Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido, the northern island and second largest island of Japan. In 1857, Sapporo’s population consisted of just 7 people; today, it has become the fifth largest city of Japan, with a population around 2 million. The development of Sapporo began in the Meiji period, after Hokkaido was officially recognized as Japanese territory, and the authorities decided to make Sapporo the administrative center of the island. Due to the fact that it is a relatively new city, Sapporo is characterized for having a modern architecture, lacking the traditional Japanese style. However, this does not mean that it doesn’t have a long history. Its name comes from the Ainu language, an ethnic group aborigin of Hokkaido, and means “important river that flows among a plain.” In 1972, Sapporo became a worldwide famous travel destination after hosting the 1972 Winter Olympics, and even today, it still is the host of many international sporting events, which has made it one of the preferred destinations for skiing, snowboarding and all the different winter sports, attracting visitors from all over the world. Sapporo is also famous among Japanese people for its food, due to its big portions and original dishes, such as miso ramen, crab and curry soup, as well as the world famous beer that shares its name.
Snow Festival (Yuki Matsuri) 2014
The Snow Festival at Sapporo is the biggest and most famous winter celebration in all of Japan. It began during the 1950’s, thanks to the effort of high-school students that worked really hard to create some snow sculptures at Odori Park; since then, it has grown, becoming the international event that it is today. Every year, during the first weeks of February, between the 5 and 11, the Yuki Matsuri takes place. This year there was a total of 199 sculptures, occupying three different places: Odori, Susukino and Tsudome.
The main area is in Odori Park, right in the center of Sapporo, the festival is divided in to 11 different sections, with a total of 113 sculptures. If you don’t have a lot of time to enjoy the festival, we strongly recommend you to visit Odori Park, as this holds the bigger exhibitions and shows not to be missed! One way to start the festival is to go to the Sapporo TV Tower, which looks over the park. You can go to the observatory located around 90 meters above the ground and has a beautiful view of the whole Festival. The Tower opens from 9:00 to 22:00 hours, with an extended schedule on the festival days. The ticket price is 700 yen, however, for 1000 yen you can get a special ticket that allows you to go once during the day time and once at night.
In front of the Tower you can find the ice-skating ring, crowned in the center by a Christmas tree. This court is open for all the assistants and it is very large, 21 x 25 meters, which allows children and adults to have a great time. Also, on this season, many live shows take place in the nearby stage, making this, our first stop during the Yuki Matsuri an activity that can even take one full day.
Crossing the street, on the second section, the sculpture show begins. One important thing to notice is that these sculptures are not only interesting to look at, but they also function as stages for many different live shows. For that reason, we recommend that you visit Odori Park once during the day and once in the evening, because the scenery will be constantly changing. Its sculpture has its own sets of illuminations that work as a background for many different types of events, from folkloric and jazz shows, to the more modern pop and rock.
This year’s sculptures include the Palace of the Heart, a tribute to love and friendship, as well as to express solidarity to the victims of the 2011 Great Earthquake. Representative figures of different parts of Asia also featured in this year’s Matsuri, with a tribute to the Traditional and Modern Taiwan; a copy of the Sultan Abdul Samad building of Malaysia; as well as a scale version of the Tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daula from India. This year, Hokkaido was represented as being the host of winter sports events with the Winter Sports Paradise, Hokkaido! Snow sculpture and the ski jump ramp by Shiroi Koibito Park, where ski and snowboarding exhibitions took place. Many figures of Japanese pop culture also made their appearance, from figures inspired by famous manga Lupin III, and the traditional Snow Miku, to the children’s TV figures of the 1970’s, Gachapin and Mukku. Odori Park was also the host of the International Snow Sculptures Competition, an event that has been held since 1974.
During your walk through Odori Park, we recommend you sample some local food such as a crab soup or some grilled clams. Also, to keep you warm, try a cup of hot wine or sake. If you want to try something different, the International Food Court offers dishes from all over the world.
After Odori Park, you should take a peek at Susukino, the second site of the festival which is also the most lively neighborhood in Sapporo. From 3 pm until 11 pm, the main road is closed to allow the public to enjoy the ice sculptures exhibition that is held during the seven days of the festival. There are many different shapes of sculptures from dragons, tigers and bears to small buildings, a walk through the ice sculptures of Susukino is an experience not to be missed. More importantly, being in Susukino will give you a chance to explore the nightlife, have dinner with friends or check out the bars and karaoke parlors; Susukino is the perfect place to have an amazing evening. We strongly recommend you to look for accommodation near this area, as it is very close to the two main sites of the festival. The Tozai line connects Susukino and Odori, using the train or just walking through the underground mall that connects both stations.
Finally, the third site is in the area of Tsudome. This site is not located downtown, as the other two, so the best way to get there is using the specially designated shuttle buses, that depart every 5 or 10 minutes. Another option is to take the train to the Sakemachi station, from there a short 15 minute walk will take you to Tsudome. Our advice is to use the bus, as it is not only cheaper (100 yen per trip), but its also more convenient, as it will drop you directly at Tsudome. The Sapporo train system is very efficient, however, if you are not used to this type of cold weather, it’s best to avoid walking in the snow. The attractions at Tsudome are family oriented, with slides and snow rafts, as well as some sculptures under the dome. It also has one stage for live events. Nevertheless, if you don’t have enough time, it’s better to focus your stay at the Odori and Susukino sites, as these are where more shows are held and are more convenient for visitors.
Before traveling to Sapporo, we strongly recommend you to be prepared for the cold weather. Due to the fact that Hokkaido is the most northern part of Japan, during winter the temperature can reach levels below zero degrees, and it is very probable that there will be heavy snowfall during the days of your visit. Therefore, it is very important to wear thermal underwear and dress in layers.We also advise you to wear a scarf, earflaps and snow gloves. It is also very important to cover your head with a woolen hat, however we strongly recommend you to avoid light hats that could be blown away by the wind. Finally, it is very important to wear shoes that not only protect your feet from the cold, but that also are stable, to avoid slipping on the ice. It’s best to bring snowboots or other shoes with skid-proof soles. In case you can’t find any, you can buy a pair of “Suberidome,” which are peaks tied together with rubber bands that you can attach to your shoes that cost less than 1000 yen. You can buy them in any shoe or department store.
The Yuki Matsuri is without a doubt, the best winter event in Japan. To get to Sapporo you can travel by train or airplane. At this time of the year, many travel agencies have special packages that include accommodation, as well as group guided tours. Due to its popularity, it can be very hard to find a place to stay during the Festival days, so we strongly recommend you to book in well in advance. The next festival will take place on the same days, February 5 to 11 of 2015, so enjoy the snow and have a great time in Hokkaido!