8 Things to Do at the Sapporo Snow Festival

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).

IMG_3599

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!

IMG_4081

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

IMG_4084

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

IMG_4086

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)

IMG_4105

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

IMG_4126

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

12742456_10154583505925760_5492968463779974130_n

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!

IMG_4185

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.

IMG_3755

Just a Day, Just an Ordinary Day

Today was ordinary.

I taught classes; I graded papers; I played dress-up in my weekly kimono lesson; I worked late.

Today was extraordinary.

I was given a fat slice of maple cream cake as I chatted with colleagues around the staff room’s kerosene heater; I had a good hearty laugh with my co-teacher as we were grading papers — one student declared “My dream is becoming medical technician to SAVE MANY ANCIENTS” ; I kept falling out of my slippers as I rushed across the school in my pale yellow kimono, and two of my third-year students (and fellow kimono classmates), giggling at my ineptitude, finally dared to break the barrier of silence by seeing how receptive I was to some mixed Japanese-English questions; the gym teachers cheered me into saying “Otsukare” (“You worked hard”) to a very dedicated, very shy soccer club student after a difficult practice.

A very ordinary day.

A very extraordinary day.

It’s not the picture-worthiness of the scenery you live in; it’s not the fame of the place you now call home. It’s the people. People make all the difference.

*Originally written December 3rd, 2015.

IMG_0257

Anecdotes 2: Do Not Disturb

Background: My first-year students are doing a lesson on imperative commands. My team teacher and I demonstrate the idea (“Stand up. Go to the door. Write your name on the blackboard. Jump three times!”) Then we give students a worksheet so they could create their own commands. The plan is that they will later use these commands in a pair game.

I spend a good chunk of time walking around the classroom, encouraging the students not to copy the examples word-for-word from the blackboard. (“Have fun with this! Be creative! Make your friends sing “happy birthday” or something!” I plead to students who keep writing, “Go to the window. Sit down.”)

Then I come across a boy who has given up.

He can’t handle English right now. He’s bored, or he’s tired. Whatever it is, he’s done. His head is down on his desk, his eyes closed.

I’m about to attempt to wake him when I notice his worksheet, half-visible from underneath his head.

The first line of the worksheet is filled out — big letters, bold imperative: “Don’t disturb sleep.”

It was the most creative command I had seen all day, so I chuckled and left him alone.

A Second Education: Thoughts on Learning After Graduation

“Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.” — Albert Einstein

For the last few months, I’ve felt intellectually stagnant, as if my mind is slowly deteriorating through a lack of formal education.

Some of this comes from living in a foreign country. In some regards, I feel as if I’m “losing my language” because from Monday through Friday, I’m simplifying all my thoughts and instructions into the easiest comprehensible words,  for the benefit of students and even sometimes teachers alike (although in general, I’m blessed with very English-competent JTEs). So overall, my spoken English has suffered. My vocabulary is, at times, elementary.

This stagnation is more than just a concern for my language skills, though. Upon my graduation in May of 2015, I felt like I had reached the end of the ladder… now I feel as if I have nothing tangible to work towards mentally. Which is completely silly, I know. Because I know I am learning new things everyday, but… for some reason, without being tested, without being graded, without cram-studying, and without homework, I feel… well, I feel stupid. I feel as if my intelligence was once based on a grading scale, and as if I could once know my intellectual position based upon a letter, a number — a B+, a score of 92 — and now, the end-of-semester grades have stopped. And my sense of my own intelligence is lost.

Am I alone in this feeling? Is this what the U.S. education system has prepared me for?  Continue reading

Winter Holidays, Part 3: Izu Dreaming

The three days we spent on the Izu Peninsula were probably some of the best moments of my mother’s visit — both my mother and I agree. And it was all a complete accident.

IMG_3199

Quick flashback to the night of December 26th: my mom was due to arrive in two days, and yet I had no hotel booked / plans of any sort for January 1 – January 3rd. Pro tip: don’t be like me. Book well in advance, especially for good hotels during the longest public holiday period in Japan. Anyways, I spent quite a few hours frantically searching booking.com for ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) in any part of Japan — any at all! — within reasonable train distance. It was stressful. It was depressing. All the good places were full. Don’t be like me.

Finally, after refreshing the webpage a million times, I saw a property listed in Shizuoka prefecture. Okay! The reviews for this place (all 669 of them) were fantastic. Even better! The pictures looked amazing! It was a historical ryokan! It wasn’t too expensive! All my boxes were checked. And there was one room left — I raced to book it with a cry of victory.

Flash forward to January 1st: my mom and I spend the morning Shinkansen-hopping to the coastal town of Ito Onsen, on the east coast of the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture. We know nothing about it.

Then we walk through the beautiful city, arriving at our hostel — yes, our HOSTEL — and I knew everything was going to be okay.

IMG_3224

IMG_3219

IMG_3191

Yes, this was our private room (and private balcony overlooking the river) for the next two nights. (Admittedly, the last photo is of the ryokan next door to ours. But ours looked pretty similar — beautiful, right?)

This was one of the reasons why I was so desperately searching for a RYOKAN (and not just a hotel): because the ryokan experience is very traditional, very Japanese, and therefore very hard to come by in any other part of the world. Ryokans all have onsens (public hot spring baths) on the property for guests to use freely. Rooms are typically traditionally styled with sliding paper doors and scrolls, and guests sleep on futons on the tatami floor (I can’t help but compare the sleeping experience to camping inside in sleeping bags). Basically, I thought that a ryokan stay would be a very cool experience for my mom (and it was).

If anyone is curious, I booked Historical Ryokan Hostel K’s House Ito Onsen. Yes, that’s the full name of the place. And I highly recommend it.

Enough about the accommodation already. What did we actually DO in Ito? Well…

Outside of our ryokan, on January 2nd, we saw mochi — rice cakes — being pounded. Both of us were offered a chance to try pounding the mochi ourselves with that heavy wooden mallet!  And then we all feasted on the finished mochi, which was flavored with red bean paste and kinako.

IMG_3192

We spent a long day hiking the Jogasaki Coast around the “thrilling” suspension bridge and the lighthouse. My mom and I joked that the suspension bridge earns a solid 2 on the scale of thrilling, but the coastline was absolutely stunning.

We learned that the Izu Peninsula is part of a monogenetic volcanic field — meaning that each of the 70-some volcanoes on and around Izu will only ever erupt once in their lifetimes (and I’m pretty sure they all erupted thousands of years ago, so Izu is pretty safe from volcanoes). I had never heard the term “monogenetic volcano” before, though, so that was fun to learn about! Anyways, the Jogasaki coastline is so beautiful thanks to the eruption of nearby Mount Omuro about 4,000 years ago.

IMG_3193

IMG_3205

At the end of a hiking trail leading away from the lighthouse, my mom and I discovered the entrance to a little flower park, flanked by an outdoor vendor selling fresh oysters. We couldn’t see much of the flower park from the ticket stand, but we decided to pay the 400 yen fee anyway, just to check it out.

There were no regrets. 400 yen well-spent, indeed.

Izu Four Seasons Flower Park had looked innocent enough from the outside, but it took our breath away. It was perched on a cliff overlooking the sea, and flowers of all sorts were in boom — Birds of Paradise, cherry blossoms, golden fields of cassia — and this was on was January 2nd. Mom kept exclaiming: “I just didn’t expect this to be Japan in January!” Meanwhile, I kept exclaiming, “We don’t have flowers in Ibaraki! I only live two hours north of this place, why don’t we have flowers?!?”

IMG_3196

IMG_3197

IMG_3488

IMG_3198

What else did we do? Well, we ate a few fantastic dinners at Kunihachi, an izakaya only a minute’s walk away from our ryokan-hostel.  It’s a bit of an eccentric-looking place, but don’t be fooled: the food there is AMAZING, and the couple who run it are very friendly! The Kunihachi spring rolls and the fried garlic noodles are not to be missed — they were our absolute favorites (to the surprise of the owner, we ordered the spring rolls two nights in a row!)

We had some fun in Ito as well: we kept seeing people delighting in pouring bubbling, steaming spring water over a squat little statue on one of the streets near the station, so both of us decided to bathe the statue as well. Apparently, this guy was a deity of creativity, so if my mom and I suddenly become artists, everyone will know why. And at our ryokan-hostel, we used the onsen, of course (my mom’s first onsen experience!). To walk to and from the onsen, we were given yukata (casual, traditional lounge-wear is the best explanation I have to describe it) and we had fun wearing them, as can be seen below:

Another very exciting thing happened: WE SAW MOUNT FUJI! It was quite exciting for the both of us, because even though this was my mom’s third trip to Japan, and even though I had been living here for five months, neither of us had seen the iconic mountain in person before! Although it was miles away, the snow capped silhouette was striking. I suddetly understood why it has been so revered by the Japanese for so long. You see, and you believe.

To see Mount Fuji, we did a half-day trip to Mount Omuro (aforementioned monogenetic volcano) and took the ski lift to the top. Mount Omuro has a really strange shape — sometimes described as an inverted rice bowl — and the inside of the crater hosts an archery range!

IMG_3327

IMG_3348

That pretty much sums up our time on the Izu Peninsula. And it pretty much sums up both my  winter holidays and my mom’s time in Japan, at least for the record of this blog.

A brief ending to the tale, though; after Izu, my mom and I spent another day in my city, visiting the Yuuki Silk Museum and eating lunch at one of my favorite cafes. Next we spent two nights in Tokyo before she flew home to the States and I returned, once more, to a much less glamorous life of teaching and making dinner and going grocery shopping. And although I was sad that she had to depart, I also welcomed my schedule and my own bed. Because as much fun as I with my mom (and we did, indeed, have many laughs) it’s also nice to return to a routine.

However, I will say that once I got back up here, (barely) north in Ibaraki, I’ve spent many cold nights under my kotatsu, Izu Dreaming for the sunshine, sea, and flowers.