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3 posts from February 2012


Winter, Hokkaido Style

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.

An amateur Anpanman and Cheese, some of Japan's most famous cartoon characters

One of the larger promotional sculptures for series like "
One Piece"

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.


The Taj Mahal

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.

IMG_0551"The Leaping Dragon"

Other sculptures were also very impressive, and for me were the most impressive and professional ones at the festival.

"Climate Change," a representation of how people suffer from global warming

"Janseung," sculpted by representatives of Daejong, South Korea, one of Sapporo's sister cities

"Friendship," Singapore

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. 

View of Sapporo and outlying mountains from JR Tower

The clock tower, a symbol for Sapporo

The former government building, complete with a bit of winter cheer

Traditional Ainu clothing at one of the few free mini museums that can be found in Sapporo

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.

The "penguin walk" at Asahikawa's famous zoo

The Transformers-themed stage, with Asahikawa's symbol, Asahibashi bridge, in the background

"This year there are TWO slides!"

"Ice Village" Igloo, complete with ice bar and screening area

Kaimono Koen

An example of ice sculptures that lined the street

 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!


and the winners are...

At last month's End of Semester Celebration, CIEE students, host families and other party attendees were invited to submit votes for our fall semester photo contest. While it was difficult to decide among many excellent photos, the following entries were declared winners (in addition to Issei Kashima's photo included in my last post). Enjoy!

-Shannon Quinn, Student Services Manager


      迷子 Lost Child by Landon YoshimotoYoshimoto_3


      ふくろ祭り Fukuro Festival by Rhonda Ma


      高台寺 Kodaiji by Rhonda MaMa_2


      富士山 Fuji-san by Russell Ottalini


      雪猿 (ニホンザル) Snow Monkeys by Cynthia LiangLiang_3


another semester comes to a close

Classes are over, final papers have been submitted, and the CIEE fall semester program is drawing to a close. Some students will head back to the US at the end of this week, while others will remain in Japan a bit longer to decompress, explore the countryside, and sneak in a few last things on their Tokyo to-do lists. For many students, final trips to kaitenzushi, shabu shabu, and all-you-can-eat sweets buffets are a high priority!

The first month of 2012 was a particularly busy month for CIEE students in Tokyo. After a two-week winter recess, classes reconvened on January 5. Shortly after, students had a three-day weekend to celebrate seijin no hi or Coming of Age day. Several CIEE students dressed up in suits and long-sleeved furisode kimono to attend local ceremonies near their dormitories and homestays.

On January 11, we had a CIEE excursion to Ryogoku for the sumo tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan. We sat through several lower-ranking sumo matches before getting to watch the highest rank of wrestlers, yokozuna, later in the day. We also had the opportunity to try chankonabe, a hot pot dish traditionally consumed by sumo wrestlers.

Despite their busy schedules, several CIEE students volunteered to give tours of the Sophia University campus and share their experiences with a large group of visitors (including the new CEO) from CIEE’s headquarters in Portland, Maine.

On January 18, we held our End of Semester Ceremony and Reception at Arucadia Ichigaya. Students received program completion certificates, performed entertaining skits, and submitted votes for our fall semester photo contest. At the reception, students had a chance to mingle with the host families, thank program volunteers and staff, and enjoy a delicious buffet of everything from sushi to cake!

While we will have to say goodbye to our fall semester students at the end of this week, our Academic Year Program (AYP) students will be back in early April for spring semester at Sophia University. We will update our blog occasionally during the break, so check back soon for more on the adventures of CIEE students in Tokyo.


Shannon Quinn, Student Services Manager

I'm including Issei Kashima's winning photo, 柄杓 Water Ladles from our fall semester photo contest. Other winning entries will be posted soon.