How to survive the Sapporo Snow Festival

How to survive the Sapporo Snow Festival

Over two million Japanese and foreign travelers head up to Hokkaido each February to see the famous ice sculptures. Here's a preparatory guide so you aren't left out in the cold
Sapporo Snow Festival
The "Kita no Dobutsuen" (Northern Zoo) sculpture was easily the highlight of the 2010 Sapporo Snow Festival.

The Sapporo Snow Festival is one of Japan's most famous annual events, attracting more than two million visitors each year for seven days of winter wonderland excess. The 2010 Festival kicked off Friday, February 5 and runs until February 11. After spending the opening weekend in Sapporo, CNNGo wanted to pass along the lessons learned to those planning the trip up to Hokkaido in the next few days or in the next few years. 

Sapporo Snow FestivalEvent attendants walk towards the Sapporo City Archives, all bundled up.1. The "snow" part of the Sapporo Snow Festival? They're not kidding. Some may think that the "snow" in the event name mainly refers to the 6,500 truckloads of white powder transported into the city center to build the sculptures. Not so. The festival is scheduled during its coldest, bleakest, snowiest time of the year, meaning not only slick roads covered in ice and slush, but daily snowstorms that white out the city.

2. Dress for polar exploration. Part of the experience centers around braving -10˚C weather and the aforementioned snow storms to view the sculptures. We recommend long underwear, flannel shirts, wool sweaters, thick pants, a heavy-duty jacket, scarf, gloves and a hat covering the ears. Snow boots are a must as streets can be very slippery and the event site walking paths are all covered in white powder. Also: Sunglasses will help with the glare from the snow on the ground. Unfortunately, no matter how well you dress, your face is likely to sting after a few hours out at the festival.


Sapporo Snow FestivalSome droopy snowboarder drawers.3. Don't imitate the locals. The local Sapporo girls all seem to check out the festival in heels, skirts and thin black tights. And many of the snowboarder guys all have their pants sagging down at their ankles. We do not recommend either, since they can just go back to their central heated homes or workplaces at anytime. You are stuck there.

4. Don't take the public transport. We are sure the Sapporo subway and streetcar system is world class, but the Snow Festival's main areas in Odori Park and Susukino are easy walks from anywhere in the city center. (The smaller Tsudome site does, however, require bus travel.)


Sapporo Snow FestivalFood stalls at Odori Park.5. Eat at the festival. Sapporo is famous for its miso ramen, crab, soup curry, scallops and 'Genghis Khan' grilled mutton, but you don't necessarily need to waste time trying to find these dishes at city restaurants. The highlight of the Odori Park event site may be the dozens upon dozens of food booths (yatai) that offer all of Hokkaido's delicacies in a convenient package. Enjoy all of the dishes mentioned above, as well as grilled corn, homegrown potatoes with melted cheese, curry ramen and vanilla ice cream with melted caramel. Also enjoy ethnic cuisine from authentic Brazilian, Iranian and Russian cooks at the International Cultural Exchange area.



Sapporo Snow FestivalThis one is easy: It's Ponyo.6. Appreciate the bad art as much as the good. Official imagery from the Sapporo Snow Festival tends to highlight the artistic and engineering wonders of the best and most giant snow sculptures. But these are mostly corporate works (like Disney's yearly ice stage) or large-scale government projects (like 2010's HBC German area). The vast majority of the smaller works come from local sponsors and skew towards the wonky. But there's just as much fun, if not aesthetic appreciation, in viewing a bootleg Homer Simpson and an "Ichiro Suzuki" with not even a passing resemblance to the sports hero. 

7. Know your cartoon characters. At some point in the history of the festival, there must have been many recreations of famous pieces from international art history. Now most of the ice sculptures are based on cartoon character,s Japanese and foreign. Make sure you know your Anpanman, Doraemon, Ponyo and Thomas the Tank Engine before arriving in Sapporo.


Sapporo Snow FestivalA list of little pubs (and hostess bars) in a Susukino building.8. Bring your own party. Due to the frigid nights and general family-friendly atmosphere of the festival, do not expect Sapporo to explode into a Mardi Gras-esque bacchanal when the sun goes down. Although one section of the festival is located in the nightlife center of Susukino, this area is mostly home to hostess bars, cabaret clubs and other red-light establishments. (If you are reading this in English, you will not likely be allowed entry to any of these places.) There is an adequate number of spots for drinking with friends in Susukino, but do not expect to stumble onto big open social gatherings.

9. Don't expect to see much Sapporo. Many of Sapporo's famous sights -- such as the Botantic Gardens -- are closed down for winter. Hokkaido University is buried under snow and not necessarily worth a visit. The bolder Western-style early modern buildings are still majestic, but much of the local color is white-washed with all the snow.

OtaruThe canal at Otaru.10. Day trip to Otaru. The city of Otaru is an easy 30-minute train ride (¥620 each way) from Sapporo and offers visitors a scenic and historic canal region with many preserved 19th century Western-style architectural wonders. Many of the old warehouses from Otaru's glory days as a bustling port city have been reformed into new spaces. The best may be Otaru Beer -- a factory and beer hall that makes its own tasty brewski with barley and hops imported directly from Germany.



Sapporo Snow FestivalAn ice sculpture in Odori Park lit up at night.11. Visit multiple times. The snow festival is not necessarily a one-time deal. Visitor Toshiyuki Tanaka tells us, "This is my third year. The real appeal of the festival is that every year it changes. And it changes during the day too. Make sure that you see the sculptures both in daytime and night. It's a totally different experience."


W. David Marx was CNNGo's initial Tokyo City Editor. His writing has also appeared in magazines such as GQ, Brutus, Weekly Diamond, and Nylon, as well as his web joural Néojaponisme.

Read more about W. David Marx