SAPPORO – Soaking in an event as elaborate as the annual Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido’s largest city over a single weekend means getting off on steady footing in more ways than one.
For festival-goers, there is the danger of slipping on the icy roads as they travel from place to place, with a multitude of attractions, activities and delicious fare spread over three locations across the city.
With 208 snow and ice sculptures to take in, visitors are in for a heady experience.
So why, I thought after landing in Sapporo on the opening day of the Feb. 5-11 festival, not start by viewing one of the most impressive creations of them all: a snow sculpture of the Hokkaido Shinkansen H5 series, which is scheduled to start running from Shin-Aomori to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto on March 26.
The other featured works were nothing to sneeze at, among them anime series’ hero Eren Yeager rising to fight the “Attack on Titan” giant humanoid in a battle to save Sapporo; the Ruins of St. Paul’s Church of Mater Dei in Macao; and even a bust of rugby player Ayumu Goromaru striking his signature Buddhist praying pose.
However, the buzz in the air was definitely Hokkaido’s Shinkansen, which aims to begin a line in Sapporo in fiscal 2030.
I arrived a little early for the projection-mapping show at HTB Snow Square in Odori Park, the main site, which during the festival is illuminated at night with more than 100 snow and ice sculptures and extends about 1.5 kilometers east to west through the center of Sapporo.
Using spatial augmented reality technology, the life-sized replica bullet train appeared to emerge from the Seikan Tunnel in a stream of motion and detailed scenery that even included the passage beneath the Tsugaru Strait connecting Aomori Prefecture to Hokkaido, and a cascading swirl of cherry blossom petals.
The arms of the landmark Sapporo Clock Tower, which was carved into the background with images of Sapporo’s Mount Moiwa, Hokkaido Koma-ga-take volcano and Hakodate’s Goryokaku star fort, spun back in time depicting an 1880 steam engine and several train models along the way before the year returned to 2016.
Smiling public relations character “Dokodemo Yuki-chan” completes the sculpture, standing near the tunnel, one arm raised to its side. This was all part of an interactive display complete with sound effects and the “Supernova Express 2016” Hokkaido Shinkansen campaign song by rock band Glay, which originates in Hakodate.
Eiji Oshinomi, 64, chief of the Sapporo Snow Festival Large Sculpture Committee, told me about the endeavor that went into constructing the 10-meter-high ice sculpture, which required approximately 1,300 tons of snow.
“We had an average of 28 people, including volunteers, working on it every day for a month,” Oshinomi said. “We set up the scaffolding, the trucks came with snow and piled it up. We used 209 10-ton dump trucks, and a crane with wires to build it before pulling away the scaffolding.”
“The most important thing is that the shinkansen looks like a shinkansen. So we take particular care in making sure the objects that are supposed be round look round. You have teams of separate tasks for the shinkansen, the mountains and (Dokodemo) Yuki-chan. Here we judge and determine who does what,” he said.
I next joined a group of revelers as a craftsman painstakingly carved “flowers” inside clear blocks of purified, deoxygenated ice. Shouts of wonder rang out as he shaped floral patterns with his drills before adding liquid coloring to the lifelike creations.
Every year, more than 2 million people visit Sapporo for the festival, which began in 1950 with six local high school students building snow statues in Odori Park.
The Susukino site in the city’s biggest nightlife district, which displays ice sculptures and even has ice bars for patronage, and the Tsu-dome site with snow slides for kids and grownups alike are the two other locations to check out.
A number of foreign tourists made the effort to head north for the festival.
“I’ll just be here a few days, just to see the festival. A snow festival is a really rare thing in my country,” says Moritz Pauli, 20, from Germany.
American John Zipprich, 64, an ice sculptor from Portland, Oregon, who has been coming to the festival since 1990, took part in the 12-team international sculpture contest in Odori Park. “The Bridge” by team Latvia was the winner in this year’s competition.
“We represent the Portland-Sapporo Sister City Association. Sapporo is a great city to come to, friendly people and pretty girls,” says team leader Zipprich. “I love snow, and as an artist I don’t get a chance to work on this big a scale, with this big stuff.”
After watching several pedestrians fall on the ice and coming very close myself, it was time to call it a night. I had a grilled jumbo scallop and some hot wine before returning to my hotel.
The next day I went on a guided tour of the Asahi Beer Hokkaido Brewery, where I saw an industrial monstrosity that can fill 1,500 beer cans per minute. Our group of around 15, including several foreign tourists, was allowed three free glasses of beer in the building cafeteria and took photos together afterward.
A middle-aged Japanese “17-year-old female high school student” by the name of Momoko, who wore a skirt and loose socks and also took part in the tour, is an avid fan of the Sapporo Snow Festival. “I have been coming to the snow festival for years ,” Momoko says. “It’s always great fun. Unfortunately, I have to go back to Tokyo tonight.”
As for me, there was still much to do and so little time. A visit to Sapporo would not be the same without the obligatory Ghengis Khan meal — grilled lamb or mutton best served with cold beer — and a stop at Sushi Sharaku Daiichi-ten in Susukino, one of my favorite local eateries for Japanese cuisine.
Finally, I took a dip in the Jasmac Plaza Hotel’s natural hot spring that features an outdoor bath, and topped it off with a Korean body scrub from a woman who left my skin afire from her exfoliation mitts.
For those who have never been to Sapporo, I recommend taking a week out and booking your hotel at least six months ahead of the snow festival, which is held over seven days in February. The Tsu-dome site is actually open for activities until Feb. 18 this year.
Remember to bring your snow boots and walk slowly.