The Sapporo Snow & Ice Festival is magnificent, and an event not to be missed. In Japanese it is called the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri. It is one of the largest winter events in Japan and is an absolute gem. If you have the opportunity to go to Sapporo City at this time of year, make sure you take it. The festival takes place in early February for 7 days (the actual day of the following year’s festival is decided immediately after each festival finishes).
During the festival literally hundreds of snow and ice sculptures are created in three areas of Sapporo:
Odori Koen: Sapporo’s central park & playground which hosts the artistic snow sculptures (including the vast sculptures made with the assistance of the military), the festival launch, and much of the live music and other entertainment. This section is open all day and illuminated each night.
Satorando/Satoland: A relatively new site that made it’s debut at the 2006 festival replacing the Makomanai JGSDF base. As with the base, it is the only site not located in the center of the city. Satorando/Satoland is just as kinderfreundlich as Makomanai ever was, and even better for adults with hot air balloons, snow mazes and an ice bar.
Susukino: The nightlife area which hosts the ice festival, where sculptures are carved using chainsaws and other power tools on the first day of the festival. Open day and night but best viewed after dark.
The Sapporo Snow Festival began spontaneously – in 1950 a group of 6 local high school students decided to build snow scuptures in Odori Koen. Japan was still recovering from the aftermath of the war (the occupation didn’t finish until the Treaty of San Francisco in 1952) and economically times were still fairly tough. Unemployment was particularly high in Sapporo during this period, due to the loss of fisheries, disruption of markets, a low level of public works expenditure, demobilization and a large number of refugees displaced during the aftermath of the war – some 400,000 from Sakhalin alone.
The activities of the students gained publicity in the local media, and many locals took their enthusiasm to heart and began to feel more optimistic for the future. It took only a couple of years for the festival to become extremely popular in the local area. In 1955 just 5 years after the 6 students took their initiative, the soldiers from the Makomanai base of the newly established Self-Defense Force also began to participate. Initially this was done partly in order to give the men something to do, but it was quickly understood that making the sculptures was proving to be an excellent team work building exercise and a good way to test the leadership, problem solving skills and initiative of junior officers & NCO’s. The base itself, became one of the main festival sites.
The involvement of the JGSDF was probably what secured the festival’s long term success, as it was the soldiers who first built the now famous giant statues, and the wonderful snow slides for children and also the theme sculptures which helped the festival grow. Japanese calendars from as early as the mid-1950′s began to feature the Yuki Matsuri sculptures, and it was largely due to the giant sculptures and slides built by the Makomanai base personnel that the snow and ice festival became widely known throughout Japan by media, popular culture and domestic tourism. From 2006 the role of the military was reduced with the base itself no longer a festival site. Community groups organize all of the Satorando/Satoland site, so in 2006 the military provided technical support (5 soldiers) and some assistance with logistics, while continuing to provide the large scale support still needed for the Odori Koen site.
It was 1972 that changed both Sapporo and the festival. In that year the Sapporo Snow Festival coincided with the 11th Winter Olympic Games, the first to be held in Asia, and only the 3rd time the games were held outside Europe. An underground railway was built, state of the art sports stadiums such as the Okurayama Jump Hill were completely refurbished, and a swathe of expensive new infrastructure was completed for the Games. The giant sculptures received enormous television coverage, and almost overnight the festival suddenly became known internationally.
Transport Between the Sites:
The advised route is to start at the Satorando site. Take the subway to Shindou Higashi or Asabu station, and when you get off the train follow the signs that will take you to the shuttle bus. There are volunteers available to assist. The shuttle buses run all day so it is easy to return. Take the train back to Odori to see the Odori Koen site and then walk to Susukino.
Tips Regarding the Weather:
The festival is held in Sapporo City in mid-winter. It is cold. Read that again. It is very cold. Unless there is a very early spring or abnormally warm winter, it should be about minus 4° Celsius or 25° on the Fahrenheit scale. Snowstorms are of course not uncommon. It is not really possible to enjoy the festival without spending a lot of time outdoors, so layer your clothing. Thermal underwear is a good investment. Make sure you have gloves or mittens, a warm hat, a hooded jacket (preferably windproof and water resistant). For footwear you need shoes that don’t leak water, or preferably boots.
Make sure that whatever you wear on your feet, that your footwear has good traction. There is ice on the roads, pavements, steps and just about every other surface in Sapporo in February. Almost everywhere you go is going to be slippery, and even the locals experience falls. You can easily obtain shoe spikes (either clip on or strap on) at the airport or JR Sapporo station, good shoe shops and even many of the souvenir shops, but for overall comfort boots are probably your best bet. If you arrive in Sapporo without good footwear, you may wish to visit an excellent outdoor shop called Shugakuso near “Kita-12-jou” (north street #12) station on the Nanboku (north south) subway line. They also run the Patagonia outlet just down the street.
Accommodation and Fares:
Book early. If you are after low-cost backpacker or other low budget accommodation then you will need to book very early. It is usually possible to book business hotel rooms 1 or 2 weeks prior to the start of the festival for around 6500-7000 yen per night (single room). Flying is the cheapest way after you factor in the extra cost of meals/time etc involved in travel by train or ferry. Most travel agents will also be able to sell airfare/hotel packages which are often quite affordable even if booked in January.