SAPPORO, March 4 — The recently concluded Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang has made many viewers fans of winter sports.
But the Winter Olympics isn’t just about alpine skiing and figure skating. Almost half a century earlier, the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo Games captivated the world with a fantasy landscape of snow statues and icy slides.
The Sapporo Snow Festival (Sapporo Yuki Matsuri), which runs from early to mid February every year, attracts about two million visitors from Japan and around the world. They descend on the city’s iconic Odori Park and main shopping boulevard of Susukino where over 200 ice and snow sculptures line the streets. This year, we joined the throngs to see what the fuss is about.
The very first festival took place in Odori Park in 1950. Back then, there were only half a dozen snow statues made by Sapporo high school students. Despite this humble start, those six statues drew about 50,000 visitors! By 1955, even the Self Defence Force participated — they started the trend of making giant snow sculptures.
Today, the Sapporo Snow Festival is the biggest winter festival in Japan. The main site is at Odori Park, running the length of a dozen streets from Nishi 1 chome to Nishi 12 chome and covering 1.5 kilometres in total. The largest snow sculptures are exhibited here, with some rising to 15 metres to the sky.
Crowd favourites include the Final Fantasy XIV Battle of Winter Wonderland, the Stockholm Cathedral and an array of smaller snow sculptures made by locals at the Citizens’ Square. Characters such as Doraemon and the Minions share the same space with more traditional displays showcasing virtues such as filial piety and caring for children.
One of the largest snow sculptures commemorates the 90th anniversary of famous Japanese artist Osamu Tezuka’s birth. Tezuka was highly influential in establishing manga culture with over 700 works.
Titled “All Stars”, four of his most popular characters — the android Astro Boy, the cross-dressing Princess Sapphire, the brilliant surgeon Black Jack and the emperor of the jungle, Kimba the White Lion — stand majestically as part of an homage to the great cartoonist, still revered and beloved three decades after his passing.
For sporting enthusiasts, the Shiroi Koibito Park Air Jumping Platform attracts skiers and snowboarders. There is also an open-air skating rink with a large Christmas tree (though it’s quite a bit past the Yuletide season) standing guard over the merry skaters.
To fill our bellies and tantalise our tastebuds, we drop by the Hokkaido Food Market located in the midst of the Odori Park snow sculptures. Vendors from around the northern island cook a variety of regional dishes including ramen made from Hokkaido-produced wheat noodles and cheeses from local dairy farms.
Grilled and baked seafood are always popular: from oysters to scallops, crabs to sea urchins. These hot foods help to ward off the winter cold, but even those who aren’t hungry may find some much-needed heat from Hokkaido-brewed craft beers, wine and even whisky.
Over at the Susukino end of the festival — also known as the Susukino Ice World — things are a little more intimate. Situated a single subway stop from Odori Park (though, if the weather is fine, it’s better to just walk there), this site is home to the Ice Sculpture Contest.
First launched in 1974, the contest has been drawing competitors from around the world, including Australia, Canada, China, Germany and Thailand. As we are here for a few days, we are fortunate enough to see the “before” and “after” of these intricate ice sculptures.
The contestants, dressed up in warm layers, begin with large blocks of ice that they set in layers. They then sketch an outline in red based on their original designs. Next comes the tricky part as they take a chainsaw to carve out the larger bits before more detailed work ensues with finer instruments.
Pausing only to change their tools or check their progress, each contestant is in their own world. At night, there is an otherworldly atmosphere as they continue working under the street lamps. The next morning, when we return, we are amazed by the finished works — from phoenixes to mermaids.
At night, everything is illuminated so the hours after sunset are perhaps the best time to view the ice sculptures. The Illumination Street, with lit-up snowmen and fairy lights laid across a tunnel, is a fantastic spot to take selfies (and many visitors do).
Many of the Susukino ice sculptures are meant to be touched, not just be admired from afar. We take turns sitting on an icy throne. There are hot beverages at the Ice Bar to warm our bodies. Children go for rides on the ice slides — and then ask for another round.
We can empathise with these kids. Sure, this looks like a playground for the little ones but it’s also for the grown-ups. The Sapporo Snow Festival is truly a winter wonderland. We can’t wait to return and have another round too!
How to get there
Odori Park: Take the Nanboku Subway Line from the JR Sapporo Station; one stop away. Alternatively, walk 10 minutes south of the JR Sapporo Station.
Susukino: Take the Nanboku Subway Line from the JR Sapporo Station; two stops away. Alternatively, walk 10 minutes south from Odori Park.