My 2015 Asian Festival Bucket List

Filed Under: Travel

I’ll cut right to the point. I’ve been thinking long and hard about this, and there are two Asian festivals I’m keen to check out in 2015:

Harbin Ice Festival

The Harbin Ice Festival is the world’s largest ice and snow festival, whereby basically an entire city is created out of ice sculptures. In 2015 it runs from January 5 through February 28.

Here are a couple of videos:

Ordinarily I hate the cold and can’t say I love flying within China, though I’ll do everything in my power to attend. I’ll have to take a brief break in international travel so that I can get a Chinese visa, since all my recent visits to China have been using a 72 hour transit without visa.

I have a limited range of dates during which I can attend, given the US Airways award to Australia I have planned over that time period, via Europe and the Middle East.

Kanamara Matsuri

Kanamara Matsuri is held in Kawasaki, Japan, not far outside of Tokyo. It’s held the first Sunday in April, so in 2015 will be held on April 5, 2015.

I’ll let the video speak for itself:

Call me nuts, but I have to attend this one. For a culture as high context, reserved, and sensitive as Japan, this one just fascinates me.

Anyone have experiences?

Has anyone attended either the Harbin Ice Festival or Kanamara Matsuri? Any tips (obviously there are “tips” at the latter, but that’s not what I’m referring to)? And if you haven’t been, anyone else interested in attending either of these? Or am I just freaking weird (which isn’t mutually exclusive — you can call me nuts and still agree with me)? šŸ˜‰

  1. What was going through your mind when you thought “hey, I think I am going to go to festival in Japan dedicated to male reproductive organs”?

  2. I visited the Harbin Ice Festival 10+ years back with my familyā€”I thought it was absolutely fantastic, and I can imagine it must have gotten even better over the years. I was young but I remember it being really, really bitter cold, and you see people everywhere wearing surgical face masks because of the pollution and the wind (we thought it looked silly but were doing the same by the time we left). I also remember there was a crowd of people trying to get you to ride horse drawn carriages when you enter…must have took us at least 15 minutes to say no to all of them and get to the main attractions. Don’t know if these qualify as “tips” but I’m sure you’ll have a blast if you go!

  3. Wow..thanks for the info!

    I will be in Japan around that time and April 5th is actually my buffer day between Tokyo and Osaka! Maybe I will fly to Tokyo on the 4th and go down there on the 5th! Maybe I will run into you!!!

  4. I’ve been to Harbin during the summer. It’s a has a bit more of a rural feel to it. The airport is quite a distance from the city. There are buses and cabs available to the city. The high speed train from Beijing is actually quite nice and fast. If you have the time they have a big Siberian tiger park and quite a large aquarium. There are quite a few Mongolian experience areas outside where you can live a little bit of the Mongolian life (maybe ride a camel)

  5. Ditto the recommendation to use high-speed trains in China whenever possible. Even Shanghai to Beijing in ~5 hours is well worth it, to avoid the delay-prone airports. Remember that there are three classes of service on many trains:
    * Second Class – equivalent to US coach, with 3×2 seats
    * First Class – equivalent to US business class, with 2×2 reclining seats
    * Business Class – equivalent to US first class, with 1×2 fully-flat seats
    Yes, “Business Class” is more expensive than “First Class.” But it’s less costly than domestic first by air. You can use to check schedules, but tickets must be bought in-country so that your passport number can be verified by a ticket agent. Most high-end hotels will do the ticket purchase for you for a few dollars (give them a copy of your passport picture page, not the original).

    If time>money, visa service will do your China visa in a week or less, with door-to-door FEDEX shipping.

  6. We were in Harbin for the ice festival several years ago. Actually there are three locations, the downtown lit up festival, the main festival with very large ice sculptures(when we were there among others was the
    Palace from Lhasa and the Eiffel Tower) and a snow park sculpture area somewhat out of town. Among other things they cut a hole in the ice for people to do “polar bear” swims. It was really worth going. Very cold, but if you dress warm you could survive. Of course you could just go to one of the Gaylord Hotels in the US

    There is also an ice festival outside of Beijing that we went to on the same trip.

    We went to the Siberian tiger park also. A week before we went someone got out of their car…you can imagine the rest.

    Finally we live in a small town in upstate New York that has a winter festival. The guy who does our snow sculptures was a winner at the Harbin ice carving contest.

    A definite you should go.

  7. Hi Ben-

    I went with a mate in January of this year. Had a blast! Spent about 3 days in Harbin, which is plenty. There’s three events. Theres a smaller ice-park located near the main city, an snow sculpture festival, and finally the big one you generally see in all the main photos. Be sure to go at night. And its cold!! Not just your average freezing, but I think a couple of nights it was around -20 degrees, so bundle up with some serious clothes if you go.

    Theres also a tiger park, which is interesting. You can even pay money to feed live animals to tigers (from a chicken, all the way up to a cow). Only in China …

    Also be sure to see the show with the old men jumping into the freezing river, madness!

    We stayed at a cheap hotel, as we’re on a student budget, but there is also a Shangri-La I do believe in the city.

    Here is a link with my photos:

    let me know if you have any other ??’s.

  8. @Lucky

    Why would you have to take a break from travel to get a visa? IIRC you have two passports, as US one and a German one. I’d get the visa in the german one as the Chinese charge extra for US passport holder sue to excessive US visa charges. Should only take a quick trip to Berlin to get the visa.

    I have two UK passports for precisely this reason. All it took was letter from my employer saying that I needed to travel while applying for visas and they granted me a second passport.

  9. I am planning to go to Harbin this year. It has been on a wish list of mine for quite some time. I plan to fly Air Canada YYC-YVR-PEK and then connect onto Air China PEK-HRB. Arrive on January 4, just in time for the Opening Ceremonies on January 5. Spend a couple days. Then either head back home to YYC or, depending on who joins me, we may make a side trip to SIN using Aeroplan Miles: 30,000 Business Class HRB-PEK-SIN/SIN-NRT and then Air Canada-it back NRT-YYC. Still planning it all…

    I am trying to find if there are any English speaking group tours that are offered during the Harbin Snow and Ice Festival as all I can find are China tours that include Harbin on an itinerary or private Harbin tours.

    Already booked the hotel just in case; I/we will stay at the Holiday Inn Harbin.

    Maybe I/we will see you there!

  10. I’ve been thinking about an Asian ice festival too, but I’ve been thinking Sapporo more than Harbin. I guess the Harbin festival is bigger in some respects, but I tend to think that Sapporo would be more pleasant in other ways (less pollution, better hotels, restaurants, bars, etc., and no need for a visa). Has anyone been to both?

  11. I’d soooooo love to go for the Harbin Ice Festival… northeastern China is my favorite part of China… have a great friend that lives in Dandong, a border city to North Korea and she’s been asking me to go to the Harbin festival for a while now…

    Any chance you’d go on a trip with one of your fans? You’d have a free guide in Harbin!
    I’m 17 – flown 1.4m miles, a real person – met you at the Chicago Seminars – and been to China 3 times!

  12. @ Ed — Because I’m not sure a “quick trip to Berlin” is really faster (or cheaper) than sending in my passport to an expedited visa service. šŸ˜‰

  13. Lucky – if you are planning to transit in Washington DC just schedule a long layover and you can get a Chinese visa at the Embassy. I went in person and it took no more than 2 hours. Super easy process.

  14. Try visiting Kyushu (LAX – ICN – HRB – ICN – FUK – HKG – LAX / LAX – NRT – FUK – HNL – LAX)! The ryokans are phenomenal and I love the area!

  15. Also, if in Harbin, go with the Sofitel/Holiday Inn. The latter you can use points but the former is quite far ahead.

    The Kanayama Shrine is pretty close to Central Tokyo, so you can stay at the Conrad, Andaz or (again) the Park Hyatt. Of course, if you do have aspirations of trying out a ryokan (even more “extreme” than the Hoshinoya), please do…

  16. Ben,

    While you love flying (so do I), I can’t help but think you should try out inter-China train travel. Don’t take the “D” prefix bullet trains. From Beijing-Harbin, for example, take the Z15 train, which leaves Beijing at 9:15 and arrives in Harbin at 7:15. Purchase one of the “soft-sleeper” or the “luxury soft-sleeper” (4 or 2 per room), sleep the whole way and arrive relaxed. It should cost no more than $300 R/T for the luxury sleeper and half for the normal “soft-sleeper” (Basically first class if compared to airlines.)

    Also, the food served on Chinese trains is OK. And, you get to enjoy what I enjoyed many times growing up, a Chinese train station! Where you must hold your passport and belongings tight.

    Note train travel in China is much more pleasant as there are very little delays compared to flying.

  17. I think air travel within China are perfectly safe with just about any airlines out there, though delays are pretty common if you’re flying to/ between some of the hubs like CAN, PEK, SHA etc, but you should be fine just flying to Harbin. I would recommend you fly to HKG, cross border there into Shenzhen and fly out of SZX to HRB(and there’s transportation directly connecting the two airports). SZX is one of the major *A hubs in China and a really gorgeous airport to check out. You can redeem to travel on Shenzhen Airlines, which is IMO one of the quality airlines in China, and features a First Class product similar to domestic First in the US, or a flat-bed if you happen to get their premium 737-900 which normally serves SZX-PEK. I’ll be glad to help if you need more information.

  18. And for paid tickets between SZX-HRB, there’re constantly flights available at USD ~100 for travel in Economy, and ~300 in First Class

  19. We went to the Nikko spring festival (yayoi matsuri) this year. It didn’t have giant penises, but in every other way was pretty crazy and tons of fun. It was the highlight of our trip to Japan. I’d go to that festival in a heartbeat. You’ll love it!

  20. Dear Ben,

    I went to Kanamara matsuri in april 2014 and I don’t regret at all; it’s certainly a piece of (japanese) life!
    Here are some of my pictures and thoughts about it:

    I warmly recommend this festival.

    PS: you’re not “freaking weird”, just “curious about other cultures” :-p

  21. Love that you’re going to Harbin, Ben! My hometown is Changchun, which is about 150 miles south of Harbin. I lived in Michigan for five years after we moved to the states when I was 7. Anyways, be prepared for the coldest, bitterest cold you’ve ever experienced! Worse than the lake effect in Michigan. It’s hard to describe, except you really have to keep your face covered well or you get chapped cheeks pretty quickly from the wind/cold combo, it’s like razor blades! Enjoy the food in Dongbei, if you’ve never had it before it may seem a little foreign, but it’s very homey and hearty and perfect esp in the wintertime (think dumplings, baos, Chinese pancakes, noodles, hearty soups and stews). If you’re feeling adventurous, dog soup is a big thing in Changchun (traditionally a Korean dish that’s common bc of the ethnic Korean presence) and maybe Harbin too. I’ve never tried it but it was my grandpa’s favorite thing to eat and supposedly tastes like lamb. If you go to that area another time of year, a visit to Changbaishan is pretty cool. It’s on the border with North Korea( you can literally see it on the other side), and many Koreans and Chinese alike visit. You can also experience the unique culture/food of the Korean Chinese (ethnic Koreans who are Chinese citizens but still speak Korean and eat a hybrid of Chinese and Korean foods)

  22. Harbin Ice festival if your lucky -20c then the next could be -40c wind chill beyond my comprehension!!! In Japan at the “fertility festival” a lot of attendees take this very seriously, crowd surgess are common and so are injuries! If you are taking part in the final part where a wooden penis is thrown into a dark temple full of 1.000’s of naked men, the victor/victim emerges with the wooden penis. Count the number of ambulances waiting on standby say 2-300 hundred!! This is one of the most physical festivals in Japan and even amongst the spectators! As a gay male this is not what you think!!!!! Oh and Lucky won’t do Ryokans no points! Trains in China are very comfortable and fast but Bejing-Harbin on the fastest is still 7.15 hrs. Agree do it from NRT, extreme cold and violence not my criteria for a festival!

  23. As others have mentioned, taking the overnight train from Beijing is highly recommended. Pay for “first class” to be in a room shared with 4 other passengers with your own bunk bed, on the cheap. It was surprisingly nice and comfy.

    (-10) degrees in the afternoon with the sun shining bright, eating ice cream sold right out of a plastic container. The air I was breathing in was colder than the ice cream! It was magical!!!

  24. It’s FREEZING. I mean FREEZING & WINDY. If you do take photos, do it in the evening for the best effect (and to see the colorful lights.) Perhaps bring a tripod for best photos. It’ll be a magical experience but make sure to dress appropriately! šŸ™‚

  25. I may be boring but neither a festival dedicated to penises nor one where ice cream is warmer than the air sound like fun. What happened to going to burning man or coachella? Or even just a simple Taylor Swift concert?

  26. @ James W — Hey, they’re not mutually exclusive. A Taylor Swift concert is in my future as well. šŸ˜€

  27. Japanese festival is funny, never heard of something like this before. Another crazy side if Japanese people like Takeshi’s Castle

  28. I’ve been to Harbin several times, including to the Ice Festival. Just a warning that I must repeat: It is cold as balls there in Harbin during the Ice Festival. It was about minus 25 when I was there, coldest place I’ve ever been. It was hard to even breathe outside for more than 5 mins. You need something to cover your mouth and any bare skin while outside or you’ll get frostbite. While I thought it was sort of neat to see the Harbin Ice Festival, quite honestly I MUCH prefer Harbin during the summer. The weather is perfect, there are tons of outdoor beer gardens. It is really a fun city. I’d highly suggest you do during the Summer………………..but that defeats your whole purpose of going there. So I guess you’ll just hafta go to Harbin twice once you get your 10-yr Chinese Visa.

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