Sapporo Snow Festival (Yuki Matsuri)
In the Freezing month of February during ‘Fuyu’ (‘冬’ or ‘ふゆ’ meaning winter) people gather from miles around to experience the momentous occasion that is, the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (‘札幌雪祭り’ 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 in 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. If you prefer something fishier, 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 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 crossover, and across all sites, you can witness over 400 amazing works of icy art.
Arriving on the first Friday evening of our planned Sapporo long weekend visit, the festival was only in its early stages of preparation. The timing was advantageous for us though, as we were able to experience the creative process of these fascinating sculptures in all their glory. 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 ice moulding 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 lively nightlife area of Sapporo, populated by a 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 too. During 2016’s festival 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 an obligatory photo or selfie.
On the other hand, Tsudome is more targeted at families, providing a range of snow activities for both adults and children. The area offers a range of slides and slopes to ride down, a place to make your own snowman, snow golf, ice cafes and more. If you have confidence in your throwing skills, there is even a snowball contest people can participate in for some extra (friendly) competition.
Star Wars: The Frozen Menace!
2016 seemed to be full of Star Wars theme attractions, no doubt in line with the most recent 2015 release of Episode 7 ‘The Force Awakens’. Many of the sculptures relating to the cult series, with appearances from R2D2, Stormtroopers, Darth Vader, BB8 and more. Check below for some of these spectacularly detailed and accurate works.
Some people even decided to make their own contribution (albeit Star Wars related) to the festival, check out one piece we found in one of the back alleys of Sapporo city, away from the main arena.
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 a variety of other interesting attractions to visit. From the selection of hot wine cafes, which taste substantially more delicious during the winter months. 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 (in Tokyo anyway) and is usually only available in Hokkaido. The large array of Ghengis Khan (BBQ lamb) restaurants are also a treat, with delicious lamb to satisfy your taste buds, something to check into particularly after your Sapporo beer tour, as there is one located nearby.
Sapporo TV Tower, standing at 147 metres tall, can also be accessed from Odori Park, and provides you with sweeping views of the cityscape, especially the Snow Festival along the park.
Mount Moiwa is the closest and most accessible peak from the city centre, providing stunning views of the city particularly in the evening, although be prepared for extreme wind chills at that peak.
The neighbouring city of Otaru is also a short journey by bus (approx. 1 hour) 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!