Japan: The Sapporo Snow Festival
Gawk at gigantic life-sized dinosaurs of snow!
By Ryan McDonald
Want to see life-sized dinosaurs or a 30-foot sculpture of New York Yankee’s outfielder Hideki Matsui? What about if they were both made of snow? Then you should head to Hokkaido, the northernmost of the Japanese Islands, around the first week of February.
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 festival took a major turn when the Self Defense Force joined in a few years later. Using their engineering skills, they were able to build much larger sculptures with far more intricate details. Nowadays some sculptures are 50 feet tall and 150 feet wide.
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.
Don’t be fooled by size and cost, the smaller ones can be quite elaborate as well. If you have time to spare after the festival, I suggest hanging around and watch the sculptures getting smashed up. On the flip side, if you can get there before the festival you can see the sculptures being built.
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.
My favorite area is a town called Furano (foo rah no) around the geographical center of Hokkaido. If you get there in late June or early July, you can see the lavender fields in full bloom. There is some type of flower blooming from May to October. Also around the Furano area are some active volcanoes that allow hiking. At the top of a few, you can see bubbling lava (from a distance).
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 the 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.
On the other end, if you aren’t in a hurry and really want to save money, you can take an overnight ferry. Ferries leave from Sendai (northern Japan), Nagoya (near Kyoto), and a few ports on the Sea of Japan side. Fares can be as cheap as $70 each way for a spot on the floor in a big room.
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.
Well past one end is the Okurayama ski jump which was used in the 1972 Winter Games, but is now a practice hill. At the other end of Odori Park is the Sapporo TV tower that resembles Tokyo Tower. I use it as a landmark to find the park when I go exploring. There’s an admission fee to go to the top, but there is a great view.
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.
A useful guide to the Sapporo Snow Festival can be found here.
Ryan McDonald has been teaching English in Fukushima prefecture Japan for more than four years and loves traveling in his spare time.
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