What’s cooler than being cool? The Sapporo Snow Festival! This annual festival is a magical winter wonderland up in the cold distant north, a bonanza of whimsical concoctions constructed from a frozen substrate. Wander amongst enormous snow and ice sculptures, including almost life-sized buildings, recreations of palaces, castles, and famous monuments. Tuck into toasty warming victuals, and get a taste of Japan’s northernmost island.
Before you go
The main thrust of the 2017 festival is being held from February 6th to the 12th, with the Tsudome (kids play area with snow slides and snow rafting) site open an extra week (Feb 1st-12th). Sapporo books out relatively quickly during this time, with around 2 million visitors coming to the festival annually. It’s best to score tickets and accommodation early if you want to attend at a reasonable price. Additionally, if you’re able to arrive a few days before the week begins or leave a few days after it ends, you may save a packet on airfare. We recommend going early, if possible, since the sculptures are at their most beautiful at the beginning of the week; some of them can begin to look a bit melted and dirty by the end.
The easiest way to get to Sapporo from Tokyo is to fly to Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport, 45 kilometers outside of the city. The cheapest tickets tend to be on Airdo (rhymes with hairdo), Hokkaido’s low-cost carrier. At the time of writing, advance tickets during festival week were going for as little as 10,000 yen each way. Other low cost carriers such as Skymark and Jetstar also serve the city, as well as the regular gouge-your-eyes-out expensive ANA and JAL. Check out our Tokyo to Sapporo travel article for more info on flying cheap.
|Tokyo => Sapporo||Jetstar Japan||¥5,324 (US$49)||Details|
|Tokyo => Sapporo||Vanilla Air||¥5,909 (US$55)||Details|
|Tokyo => Sapporo||Skymark Airlines||¥9,691 (US$89)||Details|
|Tokyo => Sapporo||ANA (All Nippon Airways)||¥12,554 (US$115)||Details|
It’s also possible to take the train from Tokyo (from around 25,000 yen one way using sleeper or bullet trains), although the Seishun 18 ticket is not valid during this period. And if you fancy a spot of adventure, there’s a ferry from Oarai in Ibaragi to Tomakomai in Hokkaido for as cheap as 9,000 yen one-way—although there’s a bit of a hike on either end to get from the port to the city.
Where to stay
There are lots of budget options in Sapporo, but again be warned: rooms fill quickly during this season so it’s best to act fast. For the young at heart, there are several hostels in town: try Sapporo House Youth Hostel or Ino’s Place for a dorm bed starting around 3,500 yen a night or Social Hostel 365 starting at 3,650 yen.
For the less claustrophobic but more privacy inclined, get your own coffin-sized pod at capsule hotels, which go for about the same price and are likely to be cleaner, if more sterile. Two to check are Nikoh Refre (men only) and Safro (men and women ok). Both have big spa baths/saunas.
What to bring
Layers! Baby, it’s cold outside! Don’t forget your gloves, mittens, hats, scarves, long johns/thermal underwear, thick warm socks, and boots with good tread. The ice can be forbidding and if you’re not careful you’ll soon be slip slidin’ away. Also pack or buy hokkairo (the little chemical hand warmer packets, or else the rechargeable type), tissues for runny noses, a camera for the wonders you’ll behold, and pocket change for the various delicious street food snacks (canned coffee is never so delicious as in frozen Hokkaido).
What to see
The Sapporo Snow Festival is held in three major areas: the park blocks around Odori Koen host the greatest number of sculptures, including the massive building-sized ones, some of which are made by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, while others are created by businesses, international groups, or artists.
In the Susukino district, known for its nightlife, there is a smaller display of more intricate ice sculptures amidst the host bars, karaoke places, and whiskey/highball counters.
Finally, the Tsudome is a bit out of the city and has lots of snow play for both children and adults.
The first two sites are open 24 hours as they are places on public streets (though the lights will be turned off around 10 or 11 each night), but the Tsudome is only open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. All sites have extras like souvenir shops, refreshment stands, and ice bars alongside the displays. Entrance to the festival is free, though of course food and souvenirs cost extra.
Sapporo has a nice subway system and some charming street cars, but much of the city of 2 million is compact and walkable. In fact, unlike many Japanese cities, the streets are laid out in an easy-to-comprehend grid system, with block-shaped blocks and addresses like “North 2, West 6” which corresponds to the distance from the Odori Park Blocks and the Soseigawa Dori Park Blocks.
In addition, much of the center of town can be walked underground in a vast network of tunnels, many of which double as shopping arcades and connect to the subway stations. In a city that has snow on the ground more than half the year, this just makes so much sense, but from up top you wouldn’t necessarily realize that so much of the city is subterranean.
Be warned: if you must walk on the surface roads, they can be incredibly icy and slippery and even the most surefooted may find themselves splayed on the roadside. The Sapporo tourism bureau even recommends that people buy ice cleats (suberidome) for their shoes, with an attachable pair available at local shops for around 500 yen. You’ll also see what look like newspaper boxes filled with packets of rock salt, and citizens can help out by scattering this on the road as they cross.
What to eat
Hokkaido is famous for its agriculture, and supplies much of the rest of the country with vegetables, dairy, and other produce. You’ll find no shortage of delightful treats to warm your insides after braving the cold and crowds. Street snacks on offer at the festival include hot chocolate, steamy hot sake, baked jacket potatoes with dollops of Hokkaido butter, and toasty ears of roasted corn on the cob. For heartier fare, don’t forget to sample local specialties such as soup curry (vegetarian versions available at many Indian restaurants), corn butter ramen, and super fresh seafood, sushi, and crab, all washed down with Sapporo Beer or Nikka Whiskey, both brewed locally.
For a list of must-eats, see our Sapporo foodie guide.
What to take home
Perhaps you’re one who likes to leave only footprints, and take only pictures, and if so, good for you. For the rest of us, there are several special souvenirs that you might want to tuck into your pack for the folks back home.
There are several famous sweets makers in this town. The Ishiya company makes a popular cookie called Shiroi Koibito (“White Boyfriend”) that is made of a layer of white chocolate sandwiched between two thin butter cookies. There’s even a White Boyfriend Factory that doubles as a creepy toy museum where you can see them made.
The refined Rokkaitei company makes the famous Marusei Butter Sand, a sandwich cookie with a sweet butter filling studded with raisins. The company also makes lots of other beautiful treats with lovely flowered packaging.
The Royce’ (don’t ask us where they got that errant apostrophe) company makes nama (fresh) chocolates that are sought after not only in Japan but many other parts of Asia—these rich little truffle chocolate squares dusted with cocoa melt quickly in the mouth with a incredible velvet finish.
Finally, for those who want something that lasts a lot longer, Hokkaido is also home to the Marimokkori character—a little man made from algae with an erection, from a play on words where marimo means algae and mokkori is slang for a boner.