OK, I`m finally getting around to writing about the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (Sapporo City Snow Festival) up in Hokkaido, the northern most prefecture of Japan. One reason for the delay is that I lost my camera, AGAIN, while skiing in Nagano. But that`s next week`s topic.
I have a tendency to do things on the spur of the moment. This trip was no different. I really REALLY wanted to go to Hokkaido to see the festival, since it`s the largest snow festival in the world and my last year in Japan. It`s famous for giant snow and ice sculptures, as well as all kinds of free winter sports and events like skiing, sledding, skating, free concerts by celebrities, etc. I had thought it impossible to attend, since I can`t take off work in the middle of the week and the following weekend I needed to go to the Japanese Exchange Teachers` Christian Fellowship Conference. So I had resigned myself to the fact that I could not go, until some friends told me they were going the weekend before. I can`t go with them, but what a great idea! I innocently thought. I`ll beat the crowds.
So I bought my extremely expensive package tickets for flights to and from Hokkaido, two nights in a hotel with free breakfasts and two days at the festival. I arrived Friday night all stoked, checked into my nice hotel and enjoyed an excellent first-class breakfast of smoked salmon, crochet, eggs, etc, I headed out to the first location of the festival, Tsudome (Sapporo Community dome). I beat the crowds all right. I also beat the festival. I got there just as they were beginning to set everything up. I couldn`t go down any of the free snow slides, go inside the snow maze, or go skiing, skating, sledding etc. I got to watch the beginnings of a few snow sculptures, but most hadn`t even been started yet. Quite a disappointment. At least I got to see the beginnings of the 100 snowmen in the field when I left; there were about twenty-five of them so far. So I headed on to the Odori park site, where I met up with someone I had talked to over the Internet, a graduate student named Tom. We wandered the park together, and fortunately there was more to see there. Most folks were about 3/4ths of the way done when we got there. Here`s a row of them, though sorry you can`t see it that well. Like I said, I lost my camera the following week, so all of these are from my I-phone:
None of these statues are by professionals; they`re all companies, organizations, and families who get together with a huge block of snow and chisel away at it until they get the image they want. Sometimes they just do cartoon characters they like. Here`s some of those:
Here`s Luigi, from the famous Nintendo game franchise, Mario Brothers:
This fellow is from the famous anime, One Piece. He also happens to be a rabbit (I think), so there were lots of sculptures of him, since the Chinese New Year was just a few days before and it`s now the Year of the Rabbit. (Say good bye to the tiger, my year.)
A Mr. Potato Head:
Sometimes the sculpture is made to promote the group that makes it. For example, here`s one by I think a parenting organization. You see the child is crying and the mother is comforting him:
Here`s one by a heart association:
Some architects from the local university:
Some students of a professor who got the Nobel Prize in chemistry:
They say anyone can make the snow sculptures, no matter how unskilled you are. Here`s some girls making flowers for one of them:
The largest sculpture, a reproduction of the Temple of Heaven in China, built by the Japanese National Guard, was totally complete by the time we got there. Now that was something to see! Imagine a giant building made entirely of snow. Not an igloo. An actual temple with all the detail of the original.
This is not my picture, it comes directly for the festival`s official website: http://www.snowfes.com/english/
Tom had to leave around 3:00, so I went into the oldest European-style building (the old courthouse, now a museum) in Sapporo by myself. Here it is:
There, seeing some pictures of the real festival, I realized I would really like to stay through Monday, the first real day of the festival with all the illuminations and fun stuff actually open, but when I called the Japanese travel agency I booked through, they said I couldn`t extend my stay. Oh, well. Inside the old building there wasn`t anything special, though I did meet a famous Hokkaido artist who`s name I can`t remember for the life of me. I also heard a practice for a concert by an erhu player (Chinese two-stringed violin). Musicians often say the European violin was invented to imitate the human voice. Not entirely true. The European violin was invented to imitate the WESTERN voice, just as the Chinese two-stringed violin was made to imitate the Asian voice. It has a very tight, warbly, nasaly sound, just as the European violin has a very open, precise, pure tone. I`ve sometimes heard people substitute the Chinese stringed instruments for the European versions and vice versa, and when the substituted instrument is used in a solo capacity, it works, sometimes to very good effect. (Five tunes heard in China for cello comes to mind, as well as a few songs that use a Chinese violin in the melody, with European instruments as the supporting framework.) But when incorporating them into a symphony, (Chinese violins among European violins for example), or mixing and matching for vocal pieces, it usually does not go over well due to tuning and style issues.
After that little concert, I headed back toward my hotel and saw the third site of the festival, Susukino street where all the ice sculptures were being made. It was around 5:30, so the sun had set. Very few were done when I got there. Here`s a pretty peacock, again not mine but a festival website picture:
A giant glass of the famous Sapporo beer:
And an aquarium full of fish:
They start out with a block of ice and use a chain saw to get it the way they want.
Then I wandered the colorful streets for awhile until I came to ramen (Chinese noodle) ally. There I ate some amazing salmon eggs and delicious miso ramen, famous throughout Hokkaido. I never liked salmon eggs or ramen before, but that was one of the best meals I`ve ever had in Japan. Unfortunately, some of the Chinese patrons were smoking, so I got a splitting headache and decided to go to bed early. I got to my hotel about 8:00 and crashed.
I was really surprised by the number of Chinese tourists, but I suppose I shouldn`t have been. It was their New Year, so they all had off from work, and Hokkaido is the closest place to Beijing that isn`t China, so lots of Chinese that want to travel abroad go there, especially to see the free, famous Sapporo festival. There were lots of snow sculptures celebrating the new "year of the rabbit" and everywhere I went I heard people speaking Madarin. I felt kind of bad for them, though, because the Japanese don`t really treat them very nice. There were a lot of them on the plane and they didn`t get a translation of anything. The flight attendants wouldn`t talk to them in Mandarin, only in English which they didn`t understand, and didn`t get them water when they asked for it. One Japanese guy I met in front of the Temple of Heaven sculpture who was married to a Canadian was grumbling to me about how many Chinese there were and how awful it was that the Japanese had to cater to them and for the sculpters to be making reproductions of their buildings instead of Japanese ones. (Despite the fact that some Chinese were standing right there listening and they might have been able to understand English.) Maybe the Japanese think the Chinese are loud and rude, but I find them refreshing. They don`t bow and act polite all the time; they`re friendly. I can usually strike up a conversation with them, even if it`s in broken Mandarin/English/Japanese. The following day, I met three guys from Taiwan (yes, I know that`s not China; they quickly corrected me about that, but they were nice about it) who were studying at Hokkaido university. They said they were Han Chinese in ethnicity, culture and language but just not politically. I can see why that`s an important distinction to them. I like everything about China too except the politics. That and they tend to smoke and drink too much in public places, but that goes for most Asian countries and some European ones too.
Sunday morning after a nice breakfast of eggs and curry, I headed for hitsujigaoka, or "sheep hill." I thought it would be lovely to see the snowy white mountains covered in sheep, but it was not to be. The sheep were all in their pens for the winter. The scenery was still nice, though, and I tried out some free cross-country skiing. It was really hard. The food was good, Hokkaido ice cream and pudding, and Genghis Khan lamb wrap. After that, I wanted to go to the world-famous Asahikawa zoo, but it was two hours there and two hours back, so I just went to the local Maruyama zoo, which was really bad. They had only two interesting things, a baby seal that liked to sit up in the shallow tank and watch passerby and some jack ass penguins (I`m not swearing; that`s their real name because they bray like donkies). You have to see it to believe it. Here`s a link to a video of them:
But that`s it. The cages were too small, the animals obviously neglected, and it started snowing like nobody`s business. It was a total waste of money. Furthermore, I did something really stupid; I got the last bus to the airport, and didn`t realize it would take an hour and a half to get there. When I arrived, I had twenty-five minutes before take off. I had to rush through check in, security, and sprint to my gate. I got there just as they were closing the door. And that was my trip to Hokkaido.
So a word to the wise: If you think it would be smart to go to a famous festival a day or two early so you can beat the crowds, it`s not really worth it. And Hokkaido is very, very cold in the winter time, even wearing four layers of clothes, colder than Beijing was last year. If you don`t like cold, avoid it in the winter. You think I would have been able to figure that out without going there, but I can be really stubborn at times. I get an idea in my head and it`s very hard for anything besides another person to detour me. Next time I will seek out another`s advice.
Next time, I`ll write about my trip to Nagano last weekend, which was much more awesome!
Until then, keep praying and loving, no matter what the cost,