This February we traveled to Sapporo to experience the 63rd Snow Festival.  We had always wanted to visit Hokkaido, and booked a tour that included door to door transportation.  Experiencing winter weather in short bursts, we purchased snow boots and other items to prepare for the arctic temperatures.  The tour flew us out of Haneda airport in downtown Toyko on a short domestic flight north to Hokkaido.  And being in Japan, our plane was painted with Pokemon characters, it seems to make sense now.  Domestic air travel within Japan is a much more calm experience than American airports.  We did not have to take our shoes off for security and could even bring liquids on the plane with us.

They seriously had a “liquid” scanner to check your bottle of water, tea, beer, or canned coffee for explosives.  We observed the device with wonder as an indicator light would flash green after scanning a half empty bottle of water. Genius!  We had thought that Hokkaido is sort of like Alaska, but it definitely gets more foot traffic with over 45 large daily flights between Tokyo and New-Chitose (Sapporo’s hub).  We landed and had some time at the airport before our tours began.  Before stepping foot outside of the airport we were immediately presented with every specialty item Hokkaido is known for to purchase, from dairy products, chocolates, and beer.  Japan really understands that money drives tourism.

New-Chitose airport is about an hours drive from Sapporo, and our tour stopped by Lake Shikotsu on the way for their annual Winter Ice Festival.  Along the drive we entered forest full of deer.  Large, hairy deer littered the snowy forest.  Hunting must not be as prevalent this time of year (if allowed at all, Japan has very strict gun laws).  Lake Shikotsu’s ice festival was an experience you cannot have in America for fear of being sued by angry patrons.  Every year locals build frames for structures out of wood and steel pipes, then use sprinklers spraying lake water to cover them.

The result is large structures with differing themes.  We walked through tunnels of ice with green pine boughs decorating the sides, climbed to the top of a circular ice luge with artwork hanging inside, and paid our respects at an ice Shinto Shrine.  But nothing compared to the ice slides and ice rink for kids.  The ice slides were entertaining in we would watch children happily slide down the luge, stop, try to stand up and promptly fall again.  This happened over and over.  Nothing compared, however, to the controlled chaos observed on the ice rink.

Kids would strap on helmets (which is rare in Japan, at least for bike riders) and wait patiently on the side of the rink (no ice skates) for their parents to fling them into the middle of the rink.  Inevitably the sliding, shrieking, children would slam into another child, knock them over, both try to stand, then slip and fall again on the ice, and keep laughing.  It was marvelous to watch and a wonder to us Americans who watched parents willingly fling their precious children into strangers’ kids.  There was no crying or arguing, just controlled chaotic fun. We chuckled over the number of law suits that would arise from such activity in the states.

Cold we climbed onto the bus and fell asleep, waking up to our tour leader telling us to “wake up now!” This was after he told us to fall asleep while he read us boring facts about Sapporo (his words).  We checked into our hotel in downtown Sapporo, then headed to our final tour destination of the day, prepaid meal at the Sapporo Brewery Beer Garden.  The dinner was an American’s and a glutton’s dream, all you can eat and drink for 90 minutes.  Except you had to cook your own food on a burner on the table, which turned out to be awesome.

We took up the challenge and grilled up endless fresh, local scallops, lamp strips (a Mongolian cut the locals named eating “Ghengis Khan”) and some veggies for good measure.  Endless alcohol also puts everyone in good spirits and we had a great time, enjoying fresh Sapporo Classic beer on tap at the source.  Leaving the dinner in high spirits Angela, Brian, and I left the tour group and took a train to Sapporo’s nightlife district around Susukino Crossing.  We sampled a few bars, ran into several foreigners, and got a glimpse at large ice sculptures lining the streets set to be unveiled the next morning.

The next morning we awoke to fresh snow and realized the Super Bowl was being broadcast on NHK live.  So we watched the Super Bowl with Japanese play by play announcers while we got ready for the day.  It was a new way to watch the NFL in that there were no commercial breaks.  The announcers would zoom in on the team’s benches and talk away while America watched the ridiculously expensive ads.  When a big play happened, the announcers (who were having the best week ever in Indianapolis) would yell, such as when Tom Brady was sacked on the Patriots last drive: “SAAACK-UUUU!!”

After a brunch of local seafood (AMAZING) we walked a few blocks to Odori Park in central Sapporo, the site for most of the snow festival. Sapporo as a city is unique in Japan in that it is easy for American’s to navigate.  It was designed by Americans in the late 1800s on a grid pattern similar to what we find in the midwest, meaning addresses mean something… unlike in Tokyo where some streets are completely unnamed and/or were purposefully designed to stop an attacking Ninja force.

Great in 1598, but not so much in 2012.  In any case, we soon found ourselves in a large international crowd, walking around the park counterclockwise.  The Sapporo Snow Festival was started in the 1950s by a group of high schoolers who were bored or cold and built some large snow sculptures as a competition of sorts.  Somehow the Japanese military got involved and soon an international festival was born.  2 million people now visit Sapporo every February for the event, and we were three of them.

Of all the things to see, we came across Hawaiian Hula girls first. Seriously, there was a climate controlled building full of sand with hula girls.  The Japanese are obsessed with Hawaii, and we are further convinced of this every day.  Soon we came upon the big attractions, starting with a scale replica of the Indian Taj Mahal.  Every year Sapporo will build an international icon in snow, and this year the Indians had their famous building immortalized in snow.

The structure and details were amazing.  Next up on the “wow” factor was a replica Japanese castle.  This year they built a replica of a castle from Fukushima prefecture to show solidarity from the ongoing disaster there.  This sculpture was by far our favorite.  The detail of the stones and upper levels were simply awesome.

Continuing our walk around the park we saw hundreds of smaller snow sculptures, with many anime and Nintendo themed characters around. Reaching one end of the park we came upon the international competition area, and had some fun observing teams at work.  Many countries send teams to take a block of snow and build a design to be judged at the end of the week, somewhat similar to sand castle contests.

Teams from India, Indonesia, Russia, Thailand, Hawaii, Taiwan, Oregon, and northern Europe wore team outfits and were hard at work.  Most used spray paint to mark where to cut the snow, but then whittled it down with small saws.  We wish we could have seen the final products, but some teams were clearly better than others (not sure why there were so many teams from countries that have absolutely NO SNOW).

Getting cold we started to purchase hot wine and sake and crab heads and warm crab legs.  As it began to get dark we came across the half of the park with lights on snow sculptures, upping the ante.  A crowd favorite was a gigantic Mickey Mouse and Magicians hat.  Behind that was an aquatic scene with fine detail on dolphins and a humpback whale.  Near the Sapporo TV Tower (every major Japanese city seems to have a gigantic metal tower with a mascot… why not?) we found a small park with ice sculptures based on designs children submitted.

One ice sculpture was lit up and set to music.  Looking around we found a little girl in a cage (a heated glass hut) playing the electric organ.  It seemed a little like child labor… but she was good!  Tired, cold and hungry we grabbed dinner along famed Ramen Alley in Susukino.  Sapporo is known as the creator of miso-ramen, and it was delicious, especially with large, fresh scallops.

Next we visited a string of ice bars.  Not every day you can literally have all your drinks on ice!  One hotel set up an elaborate ice bar outside their lobby, complete with ice stools and tables.  We ordered irish coffees and tequila sunrises, but they kept offering hot orange juice, which just seems gross to us, no matter how cold it is outside. A string of ice sculptures in the streets of Susukino were interrupted by magnificent ice sculptures.

While enjoying some hot wine at one ice bar, Angela got on the local news of a Russian affiliate as the reporter rattled on about the festival.  Some of the ice sculptures had fish and crabs frozen in them, and we realized that local restaurants had sponsored them and had advertisements with directions!  On our way back to the hotel we stopped by Odori Park to get some night pictures of the frozen Fukushima Castle lit up and ran into a delightful group from tourists from Hong Kong who had been snowboarding all week.

Our last day in Sapporo Angela and I woke up, checked out of the hotel, enjoyed a traditional Japanese breakfast, then headed out on an important mission.  We had to get a stamp in our Shrine book from Hokkaido, the second Japanese island we had visited.  We took a taxi to the Hokkaido Jingu Shrine, the largest shrine in all of Hokkaido, and discovered a beautiful garden covered in fresh snow.

A picturesque wet snow continued as we got our calligraphy stamp and walked through an old growth forest back to the city to catch a taxi back to our bus.  As a final tour event, we visited a ropeway, another singularly unique Japanese experience in that everywhere you go there is a ropeway of some kind.  The plan was to take a cable car to the top of Mt. Moiwa to see the entire city of Sapporo on the plain below you.  Except it was snowing, and became a blizzard/white out near the top of the mountain.

We spent an hour at the top, playing in several feet of snow but having no view but white.  After we got to the bottom to meet the bus again the sun came out, but our time in Sapporo was over.  The plane ride back was fast, and we were home in non-snowy Tokyo and back to work before we knew it.  All in all it was a great trip, and we would love to visit Hokkaido again!