Let It Snow

Sapporo’s 60-year-old snow festival is a winter wonderland

By: By Mark Edward Harris

Winter Festivals in Japan

Ogi-Sai: Feb. 1-2
This in-demand event takes place at Kasuga Shrine in the city of Nara. As a ritual, participants pray for a good harvest and watch Kurokawa Noh — a ritualistic show that has been preserved and passed down by local farmers for almost 500 years — on the Noh stage at the shrine.

Lantern Festival of Kasuga Shrine: Feb. 3
Also in Nara, this festival involves the mystical lighting of 3,000 bronze and stone lanterns within the Apple Garden of the ancient Kasuga Shrine and along the pathways to Kasuga Taishi with Mt. Mikasa as the backdrop.

Asahikawa Winter Festival : Feb. 7-11
Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the Asahikawa Winter Festival features nightly fireworks that are launched from the Guinness Record-holding, world's largest snow sculpture.

Zao Snow Monster Festival : Early to mid-February
Taking place at Zao Ski Ground in Yamagata City, the Zao Snow Monster Festival is known for its bizarre ice formations, in the form of monsters, hiding among the snow-covered fir trees. Travelers come for the excellent skiing opportunities, as well as the much anticipated illumination of the snow-monster trees.

Kase-Dori: Mid-February
This unique folk event has a history of almost 350 years and takes place in Kaminoyama City. The word "kase" means both "earning money" and "the flames." Half-naked young men wearing straw coats parade through town, going from house to house while chanting. Residents respond by pouring water over the mens’ heads. The ritual is performed to prevent fires and bring prosperity to businesses.

Uesugi Snow Lantern Festival: Mid-February
The Uesugi Snow Lantern Festival is considered to be the highlight of the winter season in the snowy region of Yonezawa. Countless snow lamps and approximately 350 snow lanterns are lit, which creates a fantastic beauty. Several related events are held, such as a snow-gazing banquet and a Shinto service for the deceased.

Kuromori Kabuki: Mid-February
For nearly 260 years, people have gathered at Hiei Shrine in Sakata City for a Kabuki show on the snow-packed precincts of the shrine. This folklore performance is derived from the efforts of local farmers. It is a 25-minute drive from JR Skata Station.

The Details

The Sapporo Snow Festival

The Sapporo Chitose Airport is the gateway for flights into Hokkaido, but the best way to explore Japan is by rail. It can also be the most economical and convenient with the purchase of a Japan Rail Pass. There are two types of passes for travel throughout the country: Green (for superior-class) and Ordinary. Both are available as a seven-day, 14-day or 21-day pass.

Daytripping From Sapporo
Twenty miles southwest of Sapporo is Jozankei Onsen, which is known for its powdery ski runs and hot springs. Located on the Toyohira River, the resort area can be reached by a one-hour bus ride from Sapporo Station.

Traditional Japanese inns (called ryokans) and restaurants can be found on both sides of the river. The Jozankei Grand Hotel claims to have the "biggest hot spring bath under the cosmos" — a great thing to have waiting for skiers and snowboarders returning from the nearby Sapporo Kokusai ski resort.

Another easy day trip is to the harbor town of Otaru, located a half-hour away by train. Otaru is known for its beautiful canal area and for its exquisite glassware products.

Only Online

Scroll down to read about other winter festivals in Japan

The Sapporo Snow Festival (Sapporo Yuki Matsuri) is a weeklong celebration held every February in Hokkaido’s capital city. During this annual festival, concerts and events with winter themes take place throughout Sapporo, Japan, honoring the impressive, and often massive, snow sculptures that decorate the city. This year, the Snow Festival will be held Feb. 5-11.

Sapporo Snow Festival // (c) Japan National Tourism organization
Sapporo Snow Festival

The event, which began 60 years ago, has evolved from high school students building snow statues in Sapporo’s Odori Park to a world-renowned event with hundreds of ice and snow sculptures attracting more than 2 million visitors each year. Japan’s fifth largest city first secured its place on the international tourist map by hosting the 1972 Winter Olympics, and its snow festival has helped keep Sapporo in the spotlight.

A snow sculpture starts with a wooden frame built to a blueprint and then filled with tightly packed snow, which is transported in from 15 locations around the city. Once the snow is hardened, the frame panels are removed and the sculptors begin carving with hatchets and shovels. Since the warmer daytime temperatures make the sculptures more fragile, most sculptors work at night.

The subject of the statues varies from year to year — a great advantage for repeat visitors — and often features an historical event, a famous building or well-known person. New York Yankees star Hideki Matsui was recently honored with this frozen tribute.

The festival’s spectacular snow and ice sculptures are located in three principal locations around the city. The largest site is the one-mile-long Odori Park. There, the observation deck of Sapporo’s TV Tower provides an exceptional overview of the statues.

In addition to several Western hotels operating in Sapporo, there are several major Japanese chains including the New Otani and Keiko Plaza with properties in this area.

A second venue, the Susukino site, is located a subway stop south of Odori Park. Susukino is Sapporo’s largest entertainment district and worth a visit any time of the year. The area wakes up as the sun goes down with restaurants, izakaya-style pubs, karaoke clubs, amusement arcades and ramen-noodle stands along Ramen Yokocho (Ramen Alley). A bowl of steaming hot ramen goes down particularly well after some time at night spent among the artistically lit (until midnight) ice sculptures. For those wanting to stay in this area, the Sapporo Garland Hotel is a popular choice.

A third venue is the Tsudome site, located near Sakaemachi Station on the Toho Subway Line. Among the ice and snow sculptures in this more remote location is a snow maze that can be navigated by foot.

For those who want to dig deeper and gain historic knowledge of the festival, the Sapporo Snow Festival Museum is a must. Located on the Hitsujigaoka Observation Hill in Toyohira-ku, the museum displays an impressive array of historical memorabilia and photographs.

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