Sapporo’s famed Snow Festival — running this year from Feb. 5 to Feb 11. — began when a bunch of bored school kids in 1950 built a series of snow sculptures in Odori Park in the center of the city. Their enthusiasm during the hardships Japan was suffering after the war struck a chord with the population. By the time the Japan Self-Defense Force got involved in 1955, the festival was already a popular local event. But it was the efforts and equipment of the JSDF that allowed the building of sculptures on a grand scale.
Stretching for over a kilometer between the TV Tower and Sapporo City Document Museum, Odori Park is filled with snow sculptures both grand and small. These are often sponsored by companies or commemorate some event. Last year saw giant sculptures of the Hall of Supreme Harmony from the Forbidden City in Beijing, a replica of the Chakri Maha Prasat Palace commemorating the 120th anniversary of Thai-Japanese friendship, and a representation of Hikone Castle in Shiga Prefecture, which was celebrating its 400th anniversary. In the daytime there are shows such as snowboarding demonstrations on impossibly steep ramps. Toward the museum are smaller sculptures, entries from around the world in the International Snow Sculpture Competition. However, it is at night that people really come out to play. A singer bundled against the cold stands on a stage with a massive sculpture as a backdrop as the audience eats and makes merry from numerous food and drinks stalls.
Under the feet of so many visitors the snow becomes incredibly icy and it is very easy, as I did, to fall. Investing in clip-on studs — available from the station, shoe shops and souvenir shops — can help you keep up with the locals.
Night is also the best time to see the Susukino Ice Festival (Feb. 5 to Feb. 11), now in its 28th year, which stretches south of Susukino Subway Station. Ice sculptures line the center of the street, which is closed to traffic during the evening. A popular sculpture in the past has contained seafood frozen within the ice and there is an Ice Queen contest where beautiful women take the “icewalk” as well as the Ice Sculpture Contest. Entertainment is what it’s all about with a new addition, the Bailey’s Ice Bar, popular, as well as a karaoke room in another ice building. Nearby the famous Ramen Yokocho is a good place to retreat from the cold for a hot bowl of noodles. Hole-in-the-wall shops pack this narrow alley and vie for you to try their Sapporo version (miso flavor) of the Japanese obsession.
I chose to miss Satoland, the third site of the snow festival. Here kids can enjoy giant slides and mazes. Instead, I hopped on a local bus armed with the one-day bathing ticket for the Jozankei Hot Spring area. Leaving from the bus terminal in the ESTA building situated inside the JR Sapporo Station, the journey takes you into the mountains and the terminus at the Houheikyo onsen.
Snowflakes cooled my skin as I headed toward the steaming waters of this outdoor hot spring. Submerged in 39 C water and with eyes closed you forget you are outside in sub-zero temperatures.
The mineral-rich water contains iron, sodium bicarbonate and calcium and is said to be good for neuralgia, myalgia and hemorrhoids. A fellow bather swore that it helps him recover from fishing injuries. It is also possible to drink the warm water from a fountain encased in wood in the changing room, said to help cure digestive problems and liver diseases, along with constipation. Thick with minerals it has a strong, distinctive taste.
Sapporo’s young pretender, the Otaru Snow Gleaming Festival (Feb. 8 to Feb. 17) kicks off toward the end of the Sapporo Snow Festival on the coast just 30 minutes away by train. Now in its 10th year, in many ways it is more charming than the Sapporo Snow Festival. Unlike its big brother it’s not plastered in sponsorship signs and at dusk candles are lit in snow statues and cones all around the town by an army of volunteers.
One of the most charming places to visit is the canal area, where gas lamps are joined by candles floating on the water and placed in small statues and cones along the embankment. An orange glow draws out the eerie silence of the old warehouses with icicles suspended from their roofs.
Also worth a visit is the former Temiya railway line. Opened in 1880, the Temiya Line was Hokkaido’s first railway line, and Japan’s third, stretching from Otaru to Sapporo. Between the main street and Sushiya-dori (yes, it’s a street full of sushi shops) the former railway is lit up with lanterns and statues. Snow covers the tracks and at one point you can stroll through a lantern-lit tunnel.