Otherwise known as: how to make all your co-workers insanely jealous.
Sapporo’s annual Snow Festival (Yuki Matsuri) is arguably the most famous winter festival in Japan. It is THE PLACE to be for the second-ish week of February. Attending the festival seems to be high on most of my colleagues’ bucket lists. Like many of my fellow JETs, I managed to head up north for a few days to discover the magic for myself… and I was not at all disappointed.
Without further ado, here is a list of 8 things to do in and around Sapporo during the festival, especially if you only have a few days to enjoy it all.
1. Pose with all the Snow Sculptures at Odori Park (and intensely photograph the rest).
The Odori Site is especially fantastic at night! Everything is lit up, there are illuminations projected onto some of the larger sculptures, there are light shows, and there is hot food and drinks for sale everywhere! There are also a lot of performances. We saw the end of a Shakespeare play (in Japanese, of course), a few pop idols, and a snowboard jump competition.
Star Wars was a pretty popular subject matter this year. There was a huge Attack on Titan sculpture, too (not pictured) that everyone was very impressed with. My personal favorite, though, was the giant cathedral (especially the when illuminated).
Fun fact: members of the Japanese Army, based in a nearby city, build the massive snow sculptures every year. It’s considered an important training exercise!
2. Be a little adventurous… book a Snowmobiling Tour!
This is also a great alternative to skiing or snowboarding. Because in the minds of many people, Hokkaido = skiing / snowboarding. People expect that you did one of the two in Hokkaido. Surprise them.
My friends and I booked through Snowmobile Land Sapporo. They picked us up at a nearby hotel, and within forty minutes, we were in the mountains above the city, suiting up to snowmobile through an “adventure course.” The scenery was absolutely stunning and the guides were excellent. None of us had ever snowmobiled before (one of my friends doesn’t even have her driver’s license) and yet we managed just fine!
Also, it was a fantastic opportunity to look a little like firefighters. Highly recommended.
3. Eat ALL THE FOOD.
Because it’s HOKKAIDO. My friend seriously planned our whole holiday around the food we both wanted to eat, and it was AMAZING. How can you resist? Here are my top 3 food recommendations:
1. Head over to Ramen Alley for some ramen, of course! Hokkaido is really known for miso ramen, so be sure to order miso broth. I also suggest trying butter ramen! I’m sure someone who actually lives in Sapporo could give a better ramen recommendation, but… if you can’t find a local willing to reveal the best ramen shop in Sapporo, Ramen Alley is still a great bet.
2. For something sweet, LaTao Double Fromage Cheesecake is quite sinful (and quite famous). You can find several LaTao shops peppered about the nearby city of Otaru (which you’ll probably end up visiting… because almost everyone who visits Sapporo takes a day trip to Otaru).
3. As for seafood, I really suggest making your way to Sapporo Jogai Ichiba, a roadside fish market located a 15-minute walk from Soen JR station. They sell all types of seafood there, and there are quite a few restaurants serving up sushi, sea urchin, and crab. I splurged for a deluxe crab bowl, and my friends feasted on sea urchin, roe, crab, and slices of fatty salmon. All three of us walked away very, very happy.
4. Release Your Inner Child
I went to the snow festival with 40 other Ibaraki JETs, but my main group consisted of three friends — one from SoCal, the other two from Singapore. They were ecsatic to play in the snow, which led to snowman-making sessions, snow angels, and snowball fights.
If you really want to act like kid in winter, I suggest heading over to the Tsu Dome Site for a more hands-on experience with snow (like free tubing!). Honestly, this is the designated area for families with young children, so nothing is TOO exciting, but it was still a great opportunity to act like I was seeing snow for the first time again, too.
5. Feel Like an Adult at an Ice Bar
Pick your poison.
I seriously thought that this was one of the coolest parts of the entire Snow Festival. For 700 yen, we were given gloves, chisels, and blocks of ice, and we were able to carve our own glasses. We then chose from a selection of alcoholic beverages and sat back, enjoying life.
Mine is the green drink (J kept telling me that it actually looked like poison)… it’s a light, sweet Japanese liquor called “Midori.” J’s drink was a Bacardi daiquiri of some sort, which actually looked way cooler in the ice glass than I thought it would.
We were the envy of all the parents, I swear.
6. Hold some Ice Lanterns at Otaru (and Take Some Couple Pics)
Otaru is for lovers, apparently. This city has an ice-lantern festival at the same time as the Sapporo Snow Festival, so it’s great to check out both. Otaru is especially pretty along the historic canal, with the huge icicles dangling from old warehouse rooftops.
There’s also a lot of opportunities for slightly bizarre “couple” photos — lots of ice hearts to hold along the canal, and lots of snow hearts to pose in. J and I aren’t a couple, of course, but we were randomly given ice lanterns by some of the festival volunteers and asked to stand in one of the snow hearts, resulting in the above photo! It was really quite funny.
One of our favorite parts of Otaru’s festival was a short, twisty tubing hill built out of snow, and slightly hidden at the old train-track area of the city. The volunteers were so enthusiastic, cheering for every festival-goer who dared to tube down, carrying the tubes up to the top of the hill again, cheering some more. It was really quite heartening.
7. Eat Breakfast with a View
On our last day in Hokkaido, we headed to the 35th floor of the JR Tower Hotel Nikko for a breakfast buffet with a panoramic view over the city. Although a little pricey, it was a fantastic way to end our holiday. The buffet offers both Western and Japanese-style breakfasts, and we were able to sample all the Hokkaido specialties that we hadn’t checked off our list in the days before. Specifically: soup curry, special Hokkaido potatoes, and Hokkaido milk ice cream.
8. Get a Rowdy Group Together for a good time at the Sapporo Beer Garden
All you can eat Ghengis Khan (lamb), all you can drink Sapporo beer, 40-some friends. What could be better? It was a very memorable dinner, to say the least. The Sapporo Beer Garden is located right next to the beautiful old museum and it is the perfect place for a party. Fair warning: it’s smokey inside, but it’s also very cheery and cozy. I only wish I had had time to tour the brewery museum! I would have liked to learn more about this famous beer.
BONUS! Buy all the Omiyage!
Because I am split between 5 schools, and because I used two days of nenkyuu on otherwise normal school days, I bought enough omiyage (souvenirs) for 175 people… and 35 of those people were JTEs or vice principals, so they received an extra gift or two apiece!
My wallet cried. But at the same time, I was more than happy to do it, because of the kindness and generosity I have been shown over the past seven months. (And everyone was very grateful).
Anyways, I recommend heading back to the airport early to buy all your omiyage (you don’t have to worry about it until the end of your holiday). The two most famous (and most popular) gifts to bring back are Shiroi Koibitu and Calbee Jaga Pokkaru — the latter is so popular that there is actually a limit on how much an individual can bring home! Also, note that if you get the bigger packages of Shiroi Koibitu (such as the 34-pack, or the 54-pack), the cookies come in a special tin that some teachers will actually fight over. I also bought some Royce Chocolate cookies as extra, because they were cheap and quite useful to give away to forgotten colleagues.
I’ll end with one last photo. Cheers.