By KC M. Abalos
I must have been 8 or so years old when I started watching these Japanese culture-slash-travel videos on the local channel. Some of you probably know what I’m talking about. These mini-documentaries would be shown right when I get back home from school. They covered a whole range of topics: from the hanami or the Cherry Blossom Festival to those awesome automatons that do a mean robot dance.
Most of the time the same videos were shown again, and again, and again. And I’d watch them again, and again, and again. But my favorite has always been the Yuki Matsuri or the Snow Festival in Hokkaido.
Held annually since 1950, the Yuki Matsuri lasts for seven days and the sites are spread over several areas around the city. The main exhibits are in Odori Park, Susukino, and Tsudome. Last February, I made a lifelong dream come true, to see the snow spectacle in all its white glory.
No Hopping in Hokkaido
One does not hop, skip, or even walk the streets of Hokkaido. One shuffles. Maneuvering the slick streets of Sapporo, the prefecture’s bustling capital, is easier once you realize that the only way you can get from snow mound A to snow mound B is to walk like a penguin. Yes, our tuxedo clad pals know how it’s done. Me, being the brown skinned beach girl that I am, figured I needed to prepare and research a bit before flying off to Japan’s northernmost island. The first thing I learned is how to walk on icy, slushy paths, which is only slightly easier than walking on water.
Boots with enough traction to keep you from falling flat on your face. A thick coat to keep your blood from freezing. And a couple of kairo (warm packets) which you can buy at a hyaku (100) yen shop everywhere. Battle gear on and off, we go to join over two million visitors who have come from all over the globe to watch snow become a show.
Slippery Slurp in Susukino
I decided to go two days earlier so I’ll get a chance to see the other sights Sapporo has to offer. This turned out to be one of my more brilliant ideas since there was also a certain pleasure in watching the ice become works of art as they’re being carved in Susukino, which is in downtown Sapporo. The figures carved in ice were splendidly lighted at night and showed every sinew and curve of the dragons and flowers. There were also fish frozen inside ice which was sculpted into, well, bigger fish. Ice inception.
Susukino is where my reasonably-priced hotel was located too, and a quick search on the internet revealed that it is within walking distance to THE ramen alley, a famous strip of noodle shops that boasts of the best ramen in the whole of Japan. Though there are streets in Sapporo which are blessedly heated, it is still freezing February, so a piping hot bowl of miso ramen, a Sapporo specialty, is not only a welcome treat; it is also a means to survive. Walk along the many noodle shops along this narrow path and rack your head as to which kind of noodles you fancy. I found Anthony Bourdain’s autographed photo in one and figured that he looked quite happy eating his ramen, filled to the brim with seafood—another Sapporo specialty—so I went in. It was heaven in a bowl. Don’t be surprised to see corn kernels garnishing your noodles, which again, is a Sapporo favorite. You can buy a buttery cob at food carts along Susukino and the other festival sites.
But my best meal during the entire trip was definitely this huge bowl of clams which I devoured at Odori Park, right beside the edifices of famous buildings rendered in tightly packed snow. The blizzard that impaired my vision of my meal didn’t detract any of the pleasure which that bowl of clams gave me. Together with fried potatoes on the side, another famous Sapporo snack, I was able to renew the energy needed to view the hundreds of snowy sights that the festival had to offer.
Frolicking at Tsudome
Tsudome is a bus ride away from JR (Japan Railway) Sapporo station. If you have kids or, like me, you’re a kid at heart, you shouldn’t miss the festivities there. It is the place to go if you want to play with snow. For the first time in my life, I gleefully slid in snow-packed slides with only a salbabida (i.e. swim ring, rubber lifebuoy) under me. There were sleds, sleigh rides and even traditional Ainu (native inhabitants of the island) games which you can play for free!
There were also kiddie-sized snow sculptures which you can interact with. The other sites didn’t offer the same privilege. I was also able to look at the various shapes of a snow flake with the free scopes which you can use at a booth. But the main attraction in Tsudome was the snow sculpture contest which families and packs of friends eagerly joined. Monsters, anime characters, and animals came alive and stood for judgment at the end of the day. It was fun to see the groups animatedly trying to finish their masterpieces.
To Awe and Ahh
Of course, Odori Park is the “hottest” venue in the whole festival. A five-minute walk from JR Sapporo station, I only needed to follow the hum of a thousand excited voices to find my way. I knew I was in the right place when I saw a three-story tall snow-boarding ramp. It was a little too adventurous for me and public humiliation isn’t my thing, which is what will happen if I try snow-boarding for the first time in my life in front of foreign and local audiences alike. So I moved on and though the park with its slushy grounds is slow going, it gave me time to ooh and ahh at the smaller sculptures which range from beloved Hello Kitty to Studio Ghibli’s Totoro. So many pictures taken at the risk of losing a finger to frostbite!
The ones that would really take your breath away though are the gigantic snow structures with their elaborate and dainty details painstakingly scooped and smoothed to perfectly imitate the real thing. For several weeks and days, hundreds of people have been working on these buildings, dragging pail after pail of fresh snow. It boggles the mind how it all managed to stay up.
These frosty buildings made my jaw drop and I had to close it quickly otherwise my mouth would be filled with snow. The Tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daula from India was hands-down the most intricately done. And at night, a light show illuminated the entire edifice with a dazzling display of colors and flashing hues with accompanying sound. A little bit ahead was the Taiwan exhibit with the theme: traditional and modern Taiwan. Further down the park was the contingent from Malaysia with the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. Yes, not many people know this, but the matsuri is actually a very international event with countries and various organizations vying for the best icy art. The local favorite, of course, was the exhibit entitled “Winter Sports Paradise, Hokkaido!” which featured the many fun activities one can do in the prefecture with famous Japanese Winter Olympians rendered in snow as well.
It was all too surreal, all too lovely. With the light blizzard, the excited buzz, the wintry whistle of the wind, and the chill pervading your bones and your psyche. Good thing there were food booths with various international fares available alongside the local food because you’ll need to refuel. It’s awesome too that there were tents where you can enter, with radiators and heaters inside to warm up the cold and weary traveler. Needless to say, I stopped by these places often with a snack and a warm drink to remind me that I am indeed a warm-blooded mammal and not a frozen zombie. But it is worth the chilled toes and the snow-dusted nose.
Because despite the fact that I was out of my element, this island girl braved the frost and ice and found that this winter wonderland is really quite cool.