February may be thought of as the last real month of winter, but you wouldn't think of it that way if you travel to the northern parts of Japan around this time of year. I certainly found that to be true during my recent trip to Hokkaido earlier this month. Along with the heavy snowfall it brings to this northernmost main island, February is also a time for many wintery festivals for various Hokkaido cities.
The biggest and most famous of these is Sapporo's Snow Festival, with this year marking its 63rd annual celebration. Odori park, which runs through several blocks of downtown Sapporo, plays host to the winter-themed festivities and exhibitions. This year these included a snowboard jump, performance stages (at least some of which were constructed out of snow), food and souvenir stalls characteristic of any Japanese festival, and of course the snow and ice sculptures of every size and shape that are the main attraction for tourists from around the world.
I arrived on February 8th, a few days after the festival's official opening. Every year the "yuki matsuri," as it is called in Japanese, begins in early February and runs for one week, although those wishing to see the construction of the snow sculptures often come earlier. However, apparently this year the sculpting overlapped with the start of the festival; I suspect that was done purposely so that the sculptures would last longer. Since I arrived in the middle of the festival week, I was able to see the finished product of the efforts of amateurs and profesionals alike. Certainly, Japan's pop-icons served as sources of inspiration for several of the sculptures.
Sapporo's yuki matsuri got its start when a few high school students built several snow sculptures in Odori park in 1950. Apparently several years later, Japan's Self Defense Forces began lending their help in the construction of even larger sculptures; this year was no exception. Some of the largest and most impressive exhibitions this year can be attributed to their work.
As the above sculpture suggests, the Sapporo Snow Festival is a pretty international event in terms of theme as well as the make-up of its participants. This year marked the 39th annual "International Snow Sculpture Contest," for which sculptures from around the world come to Sapporo to represent their countries and regions by depicting their unique attributes through sculpting. In addition to promoting friendship between Japan and other countries, this year's theme was climate change. Although I think it related more to this being the year of the dragon in the Chinese calendar, the winning sculpture this year was crafted by the team representing Hong Kong.
Other sculptures were also very impressive, and for me were the most impressive and professional ones at the festival.
Before leaving Sapporo, I was able to check out some of the city's more permanent landmarks, such as JR Tower at the JR Sapporo train station (the view was spectacular), the clock tower which dates back to the Meiji period and the former government office. I was also very happy to visit a small museum dedicated to the Ainu, Japan's indigenous people, on the campus of Hokkaido University. The story of the Ainu is not dissimilar to that of Native Americans, and is all the more fascinating because of the general perception amongst both foreigners and Japanese alike that Japan is a homogeneous nation.
North of Sapporo, Asahikawa, Hokkaido's second largest city, holds its own annual snow festival takes place concurrently. Asahikawa doesn't try to outshine Sapporo, but puts on its own quieter, and in some ways more attractive and approachable, version of a snow festival. After spending a day at Asahikawa's great zoo (the penguin walk is especially recommended), which draws a majority of the tourists that come to the city, I checked out the festival grounds myself. This year's theme was "Transformers" and had two (yes, two) huge slides for kids and adults alike. Forgetting the meaning of "dignity" for a moment, I took a ride myself after checking out a large igloo that included an ice bar and a small movie screening area. Finally, walking back to my hotel from the festival gave me a chance to appreciate the ice sculptures making up another international competition lining "Kaimono Koen," the main shopping thoroughfare in town.
I'm sorry for the quality of some of the pictures above: I ran into some problems with my camera during my trip, and so had to resort to my iTouch for a majority of my picture-taking. However, I hope you enjoyed, and that reading this has either brought back fond memories of your trip to Hokkaido during this time of year or that it may inspire you to take a trip there someday yourself. Until next time!