Hundreds of gigantic, eye-catching castles, shrines, Disney characters and Darth Vader of Star Wars will be shining February in the winter sunlight in Sapporo, the capital of Japan’s northern main island of Hokkaido. They are not made from glass or any synthetic materials, only ice and snow!
Annual Sapporo Snow Festival, one of the largest events in northernmost major island of Hokkaido, kicks off its 70th edition Feb. 4. For eight days, as many as 200 eye-catching snow statues and ice sculptures will dot Odori Park and other sites in Sapporo, dazzling by day and by night an estimated 2.4 million visitors including, 107,000 from overseas. While main exhibitions at Odori Park and Susukino start Feb. 4, those at Tsudome are displayed as early as Jan. 31.
This festival began in 1950 when students of five high schools in Sapporo City created six snow sculptures at a corner of Odori Park where Sapporo citizens usually disposed shoveled snow during winter time. It has grown as an annual local event in the city. The festival added ice sculptures five years later when members of the Japan Self-Defense Forces took part in the fun. The 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics helped to bring international recognition of the festival, and two years later the International Snow Sculpture Contest began, with teams from many countries around the world joining in. The U.S. military has been part of the festivities for some time, with a team from Naval Air Facility Misawa in Japan participating more than 30 times in the international snow carving contest.
The main exhibition sites are Odori Park, in the center of downtown Sapporo; Tsudome, where kids can enjoy snow slides and mazes, a snow experience corner, and adults can sample regional dishes; and Susukino, where the Susukino Ice World 2018 will be held. This festival, also located downtown, presents ice sculptures featuring live crab, squid and salmon, and other forms of entertainment.
The sculptures are on display 24 hours a day at Odori Park and Susukino, and are illuminated until 10 p.m. at Odori Park and until 11 p.m. at Susukino. Tsudome is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
This annual festival is so popular among tourists that almost all hotels within Sapporo city are usually booked well before the event. So, if you are interested in the festival, package tours are highly recommended.
Other sites to see
A package tour includes visiting to several tourist attractions in the vicinity of the festival site, so you can enjoy what the northern main island of Hokkaido has to offer through the tour as well.
In fact, Hokkaido is a treasure trove of tourist attractions.
In Sapporo City, there are many historical places to see, including a clock tower and building from the Sapporo Agricultural College (now Hokkaido University). The school’s founder, an American instructor named William S. Clark, said, “Boys, be ambitious!” in his 1879 parting speech to his students, an inspirational phrase that has become nationally known in Japan. A visit to Sapporo Beer Garden is also considered an essential part of enjoying the city.
Hakodate, an important port city south of Sapporo, offers a splendid night view from Mt. Hakodate that is considered to be one of the top three in the world. The city also features a number of Western-style buildings along the waterfront that have been converted into restaurants, shops and even a beer hall. Another interesting tourist site is the Trappist Monastery, outside the city, whose butter cookies have become famous.
The Asahiyama Zoo is another wonderful attraction, drawing more than 2 million visitors a year. It features an interactive approach to viewing its animals that almost makes you feel you can reach out and touch them.
Hokkaido’s onsen (hot spring) resorts are also a major draw as are its many ski resorts, including Niseko, which has achieved fame for being a prime destination for Australian skiers and the hotels catering to Western tastes.
So, whether you come for the festival or to experience other winter delights, a visit to Hokkaido should be high on your list of things to do this winter.
Feb. 4 – 11 (Odori Park and Susukino)
Jan. 31 – Feb. 11 (Tsudome)
From New Chitose Airport, you can take a JR train or a bus to Sapporo. Rental cars are also available at the airport. There is a special information counter for foreign travelers next to the JR ticket counter (midori-no-madoguchi) in the basement floor of the airport. The information staff provides services in English, Chinese and Korean.