The Sapporo Snow Festival occurs every February for about a week on the northernmost island of Hokkaido. Hokkaido is a lot like Wisconsin, except that is has mountains and is surrounded by an ocean. Now, that may not sound like Wisconsin at all, but Hokkaido has nice cold winters with snow and dairy products (there are dairy cows on Hokkaido). This made Hokkaido feel like home.
We went with a group of JETs from the Shonai area so we didn't have to make most of the travel and lodging arrangements. This was really nice. To get to Hokkaido, we took a ferry (i.e. the large boat you see above) on the Nihon-kai or Sea of Japan. It took around 17 hours on the way up. Kim was really excited about taking the ferry...little did she know the result!
From left to right: Kim, Alysha, Tom, Ian (very back), Ed, and Chris. This was our room in the bottom of the ferry. The only time we spent here was to sleep. Sleeping on a boat is actually really comfortable. However, during the non-sleeping time, Kim became violently seasick due to a pretty rough ride on the way up to Sapporo. To make matters worse, no one could go on deck because of high waves. Fortunately, the ride back to Honshu was much more peaceful and Kim took seasickness medicine.
After taking the ferry, the group arrived at Otaru around 4:30 am. Otaru was 40 -50 minutes by train from Sapporo, the major city of Hokkaido. However, the ferry dock was nowhere near the train station. The group decided (probably due to sleep deprivation and not having eaten much) to walk to the train station rather than take a taxi. Some people had snowboards and other largish equipment with them. Although the "walk" gave us a nice view of Otaru at night, it took around 1 hour to get to the station. Here is a canal we stopped at to catch our breath.
As we hiked to the station, it started to snow a bit. Here is everyone but Peter posing at the canal. Kim is wearing the light blue coat and scarf. Although this walking plan was slightly insane, it was really nice to see real snow again. Shonai tends to have rain-ice with snow in the mountains, so Kim and Peter were missing winter. As you can see, it was still very dark at 5am in the morning. We finally arrived at Sapporo around 7am. After dropping our luggage off at the hostel, half of the group went skiing while the rest of us went sightseeing. We forgot our camera and ended up taking pictures that night. The snow festival is famous for the large snow and ice sculptures. There were hundreds of sculptures.
Kim is the muddled blue figure on the left hand side of the picture. These dinosaurs were really cool and large.
Here is an ice sculpture of the Ham Fighters, not an anti-pork lobby, but Sapporo's baseball team. Ham and baseball?
This nicely lit sculpture is a replica of the Rathaus in Hanover, Germany. The details were quite elaborate.
This is a replica of a famous Hokkaido building that a Japanese rebel used to try to fight the Meiji Restoration. The rebel (by the surname of Hijikata) failed. Hokkaido became incorporated into Japan rather late in Japanese history and has some unique features as a result. For example, the city of Sapporo is based on a grid pattern that is relatively easy to use (Most Japanese cities do not have many street signs nor are on a grid pattern). We really liked Sapporo!
Here is Kim again, appearing fashionable in her bulky-winter look. Behind her is one of the most popular men in Japan: the baseball player Matsui from the NY Yankees. The sculpture shows the NY skyline with Matsui in the foreground.
Here is the Parthenon snow-sculpture. Who needs Athens when you have snow!
Here is Peter with an ice sculpture of a bird. Peter was feeling camera shy and Kim finally convinced him to pose. In the far background you can see Rainbow Monkey Castle, the highlight of the sculptures for Kim and Peter.
Here is Rainbow Monkey Castle. This ice sculpture is essentially 2 large monkeys (2004 is the year of the monkey) that also look like teapots with glowing lights. In addition, there is a glass box with an electric organ and a woman playing new-age music while wearing 5 inch heels. Whaaaaat????? was the reaction of Kim and Peter. Then they saw this picture:
This is what Rainbow Monkey Castle was supposed to look like. It was designed by school children. Hence the name and very creative sculpture idea. Why do the monkeys have doors? Ask a five year old and perhaps you will get a good answer. Why is there a pyramid and strange towerish object? Again, consult a local school child.
That night we went decided to try one of the many Sapporo specialities. This speciality is called "Genghis Khan" and consists of eating mutton strips that you fry yourself on a grill with onions and a tangy dipping sauce. (They also have sheep in Hokkaido.) This particular restaurant only serves Genghis Khan for a few hours every night. We had to split our group (Alysha, Kim, Ed, Brian's girlfriend, Brian, Tom, Peter) into pairs because the restaurant was just a line of barstools. After waiting around an hour, everyone finally ate. The verdict: Oishii ne! Though a bit heavy and greasy. Note the amazing Genghis Khan portrait on the sign!
The next two days we abandoned the sculptures of the city for some winter sports. The first day was cross country skiing and snow tubing. The second day we went downhill skiing. Here is part of the cross country group (Ed, Peter, Kim, Alysha). Alysha was a veteran cross country skiier being from Alaska and having skiied in competitions. She provided basic instruction and then lapped us several time while we struggled through the course, enjoying (?) the many encounters with large snow banks.
A little later in the cross country skiing. Peter had a few difficulties at this point and vowed to never cross country ski again. Kim, on the other hand, really enjoyed it despite some minor injuries due to those vicious snowbanks.
After skiing we relaxed by snow tubing which required much less effort. We then returned to the city for onsen (soaking in hot springs) and dinner.
The next day we boarded an express train and took a 2 1/2 hour ride to Niseko, a famous ski area south of Hokkaido. This picture is from the front of the train. Downhill skiing turned out to be really cheap due to the helpful Sapporo information center at Sapporo station. Train tickets, gear rental, and lift passes for $55. Incredible deal!
Kim and Peter bought some cheap ski gear the night before. It was a really good thing as the snow was so thick that one could hardly see that afternoon. Here is Kim with her comfy new hat on the train, looking a bit tired.
Here's a partial view of Niseko mountain itself, which is a volcano. It snowed all day so the top is blurred out.
Here is Kim in front of the ski center. Kim hadn't skiied since junior high school and Peter had never skiied in his life. After getting their skiis and not knowing what to do (the runs were a bit steep for beginners) they signed up for a lesson and practiced snow plowing until the instructor arrived. The instructor was really good and she spoke fluent English, since she taught skiing in Australia during the Japanese summer. After the lesson, Kim was ready to go and remembered how to ski. Peter, on the other hand, was not so lucky and well....skiing is not Peter's strong point. Having failed to master snowplowing, Peter resorted to the ski-fall tactic, and finally used his skis as a sled to get down the mountain. He did get down from the mountain, however, and that was a good thing.
Here are some pretty trees that Peter took a picture of on the way back from Niseko. We were really exhausted and stumbled out for dinner. The next day we did a little shopping before catching the train and ferry back to the island of Honshu. The 5-day Sapporo excursion was over but it was a lot of fun!