Sapporo is the capital city of the northern-most island of Japan, Hokkaido. To get there from Tokyo without a car you can either fly or take a train. The train goes through a “chunnel” kind of dealie. I think it’s actually the longest underwater tunnel in the world, coming in around 53 miles long! At any rate, the trip takes 16 hours and most people do it overnight in sleeper trains. There are all kinds of cool details about the train, but since I didn’t actually take that route I’ll let you do the research on your own. Suffice it to say that I wish I could have gone that way – I love traveling by train!
Instead we flew. This was my first time taking a domestic flight in Japan and man it was awesome. The whole experience was a snap. I’ve spent more time in American security lines than it took for me to get my ticket, go through security, and take off. Then there’s the hour train ride from the airport to the actual city.
Anyway, the first night in town we had a heck of a time finding a place to get a drink. We were kind of late and our group was a bit large. Not knowing much about the town we wandered around from small Japanese izakaya to another looking for a happening place. Not having much luck we settled on one with plenty of seating (i.e. dead) where they put us in our own booth. Maybe they thought we were VIP!
After having a bunch of different meats on a stick and some sake we headed out for Karaoke! Without a clue where to go we started asking around. The izakaya owner was more than helpful and pointed us toward one of the uniquely Japanese establishments where locals go for an evening of Karaoke. For a flat fee you get a private room and all you can drink and eat! What a steal. Of course, being the Gaijin we are, we managed to screw up the karaoke system in our room to the point where they gave up and moved us to a new room closer to the front desk :)
After [another] quick lesson on the use of the karaoke song-selector-computer we were off and screeching out the classics.
The next day was go time! Being a vacation we got a bit of a late start, but the first stop was what we hoped would be the most fun: THE RIDES. We hopped a train and soon we were standing next to this guy, pointing the way to the shuttle bus, which would take us to the park.
We opted to forgo the the shuttle and walk ourselves there. How hard could it be. And who really needs a map anyway?
After walking a few blocks in the wrong direction we arrived at the arena. Our first snow sculptures! WELCOME TO YUKI MATSURI
So this part of the festival was really aimed at the kids. They were all over the place! Inside the arena they had all kinds of popular children’s characters doing shows, songs, dances, and all kinds of indescribable other things. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take any pictures of them. Apparently they take “intellectual property” pretty seriously over here.
The name of the game at this part of the festival was “queue.” Meaning: get in line. We waited in line for everything! Food, drinks, rides, bathroom. Talking to someone recently I heard a story about waiting in a two-hour line when the Krispy Kreme donuts opened in Tokyo. Is the line-up part of the experience??
So since the lines were so long we had a tough decision to make. Not being prepared to stand in line for 1.5 hrs more than once, we had the pick the best ride and commit to it. After the initial survey we opted for the snowmobile tow in a river raft. The loop involved lots of bumps, jumps, and ramps and reminded me a lot of what we used to do with sleds as a kid.
After standing in line for that one and basically getting nowhere we sent out a runner as recon to see if any of the lines were moving any faster. I volunteered to go and checked out the tube slide. There was a large line, but there was a sign with the number 20 on it. Which I assumed was obviously the number of minutes for the wait…
OH BOY. So not only did I choose wrong in terms of wait-time, but as we got further up the slide the wind got stronger and stronger. I can’t remember the last time I was so cold.
We were literally huddled together like penguins to keep warm.
So the ride was clearly totally worth the wait.
Now for some totally random snow sculptures on our way back to the main part of the city:
Next stop was the Sapporo Brewery and they had spiffed up the grounds for the occasion. This was probably my favorite part of the weekend. Unfortunately the museum portion was closed by the time we got there, but luckily the tasting room stays open a bit later! Between the beer tasting and all the snow lanterns it was a magical experience ;-)
This is a beer tasting room done right! Turns out Sapporo makes more than one variety!
Next we did some walking around the grounds…
The brewery restaurant was yakiniku (grill your own food right at the table) and the grill was in the shape of the island of Hokkaido. For some reason, no one got a picture of the uniquely shaped grill… The whole experience was very cozy. There was even an igloo!!
After the fun experience of the Sapporo brewery we headed back into town to catch the main attraction.
Downtown Sapporo there is a park that runs maybe 20 blocks down the middle of the city. This park is where the REAL snow and ice sculptures are located.
We were all looking forward to seeing the snow and ice sculptures lit up at night. Unfortunately we got there just as the lights were being turned off :-( It was snowing like crazy though, which was really fun.
One benefit of getting to the park after-hours was being able to watch the maintenance of these enormous creations. As we were walking around all these army trucks started pulling up with tons of guys in camo carrying brooms and other tools. They quickly got to work clearing accumulated snow and touching up various parts of the sculptures! That’s putting taxpayer money to work!
The next day we rolled back to the park to finish seeing all the craziness. It was ridiculously crowded and icy. I’m constantly amazed at the insistence of the Japanese women on wearing heels EVERYWHERE. I’ve seen them all over cities, on HIKES, and now on ice! At any rate, here are more random pictures:
Our favorite snack! Chocolate covered bananas!
Snow Delivery!! Not even kidding :)
After being out in the cold all day (which none of us were quite prepared for) it was a welcome relief to find a shopping mall. Inside the mall, we found a fun pub!
And that was the end of Yuki Matsuri. How fun!
Of course, having lived in upstate New York, I’m used to Winterlude, Ottawa Ontario’s winter festival. While the snow rides and ridiculously huge snow sculptures of Sapporo were an experience, it doesn’t quite match my memories of Winterlude. For those who don’t know, Ottawa has a canal running basically the entire length of the city. Being pretty much located in the arctic, the canal freezes over every winter and people actually commute to work on ice skates! They even zamboni the thing!
So for Winterlude, the idea is the same as Yuki Matsuri: take the ridiculously and consistently cold weather and have fun with it. The canal is lined with all kinds of food and fun vendors and at the lake at the end they have all the snow/ice sculptures as well as a bunch of different games and events, including multiple hockey and broom ball rinks of course. The way it plays out is such a great experience, no buses or trains between sites, no slipping all over (unless you’re still learning to skate), and great food like poutine and beaver tails!
At any rate, I think both are really fun and they could learn a few things from each other to make the ULTIMATE winter festival!