Experience: Sapporo Snow Festival

While those of us who reside on the island of Kyushu are just starting to feel the  occasional balmy breezes of early spring, the northernmost island of Hokkaido is far from welcoming warmer temperatures. In fact, this week, the city of Sapporo is in the midst of celebrating the wonder of winter with its 64th annual snow festival.

The Sapporo Snow Festival (or Yuki Matsuri, as its known in Japanese) originally began in 1950 when a group of Hokkaido schoolchildren built six snow sculptures in the centrally-located Odori Park as part of a desire to boost morale after Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War. Five years later, the Japanese Self Defense Forces got in on the action, lending their manpower and talents to the creation of the first gigantic snow sculpture in the event’s history. Subsequent years have seen an increase in the number of large-sized sculptures as well as the introduction in 1974 of an international snow sculpting competition.

A giant eagle sculpture
A giant eagle sculpture

The festival covers three zones – the main Odori site which stretches for 1.2 kilometers and boasts around 400 sculptures, including – this year – a massive snow Ise shrine and Kabuki-za Theater, as well as some international landmarks; the Susukino Site, home of the festival’s ice sculptures and ice carving competition; and the Tsu Dome, the festival’s family-friendly site with snow slides and snow rafting.

Ice sculptures at the Susukino site
Ice sculptures at the Susukino site

It might seem obvious, but to the uninitiated, winter in Sapporo is cold. I’m not just talking hat and gloves cold, I mean full on long underwear, hand warmers tucked in mittens, total facial coverage cold. The year I attended we battled biting winds and artichoke-sized snowflakes … just walking down Odori Park was exhausting. By the end of the day, we’d more than earned a bowl of Sapporo’s hearty miso ramen.

The city of Sapporo has a fantastic website dedicated to the Yuki Matsuri where you can even watch a live feed of the festival sites.

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