Back in cold, blustery February, we decided to take a vacation from Tokyo. No balmy beach holiday for the Dalzells. No tropical temperatures and fruity cocktails. Nope. We opted instead to go in another direction. North, to be precise, to the Sapporo Snow Festival.
Hokkaido is Japan’s northernmost island. Winters are intense up there and the residents have wisely chosen to find ways to amuse themselves during the long months of heavy snow. For 67 years, the city of Sapporo has hosted a snow festival in downtown Odori Park. It started small at first but has grown dramatically over the years, now enticing thousands of people from around the world to enjoy massive snow sculptures which glitter in the sunlight during the day and glow dramatically under colored lights at night. It’s impressive enough to make braving the freezing temperatures more than worthwhile.
We flew to the New Chitose Airport on a Wednesday and returned home to Tokyo on Saturday. With a little more time, we could have explored beyond Sapporo but the time we had was sufficient for visiting the festival’s three sites and to nose around the city a bit, too.
Thursday morning, we bundled ourselves up and ventured outside the hotel (Keio Plaza) for the walk to Odori Park. Along the way, we stopped to admire the Municipal Building. Sapporo was modernized during the Meiji Era and some of its architecture reflects the Victorian styles that were en vogue at that time. It’s rare for us to see this kind of building in Japan. I thought it was lovely.
The festival’s main site, Odori Park, stretches for 1.5 km through the center of town. This is the main venue for the Sapporo Snow Festival.
It featured larger-than-life sculptures of celebrities and pop culture references, many made by Sapporo locals. Appropriate for the medium, many of these snow sculptures were playful and light-hearted in nature.
One area included only entries from foreign countries. (And Hawaii. I guess Hawaii counts as its own nation in Japan. Portland provided the official U.S. entry.) The level of detail and craftsmanship in designing and executing these intricate designs was impressive.
Odori Park also had very, very large snow sculptures that were in the shape of buildings. So large they featured stages for performances.
The Taipei Guest House recreated the original residence of the Governor-General of Taiwan, completed in 1902. The size of it was mind-boggling. It matched the brick-and-mortar buildings around it.
The real magic happens at night, though. We watched skiers and snowboarders jump down an artificial hill 24 meters high and 60 meters long. We’d watched them in the afternoon, as well, but seeing the acrobatics at night while music thrummed was even more fun.
The massive snow structures were illuminated dynamically, with colors shifting every few seconds, and often set to music. Some had brief films projected onto the snow building’s surfaces, adding moving images or the illusion of depth and realism onto the blank snow.
The park’s show stopper, in a year of Star Wars mania, was the world’s largest scale snow sculpture in history, a “White STAR WARS.”
We had to enter a special viewing area to watch the brief light show, where lasers and special effects were projected onto Kylo-Ren and fellow galactic characters. The 2-minute show would end, the space would clear, and a new crowd would be ushered in for a few minutes to enjoy the spectacle. It was clever — at times the snow seemed to ripple or crumble in the light’s embrace. Liam loved the lightsaber effects.
It would be a shame to go to a snow festival and not play in the snow, wouldn’t it? Thankfully, the Sapporo Snow Festival coordinators agree and organized a massive play area called the Tsudome Site, a short metro and shuttle bus ride from downtown. Liam, who has missed snow terribly since we moved to Japan, had a fantastic time becoming reacquainted with the white stuff. Almost all of the activities were free, which meant he could ride and sled and slide and build without Wil and I having to dig into out wallets. Thanks, Sapporo. A play area came equipped with snow pails and shovels and was regularly replenished with fresh, soft, snow. There was a maze topped by little snowmen, one of whom was made by Liam. There was a hill to slide down on a sled bike, ice slides and sledding slopes. Indoors, we found a food court for our lunch and a welcome chance to warm up.
We spent our Friday night exploring Susukino, an entertainment district which featured 60 ice sculptures for the Sapporo Snow Festival. We started with steaming bowls of ramen seated at the counter in a tiny hole-in-the-wall ramen shop in Susukino’s Ramen Alley.
The “site” is the main street that runs through Susukino neighborhood, and the sculptures are all on view in the center of the (blocked-off) road.
We purposely waited until evening for this portion of the festival. I wanted to see the ice sculptures lit up and glittering against the backdrop of the neon lights of the surrounding restaurants and bars. It was worth the wait. There were no massive sculptures like the biggest ones on view at Odori Park, but the ice sculptures were intricately and beautifully made, all loosely based on the theme of “Finding Delight in Ice.” We were duly delighted.
We saw a few of the sculptors demonstrating their craft. With chainsaws. (Don’t try this at home folks!)
They even had a couple of ice structures for kids to climb on. The ice slide looked rather cold to me, but Liam didn’t mind.
It was quick trip, but we did manage to explore a bit of the city while in town.
The Sapporo TV Tower is an icon for the city. We opted not to go up for the view but appreciated the Eiffel Tower-esqu vibe it lends Sapporo.
Naturally, we went in search of beer. The Sapporo Beer Garden fit the bill.
The attached Sapporo Factory Shopping Mall was beautiful. I liked the indoor flower beds, which is ingenious, given how cold it is in Hokkaido most of the year.
The Clock Tower, like the Municipal Building, was another rather non-Japanese structure, built in 1878 for the Sapporo Agricultural College.
With a population of nearly 2 million, Sapporo is tiny compared to Tokyo, but as Japan’s fifth-largest city it still has some big city glam. These pics were taken in Susukino.
The Tanukikoji Shopping Arcade is a covered street, essentially a mall, that runs for 900 meters between Odori and Susukino. We’ve grown to really like the arcade malls in Japan.
The Sapporo Snow Festival was on our Japan bucket list and I’m so pleased we managed to squeeze it in while living here. It’s well worth the trip, even if it means freezing a little for your February vacation. For this trip, at least, snow and ice was well worth skipping sand and sun.
IF YOU GO:
For details on the festival itself, I used the official Sapporo Snow Festival site.
The Sapporo Travel Guide is a great resource for planning local outings.