The plane hung as if suspended in the air.
Wait, that’s not how planes work…
With forward momentum apparently a luxury in Hokkaido’s capital, the other passengers and I gripped our armrests as we listened to the whirring of the engines winding up and down in bursts. I felt the zero G’s in my stomach as the plane rose and fell, attempting to cut through the blizzard as we neared the capital.
After landing in one piece, picking up my bag, and exiting New Chitose Airport, I found myself among those very winds which the airplane had been braving earlier. So began my trip to Sapporo for the Snow Festival.
Held in three locations around the city, the Sapporo Snow Festival – known as Yuki Matsuri (雪まつり) in Japanese – welcomes over 2 million visitors annually and features over 400 sculptures, all meticulously carved from snow or ice.
My fatigue faded and frigid fingers warmed when I reached Susukino, Sapporo’s entertainment district.
Despite having arrived in the city late at night, the streets teemed with visitors armed with scarves and camera straps around their necks. With thousands of multicolored lights shimmering amid the falling snow, my surroundings resembled an overgrown outdoor arcade. Lining the streets were the first attractions of the Sapporo Snow Festival: the ice sculptures!
During the Snow Festival in Susukino, one comes across intricately carved sculptures of birds, dragons, beer, and more! Some sculptures have sponsors, commissioned by corporations, alcohol manufacturers, or even the national television station of Japan, NHK. The year I went, one contained fish, trapped as if in a frozen aquarium.
Odori Park is reachable by foot just north of Susukino. Strolling through the park’s 1.5 kilometer length, one finds famous faces and characters carved from blocks of snow, as well as a snowboarding slope, a slide made of ice, and massive stages for performances reaching heights of 15 meters.
At one end of the park is the Sapporo TV Tower, from which one can enjoy a view of the entire park as well as the rest of the city. The massive scale of the festival is even more evident from the birds-eye perch on the observation deck; the sculpted creations stretch into the distance, disappearing into the fog.
In the evening, the park becomes awash with the glow of ingeniously placed lights, emanating from within sculptures and igniting the stages in rainbows. On these stages, one can enjoy various entertainment ranging from skits shouted by shivering, shirtless comedians to professional musical performances featuring both traditional Japanese and Western instruments.
Where can you grab some good grub after a cold afternoon spent enjoying these sculptures? No trip to Hokkaido is complete without trying the ramen unique to this region. Hokkaido ramen has a miso base that is commonly mixed with a seafood broth. My personal recommendation would be to order a miso ramen with pork and butter at one of the 17 stores of Ramen Alley (known in Japanese as: ラーメン横丁).
Unsure which restaurant to choose? In Japan, many consumers abide by the idea that the shop with the longest line, ideally stretching out into the street, has the highest quality offerings.
Withstanding the elements during winter in Sapporo is no easy task. However, it’s easy to find warmth in this snow-blanketed city full of energetic, friendly people.