It’s the most famous event in Sapporo and tourists from across Japan flock to see the spectacle. Giant statues made from snow and ice. It’s amazing to see and it spans not only the length of Odori park but even extends beyond the city in smaller snow events within the surrounding towns. There’s just one thing all tourists forget about the snow festival; there’s snow. Lot’s of it.
For those of you who live in cold climates then you probably won’t be able to appreciate just how much I struggle in this weather. The UK has a very mild climate all year round and it never snows too much because it doesn’t want to put us out (it’s polite that way). Typically we only get one uncomfortable week of summer heat and one morning of light frost on the ground in winter (if we’re very lucky). With limited sunlight or severe weather, the British Isles hosts a population of vampires with very little discomfort. So a festival based upon extreme snowfall should have been a red flag long before.
I needed to learn how to cope with the cold fairly quickly after arriving in Hokkaido in October, as it started to snow freakishly early (the island obviously knew I was coming). So I did the most sensible thing and started wearing layers; vests, long sleeved thermal tops and sheepskin jackets (hmmm sheepskin. Those sheep don’t realise just how good they’ve got it). But this wasn’t going to cut it. I needed a hat to cover my ears, a scarf, two sets of gloves, thicker socks, vodka (I tried it and it really does warm you! In a burning fashion) and spikes for my boots. So even as far back as October, when I was caught in the elements, my scramble for proper supplies began.
Kara and Anne asked to visit me so they could see the festival so I excitedly prepared for their arrival. Anne was first to fly in, bouncing off the walls of the train pinball station with her usual energy (she could put toddlers to shame). She came bearing biscuits for me so I thought only fair that I bear her over enthusiasm in spite of minor awkwardness on my part. An example of this was when she blew into my room, ran in circles a few times to take it all in, before landing on the pair of black women’s heels hiding under my desk. Her head snapped between them and me in confusion and then she drew in an overly exaggerated breath.
“Ooooh whose shoes are they Poncho!?”
How do you know they’re not mine? Maybe in the time we’ve been apart I suddenly decided drag was the thing for me.
“Sorry I forgot to mention. I’m dating someone now”
“What!” she gasped, “you’re cheating on Shella!?”
Let me make this clear to everyone. I love Shella. But you ‘can’t’ cheat on an umbrella. She bounded over my frown with an interrogation into Cece and I promised that she’d get to meet her soon. Apparently that wasn’t good enough though because she spent the next 20 minutes carefully analysing the high heels for any clues to what she might be like (Anne; lead investigator of CSI).
We met up with Cece later (who once again came up behind me and surprised me. Maybe she should wear those heels more often so that at the very least I can hear her coming!), and went off to visit the Sapporo Beer Museum. The irony that I don’t drink wasn’t lost on me but it was all interesting nonetheless. Anne and Cece were very considerate of my dislike of alcohol though. That’s why they kept prodding me to drink their beers out of curiosity in seeing me drunk (peer pressure at it’s best). Finally no museum visit is complete without a snowball fight (you didn’t know? I’m sure a character from Alice in Wonderland might have invented this tradition). This ended just as you might expect; Cece slipping on the ice, Anne getting tired and me being pelted by snowballs despite not being involved.
The following night Kara arrived and started feeding off Anne’s enthusiasm until it had more than doubled (like some grotesque happiness monster that spread from person to person. It was horrifying). The snow festival had already begun so rather than head straight home we dropped by to have a look that night, most of it barely visible in the street lights. One thing they don’t mention in the tourist guides is just how much ice there is. It’s to be expected after thousands of people trample over the same virgin snow for long enough, but it had turned the entire park into a treacherous ice rink. Good luck taking photos when you’re wobbling left and right. The only thing that was more uncomfortable was getting home to witness Anne rush to the high heels and cry out to Kara, ‘look! look!’.
The second day began with a glorious snow storm, in which we skidded and fell before reaching the subway, prompting an immediate spike shopping hunt. The snow festival was even busier during the day and we ice skated between the masses of people to get a better look at the 25 foot statues. They included wondrous displays such as castles, ‘Attack on Titan’, Dragonball Z, and….Shinkansen. A giant snow statue of a train. Just a train. After seeing a giant man and entire castles built from snow, I could say that it was the train that just blew me away. (the Shinkansen is not even coming to Sapporo so God knows why everyone is getting so excited about it).
We tried to see as much as we could. Ice lanterns in Otaru (very pretty if you’re not already sick of ice by that point), the second most disappointing tourist attraction in Japan (because surprisingly that title actually brings in money. Kara made a point of proudly explaining her local area had the first most disappointing attraction in Japan. Woo), and the red brick building Akerenga which was used as the first government building in Hokkaido. They had a big display about the northern territories dispute which was seriously explained in a video involving animated penguins who made ridiculous sounds. I had to wait while Anne and Kara watched this video multiple times so that they could imitate these penguins perfectly (in public I might add). It’s good to know that the injustices of this world can reach us all and aren’t lost behind trivial things like cuteness. We also ended up at the largest shrine in Hokkaido and my favourite park; a cultural beacon across the island that brings Japanese people together throughout the year. My friends showed their respect to such a religious sight by once again, pelting me with snowballs. (My God, if I didn’t hate snow before…).
We also enjoyed what I like to call food tourism. If you look it up in any standard dictionary it’ll be defined as “the commercial organisation and operation of devouring the local cuisine from places of interest”. In other words, instead of visiting famous places, we went looking for restaurants serving famous dishes. (Go eat something before reading the following. It’s for your own good). Soup curry, Genghis Khan (the lamb, rather than the conquerer. God knows how it got this name. Maybe the man liked grilled lamb?), fresh seafood, miso ramen, Shiroi Koibito biscuits, soft cream and even baked cheese tarts (damn, I really should have written this after lunch today). I’d definitely recommend a food holiday to anyone who wasn’t suffering from obesity, diabetes or British nationality.
I was so happy to have visitors come up to see me. Not just because I love and miss my friends but also because I wasn’t sure if anybody believed me that I ran the risk of frostbite every time I took off my gloves (the air was so cold, it burned. The air ‘burned’. I mean that very seriously!). So it was with minor glee when I saw them struggle in the snow (in the same way Kara wants her mother to be in an earthquake. Just to let her know what it’s ‘actually’ like, so she won’t worry. These sentiments are really, very innocent you know). So I hope for future winters when I cry out into the ether that is the internet, help me I’m dying, the reply I’ll get won’t be ‘yeah it’s a little chilly here too actually’. I live on an island that has a snow festival. Unless you’re somewhere like Siberia (a stone’s throw away from Hokkaido by the way), then it’s something that will sound ever so slightly dismissive. As for the festival, with the exception of the snow train, the ice rink you had to walk across to see anything and the fact that it’s winter, it’s a great thing to go see.