By Ryan McDonald
Just a Bunch of Kids
The Sapporo Snow Festival has been a tradition for more than half a century. It started in 1950 with some high school students trying to outdo each other by building elaborate snow sculptures in Odori Park, Sapporo’s central park. This caused other people to join in and created a yearly tradition.
The major turning point for the festival was in 1972 when it coincided with the Sapporo Winter Olympic Games and received international media coverage. Starting a few years later a sculpture contest was created to encourage creativity.
There are also about one hundred smaller sculptures made by people from around the world. Several nations send people to build smaller sculptures.
The large ones sometimes cost well over $100,000 and are usually sponsored by countries or major corporations.
Perpendicular to Odori park are the ice sculptures. There are usually around 50-100 ice sculptures and they are much smaller than the larger snow sculptures on the main strip. You can usually get very close to examine the intricate details of these.
More Than Just Looking
You can actually take part in a few snow-related activities. There are a few snow/ice slides for the kids (or the young at heart). Around the ice sculptures you’ll find ice food stalls, an ice bar, and even an ice karaoke booth. You can step out of the cold and into the slightly less cold and relax for a moment while enjoying some not-too-hot food and drink as well as a song or two.
It’s not just a daytime festival. There are lights on the sculpture until around 8 or 9 p.m. Then it’s time to head toward Susukino, the nightlife area of Sapporo. The area has a few thousand options, but it also has the biggest red light district north of Tokyo; however you have to search for this place and they usually don’t even allow foreigners in so don’t worry about accidentally going in to one.
One of my favorite “indoor” activities at the snow festival is the Sapporo Beer Garden. The Sapporo Beer Factory has a self guided tour of the beer making process in both English and Japanese. Afterwards you can settle down to an all-you-can-eat/drink dinner. Beer gardens are popular throughout Japan, but the Sapporo Beer Garden has a special feature during the snow festival. You can eat inside the warm building, or outside in an igloo.
For less than $50 you can eat all the meat and vegetables as well as drink all the beer you want for two hours. If you are at the Sapporo Beer Factory, obviously you can only get Sapporo Beer. The meat is usually lamb and there is a seafood option for a bit more. The only catch is you have to cook your own food, but I find that to be part of the fun.
Is it Just Winter Fun?
During the summer in Sapporo, Odori park is filled with temporary beer gardens and people relaxing in the perfect weather. There are a dozen or so options for enjoying a cold beer outside in the cool air. One of my favorite things about Sapporo is the summer. With a peak temperature of 75° degrees you’ll find far more open windows than air conditioners.
During the winter you can go to just about any hill and find a ski resort, but what happens to these places during the summer? They turn into some of the most scenic hiking you can imagine.
How Do I Get There?
There are several ways to get to Sapporo depending on your budget. If you want to get there fast and price is not an issue, then flying is the best option. From Tokyo the 90 minute flight would be about $300-500. Check out the GoNomad airfares page for info on flights and travel insurance. The nearest airport to Sapporo is Chitose, located in the city of Chitose.
My personal preference is the Cassiopeia overnight train or the cheaper Hokutosei overnight train from Ueno (in Tokyo) to Sapporo. It takes 15 hours and costs about $250 each way, but drops you off right at Sapporo station and technically counts as a hotel one night. A bonus about taking the train is you get to pass through the world's longest tunnel (33.5 miles).
Once at the station, Odori Park (literally big street), is directly south of the station. There is a subway that runs to the park, but it’s only about a ten-minute walk.
You need to start planning to visit the snow festival in late August, so if you are interested I would start planning a year in advance. Hokkaido is known for getting a lot of snow, so be prepared for that. The festival is always held in early February.
Like this on Facebook: