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Sapporo Snow Festival

A band performing on a stage in front of a giant dinosaur sculpture during a snowstorm

A band performing in front of a sculpture made entirely out of snow, at the 2004 festival

For one week every year, Sapporo hosts a giant festival of snow and ice. At the core of the festival are hundreds of snow and ice sculptures, but there are many other activities, ranging from snowboarding to a beauty contest. The festival takes place on three sites. Odori Park and Susukino are close together in central Sapporo, while the third, Tsudome, is a few kilometres away. The festival provides a great opportunity to immerse yourself in a fantasy world of glistening beauty and pure-white fun.

The festival’s main venue, Odori Park, stretches along the centre of a wide avenue right at the heart of the city. It is where you can see the giant snow sculptures for which the festival is world-famous. These are built with the help of bulldozers and mechanical diggers in the days before the festival begins, and can be more than fifteen metres high. The snow is trucked in from various locations in Sapporo, or if it’s a relatively snow-free winter, from the surrounding hills.

Taj Mahal made out of snow

This giant Taj Mahal sculpture was at the 2004 festival. If you find it hard to believe that those intricate railings are made out of snow, take a look at this high-resolution photo. The sculpture was so popular that another snow Taj Mahal was made for the 2012 festival.

There are usually about half a dozen of these giant sculptures, which often depict characters from Japanese cartoons, or famous buildings from around the world. Recent years have seen snow versions of the UK’s ‘Wallace and Gromit’ and the Taj Mahal, as well as samurai castles and Japanese wildlife. It’s not only the size that makes these sculptures impressive – but also the level of detail and accuracy with which they are sculpted. The sculptors are so highly skilled and well organized that everything is in perfect proportions, and other than being completely white, very true to life.

These giants are surrounded by many smaller sculptures, some carved out of ice instead of snow. ‘Citizens’ Square’ displays sculptures made by Sapporo locals – usually of a very high standard. At night the sculptures in Odori Park are illuminated until 10pm. This gives many of the sculptures a completely different character, so even if you’ve already seen them during the day, it’s well worth coming back to experience them all over again. If you want to get an overview of the whole site, you can get a great view from the observation deck of the Sapporo TV Tower (entry ¥700), at the east end of Odori Park.

A view of the Odori Park snow festival site from Sapporo TV Tower

A view along Odori Park from Sapporo TV Tower, showing some of the giant snow sculptures at the 2010 festival. In the background are the mountains that come right up to the edge of the city.

One end of the park hosts the International Snow Sculpture Contest that has taken place every year since 1974. Three-person teams come from all over the world, and have four days to turn a pile of snow into a work of art. Most teams produce a sculpture that relates to their home country, typically cultural symbols or aspects of nature. In 2011 the team from Hong Kong won with an incredibly intricate Chinese dragon – though given the climate of their homeland I can’t understand how they learnt to sculpt snow so well. It’s well-worth coming back several times over the course of the festival to see the sculptures gradually taking shape.

And don’t think that the festival is just about frozen art. If you’re feeling energetic, most years there’s an outdoor ice rink and a cross country-skiing course. Other attractions have included as ski-jump where you could watch displays put on by snowboarders, and performances by musicians ranging from military bands to pop stars, put on on stages made out of snow. There’s also a food park where you can sample some of the local specialities if you get hungry.

A giant sculpture of wildlife made out of ice and illuminated

This giant sculpture is made out of ice not snow, and appeared at the 2008 festival.

The nearby nightlife district Susukino hosts another sixty or so sculptures, most of these made of ice rather than snow. If you come on the afternoon or evening of the first day, you’ll be able to see the sculptors attacking huge blocks of ice with chainsaws and other power tools. By the end of the evening each block will be transformed into a crystalline masterpiece. One regular feature is sculptures with real crabs, fish and other sea creatures embedded in the ice. Susukino also features a beauty contest in which young women who work in the area compete for the title of ‘Ice Queen’. To prevent disappointment, I’ll warn you now that entrants are more likely to dress in a fur hat and coat than in a bikini. Susukino is best visited at night, as that is when the district really comes to life. You can buy drinks at bars made out of ice, and the neon lights of the surrounding buildings shining through the sculptures produce dazzling kaleidoscopes of colour.

Lots of mini snowmen at the Sapporo Snow Festival

These mini snowmen, each bearing a message from its creator, are just a few of those made by visitors to the 2008 festival.

The festival’s third venue is at Tsudome – a sports centre about ten kilometres away from Odori Park. This venue has around twenty-five snow sculptures, but focuses more on action than just looking. The exact attractions vary from year to year, but regulars include riding on a rubber dingey towed behind a snowmobile, and slides made out of snow. The biggest slides are around 100m long, and you ride them sitting on a rubber ring. For children, there are smaller slides, and the chance to try out skis made from bamboo. There’s an area where you can make your own snowman, or just play around in the snow, and one year on Valentine’s Day there was the opportunity to send snowmen filled with real snow. I’m not sure what your lover would think when he or she received such a chilly gift, but I think it was meant in the right spirit. There’s also been snow golf, igloos, a snow-maze, and competitions to see who can make the best snow-sculpture. Inside the sport centre’s giant dome a café serves authentic Hokkaido food, a market sells local produce, and children can ride on a mini-shinkansen.

The festival began in 1950, when some local high school students built six snow sculptures in Odori Park, and it’s been held every year since then. It got its first big boost in 1955 when the Self Defence Force joined in. They built the first of the giant snow sculptures that are now so famous, and they’ve supported the festival ever since. The Winter Olympics, held in Sapporo in 1972, lifted the event from national to international fame, and it has thrived ever since. Now it is attended by well over two million people each year – quite an achievement given Sapporo’s relatively small size, and its huge distance from Japan’s biggest cities.

A rubber dingey about to be towed by a snowmobile and snow slides

The snowmobile-rubber raft ride about to set off at the 2010 festival’s Tsudome site. In the background are some of the giant slides.

Sapporo is not yet connected to the shinkansen network, so from most of the rest of Japan it’s best reached by air. (The route between Sapporo and Tokyo is the busiest in the world, carrying almost nine million passengers a year.) From Tokyo it’s about nine hours by train, although a more comfortable option is to take a sleeper train from either Tokyo or Osaka.

Within Sapporo, Odori Park is right by Odori Station, which is on all three lines of the Sapporo Subway. Susukino is a ten-minute walk away down Ekimae Avenue (or one stop to Susukino Station on the Namboku subway line). Shuttle buses run from Odori Park to Tsudome every fifteen to twenty minutes, or every five to ten minutes from Sakaemachi Station at the end of the Toho subway line (from where Tsudome is a fifteen-minute walk). The festival always takes place over one week in early February, and there are no charges for entry. Weather-wise, temperatures average a few degrees below zero Celsius, and there are occasional snowfalls – so be sure to wrap up warmly.

For more information, and the exact dates of the next festival, check out the official website. If you’re not able to make it to Sapporo when the festival is on, you could check out the free Sapporo Snow Festival Museum on Hitsujigaoka Observation Hill, which documents the festival’s history.

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