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Hokkaido Snow Festival

Updated: Jun 20

The Hokkaido snow festival is one of the most famous annual traditions of Japan, and visiting the snow festival was high on my list of things to do and to see before I left the country. To get to Hokkaido wasn't so easy. I would have to leave the main island of Japan (called Honshu) and travel to another island altogether at the northernmost point of the country. That was the island of Hokkaido - a place that was, until just a little over a century ago, not even a part of Japan but its own independent nation with its own unique people, language and culture.

Unfortunately, that independent people called the Ainu were now almost completely wiped out or integrated into mainstream Japanese culture. They left behind them their precious homeland, a snowy, wintery natural wonderland that gave the feeling of being twice isolated - once from the world, like the rest of Japan, and then again a second time from Japan itself. It was, perhaps partially for that reason, an indescribably peaceful place, with a feeling almost removed from time and space at the same time that it was a modern and bustling hub.

My goal for this visit was the main city of Hokkaido, a metropolis called Sapporo. To get there, I took the train to Sendai city and made the way north by plane (there was a train option as well, but it took much longer. Since I had limited time the plane made more sense). I landed in a small but clean and modern airport not far outside the city, and took a city shuttle to the central station in Sapporo. Immediately, I was struck by two things. The first was how large, clean, happening and modern the city of Sapporo looked with its tall highrises and crisscrossing streets as far as the eye could see. The second was the snow. An unbelievable amount of snow! Piled as high as my head or even higher in many places, there was so much snow it was almost a wonder to me that the town operated on roads and cars rather than an alternative mode of transport like snowmobiles or sleds pulled by dogs.

I checked into a humble, small hostel about twenty minutes walk from the train station. The interior had a sort of cabin-in-the-woods feel to it, with more hardwood than I was used to seeing in Japan and distinctly less bamboo or tatami. It was also profoundly peaceful and quiet. Unlike my hometown of Nagai, which was a much smaller city by comparison, somehow the amount of ambient noise that leaked through to the hostel seemed to be much less here. I was surprised by the silence, and appreciated it as a rare luxury and reprieve.

The next day I left the hostel and treaded through endless roads covered in snow to reach the downtown area of sapporo. Every step I took, I was more impressed with the city. In many ways it reminded me of Sendai as a bustling and modern hub full of malls, shops, restaurants and cafes, on the level of a national city but not quite as overpacked as places like Tokyo and Kyoto. Except, if I had to compare the two, I would say that Sapporo felt the more advanced of the two cities, with even more shops, more cafes, more building development, and at least at the time I was visiting, more tourists.

The snow festival was spread out over the city in several main locations. One of these was a large park in the center of the downtown. I arrived there after about a forty minute walk and was rewarded with the sight of endless snow and ice sculptures. These ranged from human-sized to the size of small villas and buildings. Most were anime-themed, to my surprise, but they also included all sorts of other pop-culture and social references. Thousands of people swarmed between the sculptures to take pictures and enjoy the sights. I quickly joined their ranks, and some of the photos I took can be seen below.

After visiting the initial area of the snow sculptures, I walked further south to near where Sapporo had its own covered market. Here, another street (roughly perpendicular to the park where the snow sculptures had been) was lined with ice sculptures. Some of these were also truly impressive. Though, at a glance, I couldn't help but feel that the snow sculptures allowed for a greater expression of detail and color than the ice sculptures did. This particular line of ice sculptures as also full to the brim with advertisements from various companies, making it almost feel like walking through a Hulu or Youtube ad brought to life. Some of the photos I took here can be seen below.

For dinner, I decided to try two of the local delicacies - Hokkaido curry soup, and, parfait. Parfait in particular was an important part of culture in Hokkaido. Whereas in other parts of the country drinking and social events were usually "Sealed" (finished) with a bowl of ramen, in Hokkaido they preferred a nice cup of parfait. Both the soup and the ice cream were impressive, with the soup especially being one of the best and most flavorful dishes I'd experienced yet in Japan.

On the second day of the snow festival, I returned at night to experience some of the other elements of the festivities. In particular, there were some remarkable exhibits that included sounds, lights and colors. One of these was a series of inflated balloon-like creatures with moving, googly-eyes, flashing colors, and a gentle fairy-like track of sounds and songs that they rotated through. It was a magical experience. From a distance it looked like the silliest exhibit in the whole city, but up close, it quickly turned into one of my favorites.

A bit further West of the fairy-balloons was another example of a remarkable exhibit. An entire mansion had been carved out of snow, and a short movie had been designed so as to project perfectly on to the mansion's exterior. It was a short film about two young people growing up, falling in love, getting married, then eventually dying. Their death was symbolized by a train, shown departing from a train station, and at the conclusion the title showed that the entire name of the piece was fittingly "the station".

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