Whilst the rest of Japan takes refuge under the inviting warmth of their kotatsu blankets, winter is the time when Sapporo comes alive. With a population of just over 1.9million, the capital of Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, is one of the largest metropolises north of the equator and, for a two-week period in February, that number doubles. Most of the tourists that set out to brave the sub-zero temperatures and icy death traps (otherwise known as sidewalks) for one good reason: The Snow Festival (Yuki Matsuri 雪まつり).
If you’re one of the crazy ones, here is how to get the most out of your winter-land trip!
1. The Snow Festival/ Yuki Matsuri
It was a tough decision whether to give the Number 1 spot to the Snow Festival or the snow itself but this guide couldn’t begin any other way.
The festival runs over three sites across the city: Odori Site, Susukino Site and Tsu Dome Site (great for families). If you’re staying in central Sapporo, then the most accessible are the Odori and Susukino sites. In fact, they are only a 10 minute walk from each other and within a 10-20 minute stroll from Sapporo Station.
That estimate is with sure-footing, mind you. Double it if you’re not confident walking on snow and ice!
Everyone will be at Odori Park, where most of the action takes place. This is the home to the most of the gawk-worthy snow sculptures with past stand out pieces including an impressive Star Wars tribute; a replica of The Central Golden Hall (part of the Kohfuku-ji temple complex in Nara); a miniature Arc de Triomphe, the iconic monument that towers over Place Charles de Gaulle in Paris (completed by the JGSDF Northern Army Signal Group) and several adorable Studio Ghibli characters.
2. Beat the Crowds
There will be huge crowds, especially at Odori Park. The ice will be slippery and they will be slow. They will travel in packs. They will stop in the middle of the path. They will raise their selfie-sticks in the middle of your photo. They will make you question whether it’s too early to stop at the Bacardi stall.
Penguins might have the right idea about huddling together for warmth but it’s not a situation most people want to be in when you’re trying to appreciate the majesty of 20m snow masterpieces. Whilst they are far from the worst crowds you can encounter in Japan (that award goes to Kiyomizudera in autumn and the Tokyo subway at 8:00AM), there are some small perfects windows when you can enjoy the festival, sans the penguin imitations.
When everyone else is still sleeping or taking their first dazed sip of Starbucks, now is the time to see the big sites.
TOP TIP: if your schedule allows it, plan to arrive in Sapporo a day or two before the official start date of the festival. The dates vary but the event usually kick off in the first week of February and arriving early makes accommodation easier to find (regardless, always book well in advance) and you’ll also get to see the teams putting the finishing touches on their pieces, transforming solid blocks of unassuming ice into polished pieces of crystalline art. Bonus: you’re guaranteed to see all the pieces at their finest and won’t need to worry about the ice sculptures turning into sorry puddles in an unexpected ‘heatwave’.
The real show starts when the sun sets and the lights come on. Most people, however, allow their stomachs to steer them away far too early.
As impressive as the sculptures are during the day, they come alive at night and festival organisers seem to come up with flashier ideas every year. The new trend is lighting up the main attractions with projections, complete with music and sometimes live performances. You’ll need to hang around two or three times to absorb the whole thing!
3. Go Up Sapporo Tower
Take it all in from the city’s best vantage point. Day or night, the views aren’t likely to disappoint and for 1,100yen the day/ night admission ticket is worth the price!
4. Don’t Skip the Food Stalls
It will be tempting to pass by the Food Square in favour of places offering cushioned chairs and central heating but you won’t be disappointed by the array of local flavours: beef, ramen, crab, scallops, tuna, ice-cream, everything diary, steamed buns, roasted sweet potato…. Go on an empty stomach!
If getting warm is on your agenda, however, then there are two dishes you can’t come to Sapporo and miss.
Head to the main Suskino intersection, cross to the side with the Nikka Whiskey man, follow the ice sculptures down the street, turn left at the Family Mart and look for an alley no bigger than a service entrance. If you get here at prime dinner time you won’t miss the people flooding in and out but if you go outside of traditional dinner times- highly recommended to avoid a freezing 30-40 minute wait- then it’s easy to overlook.
Order the Hokkaido special- miso butter ramen- and a beer to go with it. Ramen is the fast food of the Japanese businessman and every city- even every shop- will claim to have their own unique approach to this soul-warming combination of finely sliced meat, vegetables, noodles and a rich salty broth. You’ll never have the same bowl twice.
Hokkaido is famous for its iconic king crabs, spindly snow crabs and spiky horse hair crabs and there is probably no place to get them fresher and tastier than Nijo Market, located just a few blocks away from the bustling hub of Susukino. Several of the shops have their own restaurants across the street selling small dishes (crab miso soup, crab steamed buns, crab tempura, grilled scallops) and almost of them will boil/ grill a crab for you on request (for the right price).
Those with a little more cash and time to spare can make a booking (as early as possible) at one of the Kani Honke restaurants as they’re experts in one thing: crabs. Or, to be more precise, they are experts in the 101 ways to eat crab. If you struggle with Japanese, ask your hotel for assistance.
If you haven’t had your fill of snow and seafood already, then Otaru has you covered. Easily accessible by train or bus, it will take you close to an hour to get this seaside town from Sapporo but, no matter how you get there, stop at the Saint Germain bakery in the train station and grab their best seller: Royal Milk Bread. With a title like that, it doesn’t sound like much, but titles can be very deceiving.
Bread not your thing? Well, being so close to the sea it would be a sin to return to Sapporo without trying the local seafood. Walk along Sakaimachi Street and you’ll be spoilt for choice. Just don’t forget to leave room for the famous Le Tao cheesecake at the end! Or a lavender ice-cream…
You really need only half a day to see Otaru and that half really has to be the latter. Take a late lunch and spend the afternoon walking around the streets, looking in at the local glass-blowing workshops, picking up some souvenirs, enjoying a drink at the German beer hall and by that time you’ll be ready to head out for the main event- the Otaru Snow Light Path.
Japanese beers have exploded across the world in recent years and The Sapporo Beer Museum is a great place to spend a few hours in and get a taste of their signature local product. The museum part of Sapporo Beer Garden is small and focuses less on brewing beer and more on the brand’s unique history. Organised “Premium” tours run regularly but they are conducted in Japanese. Skip the small added expense and look for the multi-lingual placards hidden in the side of each display instead. One thing you don’t need language to enjoy is the wall of old advertisements and the tasting board of trademark beers at the end.
The second place to stop for some history- and a sugar fix- is the Shiro Koibito Factory. These thin butter biscuits with a layer of white chocolate wedged between them are the jewel in Hokkaido’s vast array of food souvenirs. For a small fee, you can walk around the various chocolate-related exhibits and take a peek down at the production floor. Unfortunately, the factory isn’t as accommodating with its translations but that gives you more time to head straight to what most people have really come for: the cafe. Even those with teeth made of rock candy may find themselves unable to cope here so be careful not to over-order!
One Final Note:
If you’re short on time, then Sapporo’s Snow Festival can easily be covered in a day but it’s a safe bet you’re not travelling thousands of kilometres to do a handful of day trips. Take a little more time to get the know this city and you won’t be disappointed!
All images © 2014–2020 to MK Photography. For more visit: https://www.flickr.com/gp/isis375/3nqg25