ASAHIKAWA (Hokkaido), Feb 5 — Who knew that snow could fall horizontally? Or, for that matter, that rain could fall the same way?
Better yet, we are pelted by rain and snow simultaneously though it takes us a while to realise this. It’s hard to discern much when we’re half-blinded, freezing cold yet smarting from the downpour (or is that side-pour?).
Is this a blizzard or a holiday? In Asahikawa, it’s quite possibly both, we reckon.
Just hours ago the sun was shining bright and the sky was blue. It was chilly, sure, but just a tad sub-zero. Here, -2°C is considered quite balmy.
After all, Asahikawa is considered the coldest major city in Japan where the lowest temperature ever recorded was -41°C. (We would learn later that the temperature, even during the day, could drop below -10°C in the blink of an eye.)
We are here for the Asahikawa Winter Festival (Asahikawa Fuyu Matsuri), held every year in early February. It is Hokkaido’s second largest winter festival after Sapporo’s more internationally known Snow Festival. While the latter is sleeker and more commercial, the matsuri in Asahikawa has an untamed element to it.
Even within the confines of a modern city, the wilderness beckons.
Walking along Heiwa Dori, the main pedestrian street in town, we are greeted by dozens of ice sculptures. Some are complete; others are works-in-progress.
They are crafted for a competition and we observe some of the contestants still toiling away, dressed in thick layers. With electric saws, they shape the large blocks of ice, removing what isn’t the final sculpture, chiselling away whatever proves superfluous as Michelangelo once put it.
We are appreciative but far from awestruck. After all, we’ve seen similar ice sculptures when we visited the winter festival in Sapporo. If a rivalry exists between the two cities, it’s clear why the Hokkaido capital has the lion’s share of the fame.
Perhaps we judged too soon.
As we keep walking the taller buildings disappear behind us and we reach the second festival site. Located near the Asahibashi Bridge, this is a far larger site. Instead of ice statues, the terrain is marked with snow sculptures. And no ordinary snow sculptures either.
Yes, there are the human-sized ones and even tinier snow sculptures, fashioned to mimic popular cartoon characters such as Doraemon or the Minions. These barely reach our knees.
No, the one snow sculpture that catches our attention looms high above us and stretches as far as the eye can see. Spanning 130 metres wide, 40 metres deep and 20 metres high, this gigantic structure is an invocation of Hokkaido’s natural wealth and beauty. We spot spiralling conifers, a friendly brown bear, adorable deer, a wise owl. We can spend hours just taking it all in.
Now we are well and truly awestruck.
This tradition of creating one humongous snow sculpture offers fans something new every year. In 2010 there was a snowman castle; in 2011, a replica of the Daisetsuzan Mountains loomed over visitors. The 1994 sculpture, a Korean style fortress, entered the Guinness World Records as the largest snow construction ever built.
Clearly, Asahikawa has never played second fiddle to its sister city. There is a sense of childlike abandon here, partly because the perimeters aren’t as tightly drawn.
Unlike Sapporo, we are a distance away from the city centre. If you’re leery of the elbow-to-elbow crowds at the Sapporo Winter Festival, Asahikawa guarantees more breathing room.
There is space for a terrifying snow slide, where thrill-seekers can attempt a toboggan run. Those who are less adventurous don’t have to be left out: there are horse-drawn sleigh rides if you’re after romance, snowmobile rides if you’re after speed.
A zip line for those unafraid of heights, an ice bar for those who need warming up. Families with children can join the making of snow miniatures in a tent, protected from the worst of the cold.
But come nightfall, and there doesn’t seem to be any escape from that though. Temperatures have dropped to -20°C and the aforementioned rain-and-snowstorm tests our resolve mightily. However, the Asahibashi Site is utterly transformed after sunset so we persevere.
The snow sculptures, both large and small, are illuminated with an unearthly flow. The massive Hokkaido forest is now a stage for musical performances. A singer belts out classics in Japanese, his voice carrying over the wind and snow thanks to the impressive sound system (not to mention sheer grit, we imagine).
We won’t lie; experiencing the Asahikawa Winter Festival at night is a challenge. But – as we wander through this maze, this labyrinth of snow and ice; as what was familiar earlier is now strange and beguiling; as we stray from the path (there is no path) into a weirdly wonderful winterland – it is a challenge worth accepting.
Asahikawa Winter Festival
Venues: Heiwa Dori Site and Asahibashi Site, Asahikawa City, Hokkaido, Japan
Dates: The 2019 Winter Festival will be held from February 6 to 11, 2019
The Heiwa Dori Site runs about one kilometre from Asahikawa Station into the town centre. Asahibashi Site is about a 15-minute walk from the Heiwa Dori Site; look for signposts to the Asahibashi Bridge. There are also free shuttle buses from the Asahikawa Station to the Asahibashi Site; these run every half an hour during the festival.