[From December Issue 2010]
It takes about an hour and a half to fly from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to the New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido. Located in the northernmost part of the Japanese Archipelago, Hokkaido is a large, roughly diamond-shaped island. While cool there in summer, the prefecture is better known as a mecca for winter sports, featuring an abundance of natural scenery, hot springs and delicious seafood. As such, Hokkaido attracts a great number of tourists, both from other parts of Japan and abroad. Approximately 40 minutes from New Chitose Airport by rapid train, sits Sapporo, the largest city north of Tokyo, with a population of roughly 1.9 million.
In a country-wide survey, Sapporo, with its various, regularly scheduled seasonal events, was chosen as Japan’s most attractive city. The largest of all these events is the Sapporo Snow Festival, which takes place each year for one week between early and mid February. Started in 1950 by high school students who built six snow statues in Odori Park, the festival now welcomes 2.43 million annual visitors, and is so popular that booking flights for this time has become extremely difficult.
Odori Park, the festival’s main site, stretches 1.5 kilometers from east to west through the city centre. Festival visitors are enthralled by the 12 sections (numbered 1 ~ 12-Chome) featuring large, dynamic and precise snow and ice sculptures modeled after world-famous buildings and characters, as well as a variety of smaller models skillfully created by the locals. The annual International Snow Sculpture Contest is also held there. Last year 14 teams from around the world participated with the team from Thailand winning the contest.
And snow sculptures are not the only thing you can enjoy at the festival. Scheduled to open in the 1-Chome section, is an ice skating rink located just below the landmark Sapporo TV Tower. Another attraction will include a huge snow ramp off which professional snowboarders and skiers will soar through the air. When you get hungry, you can visit the Food Park. There, a number of stalls will serve local specialties from across Hokkaido, including ramen and seafood.
A little south of Odori Park is the Susukino festival site where more delicate, artistic ice sculptures are displayed. Created by uniquely molding hairy crabs, squid and salmon into ice, some people take commemorative photos in front of these popular displays. Families with children usually visit the Tsu-dome site, where giant snow slides and kid’s shows take place.
Another popular, snow-related attraction is Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium. Located on the eastern slope of Mt. Okura, it hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics. Visitors riding the lift up to the top of the ski jump can enjoy a panoramic view of the entire city. The stadium also houses the Sapporo Winter Sports Museum, where in addition to seeing the Olympic exhibits visitors can also experience what it feels like to be a professional athlete by simulating bobsled racing and figure skating.
From December through February, the average Sapporo temperature is below freezing. So, even if dressed warmly in heavy winter clothes, when walking outside, you will inevitably feel the chill. So to warm up you can enjoy some of the local specialties, such as Sapporo ramen or jingisukan (Genghis Khan) barbecue. Traditionally, Sapporo ramen features miso-based soup with relatively thick noodles, but more recently some shops are serving different varieties of the same dish.
The origin of jingisukan dates back roughly 70 years, when Hokkaido’s residents first began eating the meat from sheep that they sheered for their wool. Now, the typical jingisukan dish consists of mutton or lamb cooked with plenty of vegetables in a round metal skillet with a bulge in the middle. A soy sauce, fruit and vegetable paste dipping sauce adds to the dish’s tastiness, making it very popular among Hokkaidoans.
You may also want to try some winter sports if you visit Hokkaido at that time. Sapporo offers several alpine areas where you can fully enjoy skiing all day long. If you prefer ice-skating, rinks can be found in Makomanai Park and Maruyama Stadium, which are both located just a few kilometers away from city centre. If you are not very confident about trying either one of these sports, you can enjoy cross-country skiing through Nakajima Park, just south of Susukino, where rental equipment is readily available.
As a lighter outdoor activity, “kanjiki walking” is highly recommended. Kanjiki are traditional Japanese snowshoes made by curving tree branches and vines into circular shapes then binding them. Also located not far from the city centre is the outdoor sculpture garden Sapporo Geijutsu no Mori (Sapporo Artpark), which is free and open to the public every winter from January through March. There you can rent kanjiki and boots to visit over 70 sculptures while crunching snow under your feet.
If you would rather appreciate historical Japan, visiting Hokkaido Kaitaku-no Mura (Historic Village of Hokkaido) is strongly recommended. This open-air museum exhibits reproductions of early Hokkaido settlements. Among the traditional town scenery are about 50 old buildings including City Hall, private residences and retail shops that seem so real that you may feel as if you stepped back in time. It is also fun to take a weekend ride in a horse-drawn sleigh during the winter holidays (Saturday, Sundays and national holidays). Skis made of wood or bamboo and wooden sleighs are also available.
Niseko – A Powdery Snow Paradise
About a two-and-a-half-hour drive from New Chitose Airport, the Niseko area has garnered a lot of attention over the last 7 to 8 years, as a wonderful winter resort area, especially for Australians. The area’s dry powdery snow is so highly regarded by skiers and snowboarders that it ranks among some of the best in the world. At numerous ski areas and hotels, many staff members also speak very good English.
Offering three different ski areas, Mt. Niseko Annupuri is the highest peak in the Niseko mountain range. Skiers and snowboarders of all levels can choose runs ranging from gentle, family-oriented slopes to longer distance courses stretching 5,600 meters with a vertical drop of about 1,000 meters. Niseko is also famous as a hot spring resort. After enjoying skiing or snowboarding, you can relax while soaking yourself at a local onsen.
Text: TAKAHASHI Akiko