For more than 30 years, the busy Japanese city of Sapporo, which is located in the Hokkaido region, has taken on a North Pole appearance each February. Artisans and designers mold snow and ice into extraordinary show pieces as part of the famous Sapporo Snow Festival.
The main boulevards of the city are taken over with this spectacular show where grand buildings, palaces, historical figures and a few familiar cartoon characters are sculpted in mammoth propositions out of snow and ice.
In daylight, these are impressive for their intricacy and attention to detail (just how do you make a pair of glasses out of snow for an icy sculpture of the famous English wizard, Harry Potter?). But at night, with strategically placed lighting affects playing on the surfaces, these amazing wintry displays are positively breathtaking, whether up close or from the viewing platform of a nearby radio tower.
Ice and snow sculptors from around the world contribute to this impressive display, with over 20 countries competing in the annual competition. One of the featured displays at this year’s festival, a grand reproduction of London’s British Museum, took an impressive 150 tons of ice and 250 people to create. It’s just one example of the grandeur and scale of these displays.
Those who become inspired to get creative and contribute to the gallery of snow and ice are welcome to build the 10,000-plus snowmen that are needed to break the proceeding year’s world record for the most snowmen. However, if the idea of plunging your hands into freezing snow to sculpt a regulation-size snowman seems less than tempting, you may prefer to make a wax globe. These nifty little bowls made with melted wax and inflated balloons come to life when decorated with paper flowers and fitted with candles.
But if Sapporo is the official, professional ice festival, the People’s Festival appears to be in full swing at the nearby coastal town of Otaru. Forty minutes by train from the city of Sapporo, this town appears to be a touch of old Bavaria with its European-style buildings featuring displays of music boxes and elegant glass and crystal. Here, the Japanese love of arts and crafts is well satisfied with stores welcoming you to either build your own music box, blow your own glass bowl or carefully twirl your own delicate glass bauble.
If you can drag yourself away from admiring the skill of the professional glass-blowing artisans and purchasing the odd glass creation or two, the Snow Festival of Otaru awaits.
While the Sapporo Festival is presented on the sweeping boulevards, the Otaru Snow Festival is featured on the banks of the town’s quaint canal. Visitors stroll day and night along the walkway bordering the canal, admiring the heritage stores and facades on the far bank and the community-built snow sculptures along the path. Here, snow- shaped symbols of Hokkaido and of Japan sit alongside beloved Japanese cartoon characters courtesy of the local sporting clubs, senior citizen groups and business associations. At night, these creations are simply lit with strategically placed candles that lend a romantic glow to the canal pathway.
Snow and ice aside, the gourmet delicacies of Hokkaido prove to be the ultimate complement to the beautiful wintry surroundings. There are giant crabs that tourists have couriered back to waiting families in Tokyo and lavender-flavored ice cream and creamy smooth butter that demands to be lavished on locally produced corn and the famous Hokkaido potatoes. In fact, Tokyo newspaper competitions often offer “Hokkaido potatoes” as local contest prizes– such is the glorious taste and texture of this humble vegetable.
But the true tasteful delight of Sapporo is the amazing Royce chocolate. This can be picked up at most food stores in the region, but it’s best to hit the Royce chocolate store in Sapporo to fully enjoy the experience. This chocolate lover’s paradise is generous with its samples and has an adjoining chocolate-themed café. Visitors must face the dilemma of choosing between the chocolate-coated potato chips, the dark or white chocolate-dipped dried strawberries or simple blocks of the smoothest chocolate you’ll ever taste.
Having overdosed on festivals as well as the chocolate samples (purely in the spirit of research), we left feeling the joy of the Royce chocolate experience – an experience best captured by my friend Yoshie’s comment as we finally dragged ourselves out of the store, “I feel so happy now.”
Such is the joy of winter festivals in Japan.
IF YOU GO
Sapporo is in the far north region of Hokkaido. To get there you have a choice between an internal two-hour flight from Haneda airport (Tokyo)or or a 10-hour ride on the Shinkansen (bullet train).
The Sapporo Snow Festival (https://www.snowfes.com/english/) is one of Japan’s most well known and attracts visitors both from across Japan and abroad. For this reason, reservations for accommodations, tours and flights need to be made well in advance of the February festival (generally the first week of the month) to ensure bookings.
As the festival is best enjoyed strolling either the Displays in Sapporo or Otaru (approximately 1 hour by local train from the city) serious winter clothing and footwear is a must.
To avoid the crowds and enjoy the snow and ice sculptures while they are fresh and in pristine condition, plan your visit for the weekdays leading up to the official weekend commencement of the festival.