride from Seoul. — Farah Fleurima

Malaysia

Thaipusam, a Tamil Hindu festival celebrated annually on the periphery of Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, is many things: spectacular, raucous, gaudy, intoxicating and definitely not for the faint of heart. Each year, scores of devotees at the festival — which celebrates the victory of the god Murugan over a demon — fulfill vows of personal sacrifice, hoping the deity will grant their prayers: recovery of a sick relative, for example, or expiation of a past misdeed. Each petitioner must carry a kavadi, or burden, trekking to a temple built inside the huge, limestone Batu Caves complex about eight miles outside the Malaysian capital. Kavadis can range from a simple pot of milk to elaborate steel-and-wood mobile shrines that can weigh more than a hundred pounds.

Many also pierce their flesh with hooks and skewers, a practice banned in India, but still permitted in Malaysia. The sight of scores of pierced pilgrims climbing the 250-odd steps leading up to the temple amid a delirious uproar of chanting, drumming and blaring music draws hundreds of thousands of worshipers and spectators every year. This year, the three-day festival will climax on Jan. 25, when devotees and their supporting family members and friends make the pilgrimage.

Some of the kavadi carriers — who have spent weeks fasting and abstaining from sex in preparation — appear to have worked themselves in a semi-fugue state, appearing not to feel pain from their piercings. Despite the intense devotion and sometimes chaotic atmosphere, the mood is more like a street party than a religious ceremony. Indeed, for some of the devotees, presumably those who have made the pilgrimage many times, it all seems surprisingly mundane. The last time I attended, one man carrying a towering kavadi anchored to the skin on his back by several dozen huge steel hooks raised a hand as I passed, flashing a grin and calling out, “Where you from, mate?” — Simon Elegant


Japan

The ancient city of Nara, once Japan’s capital, wards off the wintertime darkness with an unusual tradition: lighting a local mountain on fire.

In a tradition stretching back over 250 years, a brief, but impressive, fireworks show leads to the heralding of trumpets. Then the dry grass of Nara Park’s Mount Wakakusa is set alight by local firefighters. (“Yamayaki” translates as “mountain burning,” and theories behind its origins are as colorful as they are apocryphal, ranging from an internecine clan boundary dispute to attempts at confining ghosts to a mountaintop tomb.)

Depending on weather conditions, the flames can burn for up to an hour and are visible throughout the city. For an up-close experience, spectators can watch from viewing points at the base of the mountain, while others may prefer to see the spectacle from one of the city’s temples or historical buildings, such as Heijo Palace, farther away from the mountain.

Ahead of the fireworks display and grass burning, the former usually kicking off at 6:15 p.m., a number of smaller events also take place throughout the day, including a contest in which participants compete to see how far they can throw an oversize version of the rice crackers many visitors feed to the city’s ubiquitous deer.

Attendees can also enjoy live music performances and outdoor food stalls, as well as a procession of officials dressed in historical garb as they make their way to the mountain ahead of the burning.

This year’s festival, scheduled for Jan. 27, is a short bus ride from Nara Station, although the city’s brisk, but not unduly cold, late-January weather makes for a pleasant walk and the chance to enjoy other festivities along the way to the park. — Allan Richarz


Japan

Some cities hibernate when snow begins to fall. Sapporo, on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, comes alive. For one week every February, the city, which hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics, embraces the cold with the Sapporo Snow Festival, offering outdoor dining, markets, sports, ice sculptures and more across three event sites.

From its humble beginnings in 1950, when a group of high school students created a half-dozen snow sculptures as a one-off event, the festival now features more than 200 snow and ice sculptures along the nearly one-mile main festival site at Odori Park. The works range from modest, but nonetheless impressively detailed, amateur-built creations to towering professional designs depicting mascots, anime characters, famous buildings and hometown sports heroes. To take it all in, head to the observation deck of the nearby Sapporo TV Tower (admission: 1,000 yen, or about $7.10) for a sweeping view of the festival from 295 feet overhead. When you come down, the area around the tower hosts a multitude of outdoor drink and dining options from piping-hot noodle dishes to all-you-can-eat meals.

Nearby, the Susukino Ice World showcases a variety of dazzling ice sculptures brilliantly lit each evening along the boulevard, as well as the chance to watch artisans at work during the festival’s ice-sculpting contest.

And returning for the first time since 2020, the Tsudome site offers snowy all-ages activities for more adventurous types. Attractions include snow and ice slides for tubes and sleds, zip lines, a snow maze and a snow raft towed behind a snowmobile. If you’re feeling the chill a little too much, indoor dining options are also available, showcasing Sapporo specialties like ramen and seafood rice bowls.

This year’s festival runs from Feb. 4 to 11. If you go, bundle up against the cold, and consider investing in a pair of removable snow cleats to navigate the often icy exhibition spaces. While booking a hotel in the city center provides maximum convenience, the festival’s walkable proximity to Sapporo Station and nearby metro stations makes arriving by public transit an easy alternative. — Allan Richarz


Taiwan

Every year, communities across northern Taiwan celebrate the end of the traditional Lunar New Year celebrations with the peaceful spectacle of thousands of lanterns released into the night sky. But the southern city of Taitung has its own way to greet the occasion: a loud, fiery feat of endurance. On the 15th day of the first lunar month — this year, Feb. 24 — volunteers let themselves be pelted with thousands of exploding firecrackers.

During the tradition, Blasting Lord Handan (also known as Bombing Lord Handan), young men holding a banyan tree branch and wearing nothing but shorts, a headdress, protective goggles and a wet towel to shield their mouth and nose from the smoke, are paraded through the streets on a bamboo throne, portraying Lord Handan. The firecrackers, wired together in bricks, explode around their bare flesh. Covered in welts and bloody scrapes, the volunteers find honor in their pain and hope to receive a blessing from the ordeal.

According to Taoist beliefs, Handan was originally a Shang dynasty general named Zhao Gongming who, upon his death, became a god known for his ability to generate wealth and control lightning. The tradition of blasting Handan arose, tradition holds, because of the god’s dislike for the cold — the firecrackers are meant to bring him warmth and please him.

Even though the practice is specific to Taitung, it is believed to have arrived from Taiwan’s west coast during the Chinese imperial era. Under Japanese colonial rule (1895 to 1945), traditional Chinese religious expression was suppressed, and Handan worship was pushed into private homes. Taitung revived the tradition in 1951, and it has quickly become the region’s most important folk-religion ritual. Today, the spectacle takes place at Xuanwu Temple, which is dedicated to Handan, and can also be seen all around the streets. — Mike Kai Chen

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