The world famous mouse stands nearly 15 metres tall glistening white under the spotlights. He stands next to his friends from the Walt Disney Company in front of a painstakingly detailed replica of the Disney castle. Nearby, an image of a Steller's sea eagle feeding it's young is depicted in an equally massive sculpture, carved by an army of workers. Although each sculpture requires several hundred truckloads of materials and weeks of careful work, it won't be long before they melt away to nothing.
Disney Snow Sculpture
February is the time to visit Sapporo and see the world famous Yuki Matsuri, translating directly as 'snow festival', which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. Although the headline attractions are the giant snow sculptures that dominate Odori Park, each of the three festival sites has something different to offer. While you're there, take the chance to sample some of Hokkaido's local specialities as you explore this winter wonderland.
Yuki Matsuri at Tsudome
The area around the Sapporo Community Dome, known locally as the Tsudome is entirely geared towards having fun in the snow and it's a great place to start your day. Try one of the numerous ice slides, get lost in a snow maze or go head to head with your friends on the crazy golf course made of snow. If you're feeling brave, have a go at snow rafting. Hold on tight as your raft twists and slides across the ice, bouncing over humps and bumps as it's pulled around at high speed by a skidoo. As the snow festival progresses, a barren field is gradually invaded by a horde of miniature snowmen as each visitor is invited to make their own contribution to this developing community.
Daytime temperatures at Yuki Matsuri average around -1ºC so you will need to wrap up warm, though there are plenty of places to go inside for a hot drink and some respite from the cold.
Kani Honke, the Best Lunch in Sapporo
After an action packed morning at the snow festival, it's time to head into town for a well deserved lunch. The entire menu at Kani Honke is based on one key ingredient. If your Japanese isn't up to translating the name, the giant mechanical crab waving its claws above the door will provide a subtle clue. A lunchtime set menu is an economical way to sample the many permutations of the crab theme. The piping hot crab gratin in a stylish crab shaped dish and the succulent King Crab meat, a local delicacy presented in the shell, are particularly notable, but you'll also have the chance to try crab sushi, crab soup and deep fried crab's legs. For dessert, a crustacean free dollop of vanilla ice cream topped with honeyberry sauce brings this lunchtime feast to a satisfying conclusion.
Odori Park, Giant Sculptures at the Heart of the Snow Festival
Make your way to Odori Park, a narrow strip of open space 12 blocks long but only one block wide, originally planned as a fire break. You'll find famous monuments, characters from movies and scenes from the natural world expertly crafted in snow. Entries for the International Snow Sculpture Competition are smaller but no less impressive as they depict legendary beasts, national mascots and other themes from the participating countries. Transporting thousands of tons of snow into the city and carving these elaborate works of art alongside groups of volunteers is considered an annual training exercise for the local garrison of the Japanese Self Defence Force. Munch on a snowman cake as you watch the acrobatic ski jumping displays or check out the live bands performing on some of the larger sculptures.
Sea Eagles and Owls
The TV tower at one end of Odori park has an observation deck offering views across the city to the mountains beyond. It's the perfect place to enjoy the sunset on a clear day, though a row of tripods may stop you getting right up to the edge as avid photographers stake out the prime spots for the spectacle to come. The sun dips behind the mountains to the west and the exhibition below begins to lose its brilliant white sheen. Suddenly the entire snow festival springs back into action as the evening sound and light displays bring the park to life in a completely different way.
Make your way to the Susukino district, considered the centre of Sapporo's nightlife thanks to its numerous restaurants, bars and other more mature forms of entertainment. Jingisukan (the Japanese pronunciation of Genghis Khan) would be a fine choice for dinner. You will be brought plates of raw mutton and vegetables such as beansprouts and cabbage to cook to your liking on a curved charcoal grill shaped like a Mongolian soldier's helmet. Mongolian barbecue restaurants are rare outside Hokkaido, perhaps because this is the only area in Japan where sheep are reared.
Another Susukino favourite is Ramen Yokocho, a narrow shopping arcade packed with noodle shops. Ramen noodles come in a meaty broth usually topped with slices of pork, beansprouts and spring onions. The local Hokkaido variation is served in a miso broth augmented by a healthy knob of butter and a generous pile of sweetcorn making it the ultimate soul warming comfort food.
Jingisukan Mongolian Barbecue
Yuki Matsuri at Susukino
Out on the street, the Susukino ice sculptures are more intricate than what you've seen elsewhere at the snow festival so look out for the detailed dragon scales and individual feathers on the cranes and peacocks. At night many exhibits light up in an array of cheerful neon colours and some even have real objects frozen into them. You may see whiskey bottles in the ice bar, sadly not functional, or fish and crabs in a frozen fish tank, the pooling blood under some specimens is a little gruesome however.
Sapporo's Curb Market
Although the highlights of Yuki Matsuri can be experienced in one action packed day, spending a second day would allow you to enjoy the snow festival at leisure and see a little more of Sapporo. The curb market is dedicated to selling the freshest local produce so it's a great place to buy any food based souvenirs.
If you want to impress a Japanese person, you can't go far wrong with a Yubari melon. This rare melon variant, cultivated in greenhouses in the nearby town of Yubari is carefully presented with the characteristic 'Y' shaped stem still attached. Check the price before you buy however as perfect specimens have been known to sell for more than 2 million yen a pair. Seeing fishmongers take live snow crabs from a tank, whip out their insides and prepare them for sale in a two second blur of Japanese efficiency is a rare spectacle, however fresh seafood doesn't make a great souvenir if you have to travel for more than a few hours. For something that keeps a little better, some sweetcorn chocolate or roast lamb flavoured boiled sweets should do the trick. If you aren't sure what you'll like best, a lot of these shops offer tasters.
At some point during your stay in Sapporo you'll probably meet Marimokkori. This distinctive local character appears in many forms, though the stuffed toy that vibrates when you pull the rip cord is the most memorable. His name is a combination of 'Marimo', a rare ball shaped algae that grows in Lake Akan and 'mokkori', a Japanese slang word for 'bulge'. Whether Marimokkori's characteristic 'bulge' is his belly button (obviously an outie), or something else entirely is a matter of much debate among tourists as they take turns to pull his mokkori.
The Japanese relish the transitional nature of the seasons and will rush to a particular place in their thousands for a glimpse of these fleeting moments. Whether it's cherry blossom, autumn leaves or the snow and ice art of Yuki Matsuri, knowing that something will only be there for a short time is part of the attraction. Regional cuisine is another essential part of the Japanese travel experience and Hokkaido offers several unique specialities for you to enjoy.
Yuki Matsuri Travel Tips
The snow festival is extremely popular and accommodation books out well in advance. Be sure to make your reservations early.
If you book a flight and accommodation package in Japan, you may well receive extra coupons and vouchers such as free entry to Odori Tower or a free bus to the Curb Market. Check your package carefully so you don't miss out.
Whilst it can be freezing outside, it is usually very warm indoors. Layer your clothes so they can be adjusted easily depending on the temperature.
Shop staff in Sapporo are not used to interacting with foreign tourists and speaking Japanese doesn't seem to help. Be patient and you'll get there in the end.
How to Get to Sapporo's Snow Festival
Fly to Sapporo's New Chitose Airport (CTS) and take the train from there into central Sapporo.
There are flights from most major Japanese cities as well as international flights from Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and other Asian cities.