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Sapporo Snow & Ice Festival     Hokkaido Index

Sapporo Snow Festival
A work of Toshusai Sharaku
The Sapporo Snow festival is magnificent, and an event not to be missed. It is one of the largest winter events in Japan and is an absolute gem. If you have the opportunity to go to Sapporo City at this time of year, make sure you take it. The festival takes place in early February for 7 days (the actual day of the following year's festival is decided immediately after each festival finishes). In 2007 the festival is from Tuesday February 6th to Monday February 12th. In Japanese it is called the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri.

During the festival literally hundreds of snow and ice sculptures are created in three areas of Sapporo: These are

  • Odori Koen - Sapporo's central park & playground which hosts the artistic snow sculptures (including the vast sculptures made with the assistance of the military), the festival launch, and much of the live music and other entertainment. This section is open all day and illuminated each night.
  • Satorando/Satoland - a new site that made it's debut at the 2006 festival replacing the Makomanai JGSDF base. As with the base, it is the only site not located in the center of the city. Satorando/Satoland is just as kinderfreundlich as Makomanai ever was, and even better for adults with hot air balloons, snow mazes and an ice bar.
    Sapporo Snow Festival
    Sapporo girls selling souvenirs
  • Susukino - the nightlife area which hosts the ice festival, where sculptures are carved using chainsaws and other power tools on the first day of the festival. Open day and night but best viewed after dark.

    The Sapporo Snow Festival began spontaneously - in 1950 a group of 6 local high school students decided to build snow scuptures in Odori Koen. Japan was still recovering from the aftermath of the war (the occupation didn't finish until the Treaty of San Francisco in 1952) and economically times were still fairly tough. Unemployment was particularly high in Sapporo during this period, due to the loss of fisheries, disruption of markets, a low level of public works expenditure, demobilization and a large number of refugees displaced during the aftermath of the war - some 400,000 from Sakhalin alone.

    The activities of the students gained publicity in the local media, and many locals took their enthusiasm to heart and began to feel more optimistic for the future. It took only a couple of years for the festival to become extremely popular in the local area. In 1955 just 5 years after the 6 students took their initiative, the soldiers from the Makomanai base of the newly established Self-Defense Force also began to participate. Initially this was done partly in order to give the men something to do, but it was quickly understood that making the sculptures was proving to be an excellent team work building exercise and a good way to test the leadership, problem solving skills and initiative of junior officers & NCO's. The base itself, became one of the main festival sites.

    Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival
    Narnia 2006
    View from TV Tower
    Sapporo TV Tower
    JAL & Mickey takeoff

    Sapporo Snow Festival
    Young girl on snow slide
    The involvement of the JGSDF was probably what secured the festival's long term success, as it was the soldiers who first built the now famous giant statues, and the wonderful snow slides for children and also the theme sculptures which helped the festival grow. Japanese calendars from as early as the mid-1950's began to feature the Yuki Matsuri sculptures, and it was largely due to the giant sculptures and slides built by the Makomanai base personnel that the snow and ice festival became widely known throughout Japan by media, popular culture and domestic tourism. From 2006 the role of the military was reduced with the base itself no longer a festival site. Community groups organize all of the Satorando/Satoland site, so in 2006 the military provided technical support (5 soldiers) and some assistance with logistics, while continuing to provide the large scale support still needed for the Odori Koen site.

    It was 1972 that changed both Sapporo and the festival. In that year the Sapporo Snow Festival coincided with the 11th Winter Olympic Games, the first to be held in Asia, and only the 3rd time the games were held outside Europe. An underground railway was built, state of the art sports stadiums such as the Okurayama Jump Hill were completely refurbished, and a swathe of expensive new infrastructure was completed for the Games. The giant sculptures received enormous television coverage, and almost overnight the festival suddenly became known internationally.

    Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival
    March of the penguins
    Wallace and Gromit
    Opening Ceremony 2006
    Horyuji Temple

    Sapporo Snow Festival
    Young boy on snow slide
    Sapporo has always been more tourism conscious than other Japanese cities, and with the cost of the new infrastructure being quite large, the importance of making sure that the festival was professionally organized and managed was quickly understood. Sapporo City consolidated international interest by starting the International Snow Statue Competition in 1974, which has become one of the most popular sections of the festival, not only amongst Japanese visitors, but amongst the all important overseas media. There are now usually about 2 dozen teams from nearly as many countries participating each year, even from places such as Australia, Hawaii and Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore.

    Today the festival has grown to become the biggest winter attraction in Hokkaido drawing more than 2 million visitors each year. As the years passed, community groups began to become increasingly involved - not only in terms of making a wide range of sculptures and displays and also participating as volunteers providing assistance such as tourist information, assistance for visitors in wheelchairs, and of course serving as guides or interpreters for foreign visitors. If you need language assistance during a visit to the festival, please remember that the people assisting you are most likely unpaid volunteers.

    Photo Gallery - Odori Koen:

    Odori Koen is the main central park of Sapporo City and hosts the festival launch. If you go up the elevator to the viewing area of the Sapporo TV Tower, you can get an excellent overview of the main site.

    Odori Koen contains the sculptures of many of the major sponsors and community groups, as well as the International Snow Statue Competition, which is usually located at the end furthest from the TV Tower. (in order to be closer to the government offices and the Kousei Nenkin Kaikan, a government facility which is usually the preferred accommodation for the international contestants). The park is also lined with cafes and is of course flood lit at night. Many of the larger works are brilliant by day, but even more beautiful by night. Click on any photo to enlarge.

    Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival
    Korean Launch
    Malaysian team interview
    Mannekin Pis
    "Spirited Away"
    Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival
    Ice Fantasy
    Ice Slide
    Running Repairs
    Its Brussels!
    Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival
    Chinese heritage & Conan
    Sound and Light
    Sculpting a platypus
    King Sejong

    Photo Gallery - Susukino:

    Sapporo Girls
    Sapporo girls. The Susukino Ice Queens.
    Susukino is the main nightlife and entertainment district of Sapporo City, and during the snow festival it hosts what is more or less an ice festival, with the emphasis on ice carving.

    The Susukino site is best seen at night - and if you head there in the evening of the opening day of the festival you can see the sculptors hard at work with everything from chisels and ice picks to chainsaws and other power tools. The sculptures in Susukino are different from most of those at the other 2 sites in that instead of being hand sculpted from boxes of pressed snow, they are carved using chain-saws and other power tools from stacks of 130 kilogram blocks of ice in a fascinating competition between the artists, the ice, and the clock. Although they start in the afternoon, it isn't until nightfall that the carvings take form, and in warm winters the artists usually wait until the colder temperatures of the evening before doing any detailed work.

    Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival
    Karaoke meets Ice
    The Baileys Bar
    Corporate sponsors
    Media coverage

    Sapporo Betsuin
    Sapporo Betsuin in Susukino
    The ice sculpture show is held on Ekimae-dori (the main street that leads through Susukino to Sapporo Station) on the blocks between South 7 and South 4. The street is closed to vehicular traffic. Apart from the more artistic sculptures, there is also a commercial aspect with an emphasis on fun.

    Many of the works are sponsored, so there are for example ice sculptures that contain real seafood such as salmon, oishii kani! cuttlefish and other delights. The Baileys booth (also made of ice) is something of an annual favorite. The businesses of Susukino are promoting the site and there are a range of events and attractions scheduled, including the Ice Queen girls, music, food promotions and so on, but also more traditional festival events revolving around the Shinto shrine called Sapporo Betsuin (a subsidiary shrine of the Toyokawa Inari in Aichi).

    Many of these sculptors are professional ice carvers, usually employed in making ice artwork for wedding receptions and other hospitality events - but they don't usually work outside like this and its rare to see so many at work racing the clock, the elements, and each other. Bring hot coffee and a camera. Click on any photo to enlarge.

    Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival
    Main street
    Has chainsaw, is artist
    Ice is heavy!
    Preparing to carve
    Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival
    Shinto shrine meets football mascot
    Completed winged horse
    (JRA) Racing Association promotion
    Swans on a pond

    Photo Gallery - Satorando/Satoland:

    Skiing on bamboo
    Why bamboo skiing isn't a good idea...
    Satorando replaced the Makomanai military base in 2006 as the third festival site, so there are no more security checks required for entry. Instead of soldiers, the snow slides and other attractions are put together by volunteers and community groups. Because of the giant slides, the base was always an extremely popular site for children and families, and the new Satorando site is just as kinderfreundlich as before, but there is a noticeable difference in that there are a wider range of activities, better facilities, and more things for adults without children to enjoy.

    In 2006 five soldiers from the JGSDF provided technical expertise and helped with logistical issues, but everything else has been dreamed up and built by community members. Students from the various universities in Sapporo who participate in the Yosakoi festival each summer, came up with the brilliant ice bar. In 2006 the Satorando site included hot air ballooning, snow golf, some beautiful sculptures including works by high school students, an absolutely gigantic tube slide, snow rafting, a popular and fairly enjoyable snow maze sponsored by the Royce chocolate company, plus a few other events including some cross-cultural exchanges and classes. Click on any photo to enlarge.

    Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival
    Yosakoi dances
    Giant snow tube slide
    Kids & Kamakura igloo
    "Oh my God!"
    Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival
    Snowman sentries
    The Royce Maze
    Overview of site
    Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival   Sapporo Snow Festival
    Carving cocktail glasses
    Kids arriving
    The Ice Bar cometh
    More snowmen

    Transport between the sites:

    Sapporo Snow Festival
    Making snow men
    Yamasa's advised route is to start at the Satorando site. Take the subway to Shindou Higashi or Asabu station, and when you get off the train follow the signs that will take you to the shuttle bus. There are volunteers available to assist. The shuttle buses run all day so it is easy to return. Take the train back to Odori to see the Odori Koen site and then walk to Susukino.

    Tips regarding the weather:

    The festival is held in Sapporo City in mid-winter. It is cold. Read that again. It is very cold. Unless there is a very early spring or abnormally warm winter, it should be about minus 4° Celsius or 25° on the Fahrenheit scale. Snowstorms are of course not uncommon. It is not really possible to enjoy the festival without spending a lot of time outdoors, so layer your clothing. Thermal underwear is a good investment. Make sure you have gloves or mittens, a warm hat, a hooded jacket (preferably windproof and water resistant). For footwear you need shoes that don't leak water, or preferably boots.

    Godzilla in Sapporo
    Godzilla destroys Sapporo
    Make sure that whatever you wear on your feet, that your footwear has good traction. There is ice on the roads, pavements, steps and just about every other surface in Sapporo in February. Almost everywhere you go is going to be slippery, and even the locals experience falls. You can easily obtain shoe spikes (either clip on or strap on) at the airport or JR Sapporo station, good shoe shops and even many of the souvenir shops, but for overall comfort boots are probably your best bet. If you arrive in Sapporo without good footwear, you may wish to visit an excellent outdoor shop called Shugakuso near "Kita-12-jou" (north street #12) station on the Nanboku (north south) subway line. They also run the Patagonia outlet just down the street.

    Accommodation and Fares:

    Book early. If you are after low-cost backpacker or other low budget accommodation then you will need to book very early. It is usually possible to book business hotel rooms 1 or 2 weeks prior to the start of the festival for around 6500-7000 yen per night (single room). Flying is the cheapest way after you factor in the extra cost of meals/time etc involved in travel by train or ferry. Most travel agents will also be able to sell airfare/hotel packages which are often quite affordable even if booked in January.

    Study in Sapporo - It is now possible to study Japanese in Sapporo either during the Sapporo Winter Japanese Course or the Sapporo Summer Japanese Program, including Study Tours.
    Click here for more information regarding studying Japanese in Sapporo.

    "Mirabilis" Satorando site 2006 Sapporo Snow Festival
    Tours - Japan Discovery visits the Sapporo Snow Festival.
    Click here for more information regarding when Discovery visits this destination.

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    Sapporo Snow Festival
    Ice bar kanpai - the best dry martini I've ever had for breakfast.
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    Opening hours, prices, booking procedures, schedules etc are subject to changes beyond our control. This site is just a guide, and we advise that you always check and confirm in advance. Suggestions, additions and correction of errors are always welcome. Please contact us.

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