Firecrackers and ice: 5 unmissable festivals in Asia this winter

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For many people, the joys of winter center around putting on skis, snowshoes or skates and getting outdoors. Of course, this is no less true in many parts of Asia. But with climates ranging from the famous snowy Japanese island of Hokkaido to the rainforests of Malaysia, the continent offers a wide variety of winter delights for travelers looking for something different than a day on the slopes. Freshly caught mountain trout sashimi anyone? Here are five festivals to check out this winter.

South Korea

The opportunity to catch a sancheoneo, or mountain trout, from a frozen river draws thousands of visitors each winter to a cold-weather-loving corner of South Korea. The annual ice festival, held in Hwacheon County from January 6 to 28 this year, also serves as a tribute to a prized local fish.

To join, first purchase plastic bait and a pole from the boardwalk along Hwacheon Stream. Then venture out onto the thick ice and claim a pre-drilled hole in the fishing area. Now is the time to start attracting some trout. Pro tip: It's all in the wrist. And in case you're still lacking aquatic skills, experts are quick to share fishing tips. Between their advice and the abundance of trout in the river, even an amateur's chances of success are pretty good.

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

After fishing, warm up with some ice sports. Visitors can skate, sled, pedal the cool contraption that is an ice bike, and even slide while crouching or sitting on a wooden board, guiding themselves with two sticks (it sounds difficult, but it's worth the effort once you get started). slide).

Some brave people take a dip in the river, causing chills among the spectators. If you prefer to stay dry, walk about 10 minutes from the river to a covered ice castle and a landscape of sculptures that make for exquisite Instagram posts.

Most guests conclude their visit to the festival just around the corner from the ice castle, with an evening stroll along a street adorned with a canopy of Christmas lights – a sparkling end to the day. Hwacheon is about 90 minutes by bus from Seoul. – Farah Fleurima

Malaysia

Thaipusam, a Tamil Hindu festival held annually on the outskirts of Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur, is many things: spectacular, raucous, flashy, intoxicating and definitely not for the faint of heart. Every year, dozens of devotees at the festival, which celebrates the god Murugan's victory over a demon, take vows of self-sacrifice, hoping that the deity will grant their prayers: the recovery of a sick relative, for example, or the atonement for a past. misdeed. Each petitioner must carry a kavadi, or burden, to a temple built within the massive limestone complex of the Batu Caves, about eight kilometers from the Malaysian capital. Kavadis can range from a simple milk container to elaborate mobile shrines of steel and wood that can weigh more than fifty kilos.

Many also pierce their flesh with hooks and skewers, a practice banned in India but still permitted in Malaysia. The sight of dozens of pierced pilgrims climbing the 250 steps leading to the temple amid a delirious uproar of chanting, drumming and loud music attracts hundreds of thousands of worshipers and spectators each year. This year, the three-day festival will culminate on January 25, when devotees and their supporting family and friends make the pilgrimage.

Some of the kavadi wearers, who spent weeks fasting and abstaining from sex in preparation, appear to have worked in a state of semi-fugue, and do not appear to feel pain from their piercings. Despite the intense devotion and sometimes chaotic atmosphere, the atmosphere is more like a street party than a religious ceremony. In fact, for some of the devotees, presumably those who have made the pilgrimage many times, it all seems surprisingly mundane. The last time I attended, a man wearing an imposing kavadi Anchored to the skin of his back by several dozen enormous steel hooks, he raised a hand as I passed, flashing a smile and shouting, “Where are you from, buddy?” – Elegant Simon


Japan

The ancient city of Nara, once the capital of Japan, protects from the darkness of winter with an unusual tradition: setting fire to a local mountain.

Following a tradition that dates back more than 250 years, a brief but impressive fireworks display leads to the sound of trumpets. Local firefighters then set fire to the dry grass on Nara Park's Mount Wakakusa. (“Yamayaki” translates as “mountain burning,” and the theories behind its origins are as colorful as they are apocryphal, ranging from an internal clan dispute over boundary boundaries to attempts to confine ghosts in a tomb in the Top of a mountain).

Depending on weather conditions, the flames can burn for up to an hour and are visible throughout the city. For a closer experience, spectators can watch from viewing platforms at the base of the mountain, while others prefer to watch the spectacle from one of the city's temples or historic buildings, such as Heijo Palace, further up the mountain.

Before the fireworks show and grass burning – the former usually starts at 6:15 pm – a series of smaller events also take place throughout the day, including a contest where participants compete to See how far they can throw an oversized version of the rice crackers that many visitors feed to the city's ubiquitous deer.

Attendees will also be able to enjoy live music performances and outdoor food stalls, as well as a procession of officials dressed in historical costumes as they make their way to the mountain before the burn.

This year's festival, scheduled for January 27, is a short bus ride from Nara Station, although the city's cool, but not excessively cold, late January weather makes it a pleasant walk and the opportunity to enjoy other festivities on the way to the park. – Allan Richarz


Japan

Some cities hibernate when it starts to snow. Sapporo, on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan, comes to life. For one week each February, the city, which hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics, embraces the cold with the Sapporo Snow Festival, featuring outdoor dining, markets, sports, ice sculptures and more at three event sites.

From humble beginnings in 1950, when a group of high school students created a half-dozen snow sculptures as a single event, the festival now features more than 200 snow and ice sculptures along nearly a mile of the festival's main site. festival in Odori. Park. The works range from modest but impressively detailed creations built by amateurs to towering professional designs depicting mascots, anime characters, famous buildings and local sports heroes. To see it all, head to the observation deck of the nearby Sapporo Television Tower (admission: 1,000 yen, or about $7.10) for a panoramic view of the festival from 295 feet above. When you get down, the area around the tower is home to a multitude of outdoor eating and drinking options, from piping hot noodle bowls to all-you-can-eat meals.

Nearby, Susukino Ice World showcases a variety of dazzling, brightly lit ice sculptures each night along the boulevard, as well as the opportunity to watch artisans at work during the festival's ice sculpture competition.

And returning for the first time since 2020, the Tsudome site offers snow activities for all ages for the most adventurous. Attractions include snow and ice slides for tubing and sledding, zip lines, a snow maze and a snow raft towed behind a snowmobile. If you're feeling too cold, there are also indoor dining options, offering Sapporo specialties such as ramen and seafood rice bowls.

This year's festival will take place from February 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 exhibit spaces. While booking a hotel in the city center offers maximum convenience, the festival's walkable proximity to Sapporo Station and nearby subway stations makes arriving by public transportation an easy alternative. – Allan Richarz


Taiwan

Every year, communities in northern Taiwan mark the end of 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 of marking the occasion: a loud, fiery feat of endurance. On the 15th day of the first lunar month (this year, February 24), volunteers let themselves throw thousands of explosive firecrackers.

During the tradition, they parade Bblasting Lord Handan (also known as Bombing Lord Handan), young men holding a banyan tree branch and wearing nothing but shorts, a headdress, goggles, and a wet towel to protect their mouth and face. smoke nose. through the streets on a bamboo throne, representing Lord Handan. The firecrackers, joined together to form bricks, explode around his naked flesh. Covered in welts and bloody scratches, 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, after his death, became a god known for his ability to generate wealth and control lightning. The tradition of blowing up Handan arose, according to tradition, due to the god's aversion to the cold: firecrackers are meant to provide him with warmth and please him.

Although the practice is specific to Taitung, it is believed to have arrived from the west coast of Taiwan 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 has quickly become the most important popular religious ritual in the region. Today, the show takes place in the Xuanwu Temple, dedicated to Handan, and can also be seen throughout the streets. —Mike Kai Chen



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