The world recognises Japan for its cherry blossoms in spring and colourful leaves (koyo) in autumn. For its coolest season it has opted to make the cold months more enjoyable with the Sapporo Snow Festival (Sapporo Yuki-matsuri) in Hokkaido, the largest city in Northern Japan. The festival is one of the prodigious and most distinguished of its kind, every year around 400 snow carvings and ice sculptures (some over 20 meters wide and 10 meters high) attract about two million visitors to the city from Japan and abroad. For seven days in February (5th to 11th), Sapporo is remodelled into a winter eden of diamond dust and white snow. Lines of small and larger-than-life snow statues are exhibited on three main sites: the Odori Site, Susukino Site and Tsu Dome Site.
In 1950, half a dozen high school students built several snow statues in Odori Park. Five years later forces from the Makomanai base joined in and assembled giant snow sculptures, which Sapporo is now well known for. Whenever there was a shortage of snowfall, the Self-Defence Force brought snow from outside of the city as a training exercise and allowed children to play on the Makomanai site; the home of the largest sculptures. Thus The Snow Festival was born, which has since developed into a massive event, promoting spectacular snow and ice sculptures.
In addition, Sapporo is also famous internationally for having hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics, the first Olympic ceremony to ever be held in Asia. Every year since 1974, an international snow sculpture contest has been held at the Odori Park site on International Square, where teams from various regions of the world participate. The contest site has created a unique international milieu, which allows contestants to develop inter-cultural friendships and engage in light-hearted banter.
The Odori Site tends to be the main attraction, with hundreds of multi-sized snow statues, several concerts and events; many of which use the sculptures as their stage. When dusk falls, the ice sculptures are illuminated with an array of multi-coloured spot-lights and winking fairy lights. Two hours north of Hokkaido, adventurous types can take hot-air balloon rides 1000 metres above ground. In that altitude diamond dust may be seen, which gives the illusion of thousands of diamonds flying around.
The Tsu Dome Site places an emphasis on family, as children can enjoy the indoor snow playground or participate in an organised snowball fun. Easily accessed by train, Tsu Dome creates immense enjoyment with its ice rink, skiing course, snow slides, snow maze, snow rafting and extra snow sculptures. Guests may also get a glimpse of acrobatics, as the snowboarders and ski jumpers soar through the air. There is a food park where visitors may sample local cuisine, such as; yakitori chicken skewers, okonomiyaki pancakes, yakisoba noodles, takoyaki octopus, premium brew and hot sake served from the ice bar. There is also an ice stage that holds performances ranging from culture to comedy.
The ice sculptures on display at the Susukino Site also double as a popular nightspot district. Hokkaido delicacies such as crab, cuttlefish and salmon are frozen inside the ice for visitors to enjoy. The Susukino Queen of Ice, a female beauty contest, is also held in the Susukino district every winter. Sapporo Yuki Matsuri attracts a growing number of guests, who come to indulge in the traditional Japanese culture and pursue the winter-themed events the festival offers. Discovering Sapporo and all its sites might just be the solution to keeping many people warm and fed, as well as entertained this season.
How do other countries within Eastern Asia celebrate the winter season?