Flurries in the park
The Sapporo Snow Festival is a wonderful sight to behold, but make sure you are wrapped warmly from top to toe
Snowflakes shaped like diamonds land gently on my face as I step outside from the warmth of my hotel into the cold Sapporo day. Their icy touch makes me shiver and I quickly pop back inside to grab another couple of kairo, those wonderful disposal warmer packs so much part of chilly Japanese life, and slip them inside my boots. I figure that at least my feet won't freeze as I take in the sight of snow statues and ice sculptures in the Sapporo Snow Festival.
Sapporo's festival got off to rather a humble start. It was held for the first time in 1950 in the town's Odori Park and featured only six snow statues made by local high school students. In 1955, the Japan Self Defence Force joined in and built the first massive snow sculptures, for which the Snow Festival has now become famous. Today the event has grown into an annual snow and ice extravaganza and attracts more than two million visitors from Japan and around the world.
Around 6,500 five-ton truckloads of snow are transported from locations in and around Sapporo for these beautiful sculptures. This year, the gleaming white snow has come from Takino and Satozuka cemetery parks, Sapporo Satoland, Moerenuma Park and Ishikari Bay New Port.
The main festival site is still Odori Park, which stretches from east to west through the centre of downtown Sapporo. Around 131 snow sculptures line the entire 1.5-kilometre length of the park and tourists are crowding around the main attractions, the gigantic sculptures depicting Japanese historical landmarks and famous characters in Japan. This year, the Japanese historical landmarks are Ise Shrinein, a Shinto shrine complex in the city of Ise in Mie Prefecture, the Hoheikan, a historical building in Nakajima Park in Sapporo and Kabuki-za in Ginza, the principal Tokyo theatre for the traditional Kabuki dramas.
I immediately recognise Wat Benchamabophit, Bangkok Marble Temple, recreated to mark the 50th anniversary of the Thai royal family's first visit to Japan in May of 1963. Another international landmark is the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei.
Understandably, the all time favourite with visitors is the snow sculpture contest site in International Square. Here, contestants brave the cold and sculpture the snow into sophisticated and meaningful statues and sculptures from morning until night.
First time visitors to Japan may raise their eyebrows or even laugh out loud when they see Japanese of all ages lining up to take photographs of their favourite cartoon character snow sculptures, among them Ultraman, Pichachu, Totoro, Peroro, Anpanman and Chibi Maruko Chan. But blending in with the crowd is a great way of learning more about these famous cartoon characters, both foreign and Japanese, and gives you get an idea of who is who around the park.
The best way to fight the cold weather, apart from wearing the same kind of clothes that you would don for a polar crossing, is to feast on hot foods and drinks. Sapporo is famous for tasty miso ramen, soup curry, scallops, potatoes, and fresh seafood and I don't hesitate to stop at a couple of the dozens of food booths offering Hokkaido's delicacies.
Before long, the wind rises and the snow starts to falls even more heavily. My face is now entirely numb yet to my amazement, the park is becoming increasingly more crowded. The powdery snow is covering ground just like icing on a cake and the branches of the leafless trees are bending with the weight of the snow. Some children are trying to catch the fluffy snowflakes in their mouths while waiting for their turns at the Donbei-kun Slide.
Laughter fills the air and smiles are everywhere. The weeklong snow festival, now in its sixty-fourth year, may be arctic but it sends out warmth to every corner of Sapporo.
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Authority of Thailand.
If you go
<< Thai Airways International operates direct flights between Bangkok and Sapporo. The Snow Festival 2013 has now ended but skiing, snowboarding and other outdoor activities involving the white stuff continue until early April.
Below are some tips for those travelling from a tropical zone to the snowy mountain.
<< Always wear good solid boot or snowshoes because the snow covered ground is slippery. Otherwise buy "suberi dome" (shoe grips) from convenience store. Simply slip them on the outer part of your shoes so you can walk more comfortably on the slippery snow. If you have no idea how to use them, ask the shopkeeper.
<< If you intend to spend an hour or two outside, buy kairo, disposable warmer packs, from the convenience store. Take the pack out of its outer plastic bag, then rub or shake it. It soon starts generating heat that is slightly higher than the human body temperature, and it stays warm for over 12 hours.
<< Prepare small packs of tissue paper since you will almost certainly may a runny nose because of the cold weather. Moreover, no toilet paper is provided at many public restrooms.