I have long wanted to venture to the northernmost hinterlands of Japan known as Hokkaido to attend its famous snow festival that takes place in Sapporo each year. Having hosted the ’72 Winter Olympics, this city obviously is stranger to a lot of winter precipitation which also beckoned to me. As one of those events that I had actually heard of before coming to Japan, it long held a high spot on my Japanese bucket list. Finally in this third year here some low cost airlines opened up shop and made the weekend outing financially justifiable. I booked my flight and was able to recruit Soeng and a few others to join me, and then departing on a Friday we made our way over there.
Soeng and I had planned to drive to the bus stop where we would be whisked away into the weekend and dropped off at the airport. And though I thought I knew where this bus stop was, we discovered that I had had a different one in mind. Left with no other option and time before our flight dwindling away, we had no other choice but to drive to the airport. I had made this costly drive once before but splitting the costs made it much better. We arrived a couple hours later without any problems at the newly constructed Terminal 2, home to Peach Airlines. It looked like a warehouse converted into a hospital, but it had the basics and also a 7 11 for us to stock up on cheap snacks and drinks.
Now anyone not so big a fan of the TSA should hearken to the pain free process of flying domestically in Japan. Without ever even talking to someone, we were able to scan our printed bookings at a kiosk and have our tickets issued there. No ID, no problem! When we were going through security, I didn’t have to mess around with taking off my jacket or removing my laptop from its holder, and the only thing I had to do with my drinks was declare them. You heard true, I could bring a Dew and a brew right on though. It feels nice to be treated as a normal person only going from point A to B, such as a passenger on a bus.
On the other side of security we found the rest of the white people travelling on this flight, the ones I had pitched the trip to at least, and caught up a bit. Our incoming airplane was a tad delayed on account of heavy snow at our destination, which only added to my anticipation. I was really starting to get antsy to be out and about among snow worthy of my origins since my home in Shionoe sees little accumulation. A winter without proper snow is nothing more than a long, ugly fall after all.
Up up and away and two hours later, we were coming down again on the other side of the country. We arrived to incredible snowfall that was coming down horizontally. I was giddy. The six of us parted ways at the airport to pursue our own plans. After and hour on the train Soeng and I arrived at Sapporo station, starving, yet amazed at the snow that covered everything and the massive drifts alongside the roads. The heightened risk of slipping inspired our bet that the first to fall had to do a snow angel in a public place.
This is playing, not losing.
We found our way over to a nabe restaurant before heading over to our hotel. The Snow Festival completely books out the city’s hotels, and despite making the reservation a few months prior I was left with few options at a reasonable price. When we finally arrived we chatted with a couple foreigners down the hall before some sleep.
The next morning we rose in anticipation of what the day would hold for us. The first order of business was to get some food though. Soeng talked about how the ramen in Hokkaido was unique, and the foreigners from the previous night had gone on and on about a shop in the station. Getting there was easier said than done and after nearly 45 frustrating minutes of walking in circles, going up and down elevators, and then realizing we were in the wrong place entirely, we did at last arrive at the ‘Ramen Republic’. This area was back with little ramen shops, and though we had once possessed the patience to wait in line for the most famous one, that virtue had long since faded into oblivion. We selected a place with no wait where I ordered a bowl of salt ramen and Soeng miso ramen. Both were indeed different than my usual ramen fare, but Soeng’s was by far the better choice.
The salt variety below, loaded up with different condiments.
After ditching our bags in a locker, we went over to our first area of the day, the one with all of the snow sculptures. At this point the tourist is meant to walk up and down a boulevard to appreciate the works and overpriced festival food. The first area that we saw after popping up from the subway was one with behemoth sculptures. My favorite of the bunch depicted a shrine, bridge and woman carved into something larger than the average house.
There were others that were constructed from pure, blue ice, and these too were very impressive.
From these large structures, we walked further down the road towards the local entries which though smaller had a bit more character to them. All the crowd favorites made an appearance: Totoro, Pikachu, Ultraman, Doraemon, and also a couple Nameko. I was also pleased to see a Kakuremomojiri one as well. The one that I liked best transcended typical Japanese humor and was simply titled ‘Nose’. The melon bread bear below was also quite unique.
”Nose. If you can enter the nose it would be interesting!
*Actually you cannot enter the nose*”
Midway through this stroll, things escalated into a snowball fight. And while I did just about peg an innocent passerby, it was Soeng that lost, slipping and falling fantastically for all to see. Though she never truly settled her bet debt, I figured enough people saw this dainty display of agility to call it settled. After walking a bit more, we stopped in a Mister Doughnut to warm our extremities and indulge before heading on to the next site.
This snow festival takes places in three locations, and in addition to the street lined with snow sculptures, there was another with ones made of ice. These too were quite impressive, and though I can say that I had a favorite, there were certainly a handful that stuck out. Some were ornate, some had fish frozen in the blocks of ice, and still otheres were a whisky bar.
The third site was bit of a train ride away and only upon arriving did we realize that it was an indoor sledding hill for children. Annoyed at ourselves for having done no research into the matter, we decided to call the festival complete and move on to the other half our Hokkaido itinerary, Otaru.
Otaru is about an hour to the west of Sapporo by train and provided a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city. Situated alongshore the north Pacific Ocean, the city developed into a shipping hub and had a number old warehouse buildings along a canal that people like to come and see. We arrived at the station and took note of a Burger King (rare for Japan) and then checked into our again mediocre hotel. After napping off a couple hours worth of exhaustion, it was time for dinner. As we walked around, we enjoyed the great many lanterns made of snow and ice that dotted the streets.
A famous Hokkaido cuisine, one that I would definitely label as ‘can’t miss’, is Genghis Khan yakiniku. At these grill-it-yourself restaurants they serve pieces of lamb, which is also quite unique in Japan. After winding through a few narrow streets, we finally found what we were looking for and were simply blown away. The price was great for 90 minutes of nonstop lamb, bean sprouts and onions all cooked at our own personal grill. This was all accompanied by bottomless bowls of rice and mugs of beer.
We had an incredible time devouring far too much and chatting amongst ourselves and the workers. It was in complete disbelief that we could order plate after plate of the delicious lamb without either the flavor nor the passion for eating it to diminish in the slightest. The sauce in particular was exceptional. In the end the only real limitation was our waning stomach capacity, but being the only people in there, I was starting to feel a bit sheepish anyway. I’m pretty sure we started getting the better of them. After walking back we were fast asleep in hopes of an earlier start to our last day.
In the center is a piece a fat that would dribble down moisture and flavor on the meat.
After passing our bags over to the hotel, we walked on down to the canal to see what that was all about. We stopped along the way for some breakfast at Mister Doughnut, once again. When we arrived among the hoard of Chinese tourists, it was clear that this place had a unique and potentially romantic vibe that warranted a picture or two, but it wasn’t mind blowing.
We walked around some more, splitting up at one point to check out some different things. I stepped into a used clothing store that specialized in American fashion. While they did indeed have a very American stock of hoodies and t-shirts, they were all just random middle school sport shirts, or those one’s loaded up with sponsors from lame events. Despite the wares consisting largely of the garbage that accumulates in our closets, these were all priced at about 30 dollars each. Is this where your salvation army donations really go?
We reunited for some sushi, which this town ranks very highly for on the national scale. Soeng and I tend to eat a lot of sushi at the cheaper conveyor belt restaurants, but agreed that we should splash out for for the real deal. So for what was likely to be the finest sushi I ever eat, I decided not to hold back. In addition to the higher prices, these orders were only for one piece rather than the usual two.
While most of my choices weren’t too exorbitant, one of the things that I wanted to try was otoro sushi, which is considered the finest cut of the fish. The fattiest parts have the most flavor but each tuna yields far less of this prized meat, factors that make it quite a prized treat. Not to deprive myself of that, I ordered a single piece costing about 5 dollars and saved it for last. When I finally did pop it in my mouth, I could immediately understand how it offered a different eating experience. In addition to the melt-in-your-mouth texture, the taste too was a bit different. In the end though, I actually do think I like the cheaper stuff better on the basis of both value and taste, but knowing for sure feels good too. The Kobe beef will have to be next.
After we finished our sushi, we debated a bit about where we should next and after consulting a tourist map agreed that nothing in particular stood out to us. I guess the music box museum will have to wait until the next time… We reclaimed our things at the hotel and then hung out at the Burger King while we waited for our train to come. To my utmost joy, I was able to get an apple burger with cinnamon – further proof that Japanese fast food reigns supreme.
We both passed out on the ride back to the airport and the return flight went without a hitch. We arrived into Osaka with another day left to the three day weekend and had loosely planned to take a day trip out of the city. We checked into our hotel, walked around until we decided on some decent but overpriced Turkish food for our dinner and then returned to the room for some sleep.
Soeng is not pleased by her washed out bread and hummous.
The next morning we agreed we weren’t really up for a day trip that would just leave us exhausted, so we opted for taking our time getting back home instead. We did stop at a Shakey’s Pizza before we left the big city and stuffed our faces with the buffet. It was Soeng’s first time there, so I had to show her how it was done.
All in all, the weekend was a good time. Unlike some other festivals, I felt like this one lacked the punch of a conclusion. It was great seeing the snow and ice sculptures, but in the end it was only that. Still, the chance to cross it off my list as both a destination and event made it more than worthwhile. I’ve got a few more trips like this in the works that I am eagerly looking forward to.