This year, Sapporo’s Snow Festival was held for the 68th time.
I saw photos of mind-blowing snow sculptures of earlier festivals on the Internet and told Coen we were going to Hokkaido to see them. We were in Hiroshima, some 1500, if not more, kilometers away from that island. Those who follow our journey know that covering a distance like this normally would take us a couple of months (let’s face it, we ‘needed’ two months to see the island of Kyushu – read about it here, here, and here).
Going to Hokkaido?
We had three weeks before the festival would start.
“That’s ridiculous,” Coen argued.
Of course it was.
“Never mind. We’ll go anyway,” I responded.
There is an advantage to being the planner. You get to decide where we go (most of the time).
“We have so many people still to visit between here and there,” Coen tried once more.
I agreed. We did. And we will. Because even though in the far north of Japan, Hokkaido is not the end of the world, nor of our trip. We will return south and so, no worries, we will take up those invitations!
Where is Japan’s winter?
There was another reason to drive north while it was winter: I wanted snow. Climate change has hit Japan as well and this is a warm winter with (relative) little snow. Pictures of winter in Japan always include lots of snow. Not this year. It was half January and we had just had our first two nights with minor snow storms. The snow melted within a day.
In order to ‘experience’ some serious snow, we would have to drive to the northern part of Honshu or to Hokkaido. So why not combine the wish for walking on meters-deep snow with the snow festival?
The 2017 Snow Festival in Sapporo
We managed to arrive on the first day of the festival, February 6. How’s that for timing? The snow sculptures were spread out across Odori Koen (Park), downtown Sapporo. Our attention was drawn to a number of humongous snow sculptures, two of which had been built by Japanese army divisions. They were grand during the day and beautifully lit at night.
I don’t care for crowds at all. But at an event this size, there is no way to avoid them. But leave it to the Japanese to organize it in an orderly manner. They obviously know all about crowd control. With men in thick winter jackets all over the place pointing us into the right direction, the masses were ‘forced’ to walk around the sculptures counter-clockwise. It worked perfectly.
Despite zebra crossings with traffic lights the government had employed men to stop the hundreds of pedestrians when the light turned red, and telling them to get moving when it was green. Over the microphone the crowd was warned that the ice ground could be slippery. Especially the latter did give a sense of walking in a Big-Brother reality.
A police officer walked up to us during the first afternoon, inquiring if this was our first visit. Since this was the case he informed us of three things:
- The ground may be slippery due to snow.
- Watch your belongings.
- Carry your passport.
The last has nothing to do with terrorism, we assume, but for the possible case that you slip, hit your head, and need to be carried away by ambulance. At least they’ll know who you are.
The inhabitants of Sapporo had been invited to join as well. Sixty of them built a sculpture, most of them cartoon figures. And the festival included an international snow sculpture competition. Some ten countries participated and the below-depicted, extraordinary crane dance by the team from Macao rightfully won the contest.
Ice Sculptures at a disgraceful location
The snow festival includes ice sculptures, however, they were not in the Odori Park. Instead they had been thrown in the middle of a busy road a couple of blocks down the park. A total disgrace in my opinion. And frankly, I didn’t see why these couldn’t be added to one section of the Odori Park where people had more space to move around them.
While in the evening the blocks are closed off to traffic, they are not during the day. Try to take a photo from up close with a Japanese traffic officer shouting at you and pointing you to the pavement all the time. You’d think this was the first year they had organized this part of the festival; the set-up was that bad. That it can be done very differently we saw a couple of days later at the stunning, International Ice Sculpture Contest in Asahikawa.
The sculptures (snow and ice) suffered. When we were on our way to Hokkaido we had weather forecasts telling us it was -8C (17F) during the day and -15C (5F) at night. That is very cold. However, now that we were here, it barely froze at night and during the day it was +2C (35F). Water was dripping from the gracefully carved sculptures, which was sad to see.
Worth the trip? Absolutely.
So are we now returning south?
No, of course not. We have the tendency of falling in love with places. This time it’s no different and so we will be hanging around on Hokkaido for a while. Stay tuned for more!