Chillin’ out at the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri
It took 4,000 people 29 days to create this snow replica of Hamamatsu Castle and the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. (Photo by Gail Cetnar Meadows)
Spectacular snow sculptures make Hokkaido a must-see winter wonderland
By Gerard Spalding
Photos by Gail Cetnar Meadows
There are a number of places in Japan that visitors are always recommended to see, such as Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima. Hokkaido is one of those places, but for all its popularity as a recommended travel destination, the northernmost prefecture of Japan seems rather remote. Perhaps this is in part because Hokkaido has a reputation throughout Japan for bitter cold, and because it is not easily accessible by Shinkansen like many other popular tourist spots. Many people may wonder, “Is it worth the time to go there?”
Well, countless sightseers who flock to Hokkaido’s capital city, Sapporo, every winter for the famous Sapporo Snow Festival would say yes. It is said that the population of the city more than doubles each year when more than 2 million tourists pour into the city for the Snow Festival. My friends and I were included in that number for this year’s festival, which took place Feb. 5 to 11. The festival is most remarkable for the numerous snow statues and ice sculptures that are constructed throughout the city for the event.
The sites for these creations in 2009 were Odori Park, Susukino and Tsudome. Susukino showcased four blocks of impressive ice sculptures, including an ice building with actual sea creatures frozen inside, and an “ice bar.” Tsudome complimented its array of snow statues, some of which were made by local high school students, with several large snow slides and even a snow raft. All these statues and sculptures were remarkable for their detail, but, arguably, the most impressive of the three sites was Odori Park.
The snow statues in Odori Park stretched for 13 blocks, starting at the base of the iconic Sapporo TV Tower. Some sculptures depicted instantly recognizable pop culture icons of both Japanese and American origin — Stitch, Doraemon and Totoro, to name a few. Others conveyed socially relevant messages about issues such as global warming and whale hunting, while still others were just plain cool, like the giant statue endorsing Tokyo as host city for the 2016 Olympics, or the replica of Hamamatsu Castle. All of these were particularly striking at night due to the spectacular lighting. In fact, I would say that Odori Park alone made the trip worthwhile. But wait, there’s more!
Sapporo boasts a whole host of sights aside from the festival itself. There was the Ishiya Chocolate Factory (with samples!) and the Sapporo Brewery Factory and Museum. And, to the northwest, there was the picturesque town of Otaru, with its canal, beaches and own delectable brand of beer. In addition, the city of Sapporo is renowned throughout Japan for the quality of its fresh seafood (crab, in particular), and such delicious signature dishes as soup curry, miso ramen and lamb.
So, in closing, people who recommend that you visit Hokkaido are not crazy! Those willing to brave the frigid weather of this region will be rewarded with an experience that is unique throughout all Japan. Few experiences can rival walking 13 blocks in the freezing cold while being pelted with snow, fighting for elbow space with a torrent of fellow sightseers and trying desperately not to slip on the ice every few steps, all while delicious smells from street vendors mingle in the air above. So please visit Hokkaido the next chance you get, but don’t forget to dress warmly, and watch your step!
Editor’s Note: If you plan to go to the Snow Festival next year, be sure to make your plans well in advance! All Nippon Airways (ANA) puts together reasonably priced package deals with airfare and hotel that you can purchase through travel agents. I bought my package in late October, and by then all the cheaper hotel rooms were already booked.