Sapporo Snow Festival – Brrrrrring your thermals!
Sapporo Yuki Matsuri
In the Freezing February months of ‘Fuyu’ (‘冬’ or ‘ふゆ’ meaning winter) people gather from miles around to experience the momentous occasion that is, the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (‘札幌雪まつり’ meaning Sapporo Snow Festival). This event occurs each year in February and has been known to attract over 2 million people from across the globe annually.
Sapporo is the biggest city the country’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, with a population approaching almost 2 million residents, it is also the 5th largest populace in Japan. Well known for its milder summers, sub-zero winters and a selection of tasty cuisine, being the birthplace of miso ramen, and home to local favourites like soup curry. Barbecue lamb dishes via the well-established Genghis Khan style restaurants, are also especially sought after in the colder months. Seafood is also considerably popular, being home to some of the freshest salmon, crab and sea-urchin found on the island.
The winter festival of festivals
Originating back to 1950, this initially small one-day event has now developed into one of the most famous winter festivals in Japan, and now spans longer than a week. There are three main sites where the statues and sculptures can be viewed including, Odori Park, Suzukino and Tsudome. The actual dates of the events are slightly different, but do cross over, and across all sites, you can witness over 400 statues or sculptures on display.
When we arrived on the first Friday evening of our planned Sapporo long weekend, the festival was only in its early stages of set up. The timing was advantageous though, as we were able to experience the creation process of these fascinating works. Capturing some of the incredibly detailed and precisely crafted ice sculptures as they were being moulded. Some of the men with a chainsaw, pick and other instruments in hand, laboriously working away to perfect their frozen masterpieces.
Odori Park is where you will find most of the larger stages, statues and sculptures, and is right next to Sapporo TV Tower. Stretching over 1.5kms across a whole 12 blocks through downtown Sapporo there are many different things to do and see, from the multiple food and drink stands, differently themed stages providing entertainment for both the young and more mature crowds. The snowboard mountain, which holds various shows for professionals performing exciting stunts and tricks and various snow statues plus contributions from competing countries are also on display.
Suzukino is the nightlife of Sapporo, familiar with its wide selection of Izakayas (Japanese style pubs), bars and the notorious red light district. It plays host to a compelling and spectacular range of ice statues and sculptures. There are many attractions on display here, and while some of these may change from year to year, they usually have a bar you can enjoy warm drinks, and a range of interactive sets and some sculptures which you can touch. In 2016 when we visited, there was the typical bar setup, but additionally, there was also an ice slide for children and various animals people could ride and pose with for the customary photo or selfie.
Tsudome is more targeted at families, providing a range of snow activities for both adults and children. The offer a range of slides and slopes to ride down, a place to make your own snow man, snow golf, ice cafes and more. If you’re game and have the skills, there is even a snowball contest people can participate in for some extra competition.
Star Wars: The Frozen Menace!
Unusually in 2016, when we visited there was an obvious Star Wars theme and its related characters. Many of the sculptures relating to the classic series, or the new episode with sculptures of R2D2, Storm troopers, Darth Vader, BB8 and more. Check below for some of the truly awesome works.
Some people even decided to make their own contribution (albeit Star Wars related) to the festival, check the piece we found in one of the smaller alleys, away from the main event.
For more information, you can access the official Sapporo Snow Festival website here.
Other things to do
Aside from the Sapporo Snow Festival, there are also other interesting attractions to visit. From the selection of hot wine cafes, which taste substantially more delicious during the winter season. For beer lovers there is the Sapporo Beer Museum, providing free tours (also available in English) with the chance to taste any of their 3 great beers at the end of the tour. I specifically recommend Sapporo Classic, which is generally a rare find and is usually only available in Hokkaido. The large array of Ghengis Khan (BBQ lamb) restaurants are also very popular and delicious, so if you have time I would recommend a visit, especially after your Sapporo beer tour, as there is one located next door.
Mount Moiwa is the closest and most accessible peak from the city centre, providing stunning views of the city particularly in the evening, although please beware of the extreme wind chill at that altitude. The neighbouring city of Otaru is also a short journey by bus and has some of the cheapest, freshest and most titillating seafood I have tried in Japan, so head over if you are so inclined.
Remember though in this season to stay warm, and brrrrring those thermals in the winter season!