You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Snow’ tag.

Japan has been teasing us for a few weeks with spring.  But thankfully, I think spring has finally arrived! (or at least is very close…) Our soap in our downstairs bathroom is no longer frozen, and we are able to walk into our closet without a jacket on.  We thought spring was upon us in early March, when the plum blossoms began to bloom, until winter decided to play with us one more time.  Mt. Fuji is still covered with snow, but the sakura are beginning to bloom, and that is a great sign of warm weather to come!


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!

It’s June, it’s HOT, AJ is waking me up at night slurping his water dish dry… so I am going to post about a snowy winter trip to the ancient city of Kyoto to cool off.  Our first trip to Kyoto was in July 2010, on a one day trip to see the Gion festival about warding off evil disease kamis… I think, and enjoyed the few sites we saw.  To save money and leave days (time off) we have utilized the base tours as much as possible, and while we want to spend much more time in Kyoto, we figured why not get a cheap tour to four famous spots in the city.  The bus ride from the Kanto plain takes anywhere from 6-10 hours depending on traffic, but Angela and I have always enjoyed bus trips (perhaps stemming from all the band trips we took in high school and college).  Leaving in the cold dark of morning, we were woken by a traffic jam on the freeway, caused by a blinding snowstorm.  The bus plowed through and we arrived in Kyoto on time.

 Our first stop was Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), an ancient Buddhist/shinto complex built along the side of a mountain stream/water fall that has some purification significance.  To get to the complex we had to walk through narrow streets full of street vendors selling shrine trinkets for pilgrims and tourists while in increasing snow flurries.

We walked past the pagoda and through an old building built in the 1600s, with a gigantic wooden stage. The stage was cordoned off as it was explained to us that it was constructed without a single nail… pretty incredible! 


Since we don’t really understand the language or cultural subtleties, we always come across something we think is completely random but must make perfect sense to the Japanese.  Located within the complex was a small Shinto shrine dedicated to finding your soul mate, we think.  There were two “lovers” stones with an associated legend we did not grasp, and were instructed that if a couple stands at each stone some indication of their love or compatibility would be manifested.  Again, I am not really sure what we saw, but took pictures of the sign in English!


Kiyomizu-dera is known for its pure water pouring out a rock waterfall into three distinct streams.  Each one symbolizes health, longevity, or success, respectfully, and as a visitor you would stand in line to use a long wooden cup to scoop up the water you desired.  Except we were freezing and did not want to get cold, but watched others in our tour group drink to health, longevity, or success!


We had some free time so wandered around the commercial district, accepting hot green tea and purchasing regionally flavored kit-kats (success!).  We also tempted fate on some cursed stairs.  According to our tour guide if you slipped down this particular set of stairs you would die within three years.  Angela and I walked carefully and made it without falling, so good for us!


After thawing out on the bus we drove quickly to our second stop, the Moon Bridge of Togetsukyo on the outskirts of town.  On an picturesque shallow river in the rolling mountains was a 20th Century reproduction of a 12th Century bridge emperors in the past would utilize to get to an important shrine across the river.  Around the bridge was a park and numerous stores and restaurants with rickshaw pullers waiting for tourists.  Except an exceptionally sharp windchill prevented anyone from wanting to spend much time outside, and we really didn’t understand what was so significant about the bridge (it had been rebuilt with concrete and did not seem so special to us, but it was very cold and we didn’t understand its history). 

The pour rickshaw pullers were jumping up and down for warmth.  Angela and I walked the main strip looking for a good place to eat, eventually settling on a noodle place overlooking the river.  We had hot tea, beer, and steaming udon noodles.  The meal hit the spot exactly and off we were to our next tour on the whirlwind day.


Our third stop was at one of Japan’s most iconic images, Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺, Temple of the Golden Pavilion).  An enormously wealthy samurai built a house with gold paint on a man-made pond in a beautifully sculptured garden.  Somewhere in history Buddhists turned it into a shrine, perhaps for meditation, I am fuzzy on the history as we got a fly by explanation due the shrines popularity. 

Despite the cold this was the busiest location we visited all day.  Snow piles made the golden building stand out even more, and it sort of glowed when the sun shone directly on it.  Apparently you are supposed to get there right at sunrise to get the days first full sunlight on the building for optimum viewing.  We only had a few minutes to gaze at the building as a long line sort of pushed us through and we had to make our next stop. Angela was playing with her new dlsr camera I had bought for her and was pushed along with the crowd, but managed to get some good pics. We would like to spend more time at the Golden Pavilion, but in a warmer season.


Our last stop was at a Nijo Castle (二条城), a Tokugawa built complex with a wealth of history.  We had actually visited hurriedly the gardens of the castle on our previous visit to Kyoto, but Angela and I had stumbled onto it and only had a few minutes.  This time we got a great tour and got to enter the actual castle building.  Nijo Castle was built by the Tokugawa shoguns in the early 1600s to give them a proper place to reside when visiting the emperor (they had moved the capital to Edo, or modern Tokyo which means “eastern capital”). 

When the emperor regained political power with the Meiji Restoration, the last Tokugawa Shogun in the 1800s relinquished power to the emperor at Nijo Castle, and it is well preserved today.  We had a great tour of the magnificent interior, resplendent with “nightingale” floors.  The wooden floors surrounding the palace had iron hooks underneath them so when you walked on them they “chirped” announcing the presence of would be assassins (ninjas).  While maintained, the floors still sang of our presence!

 Large tatami floored rooms for the shogun and his entourage were painted with beautiful tapestries on the ceilings.  We were shown hidden rooms where body guards would hide in case their samurai lord was in danger (apparently powerful people were marked men in the Edo period). And again we encountered samurai dressed manikins, as we have in virtually every historic place in Japan, which I find a little creepy.  But we had a great interior tour we did not get last time, and then set off on a winding garden tour.  It was neat, but frigid.  I wish we had time to buy tickets to the tea house on property, as we could have warmed up to some hot matcha, but we had to press. 


Soon our whirlwind day in Kyoto was over again and piled onto the bus. A great thing about Japan in winter is the vending machines found on every corner (even along hiking paths) that contain hot and cold drinks.  We bought several cans of hot chocolate or coffee drinks and used them to warm our hands and neck.  Soon I will have enough leave and some spending money and we intend on riding the shinkansen down to Kyoto to spend more than a few hours there, we welcome anyone interested in visiting one of the worlds most cultured cities!

I was taking a video of the snow (I know….I’ve lived in Southern California for far too long!) when I happened to see this guy doing a happy snow dance.  Win!

Kyoto Jan 2010 a video by WanderingHokies on Flickr.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,102 other followers

Flickr Photos

Twittering Hokies

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

July 2018
« Jan