This year marks the 65th annual Sapporo Snow Festival, an annual winter event held in Hokkaido’s capital city of Sapporo that showcases spectacular snow and ice sculptures. The Sapporo Snow Festival spans seven days in the beginning of February, with this year’s festivities lasting from February 5th to February 11th. The festival began back in 1950 in Odori Park, which hosted only six snow sculptures made by local high school students. Despite its modest origins, the festival has since grown in popularity, making it one of Japan’s primary winter destinations. Approximately two million people attend the festival each winter, drawing people from all over the archipelago, and it attracts more and more international visitors every year.
Sapporo has three festival sites located in Odori Park, Susukino, and the grounds at Community Dome Tsudome. Odori Park is the main location at 1.5 kilometers long, and presents the largest and most elaborate snow sculptures. It features larger-than-life recreations of everything from ornate architectural marvels to adored Japanese characters like Totoro and Luffy from One Piece, with some sculptures measuring more than 25 meters wide and 15 meters high. The Odori site also exhibits more than a hundred smaller snow statues and includes various food stands, activities like ice skating, and several live performances that often use the sculptures as their stage. Sapporo TV Tower, the 147 meter-high tower located in Odori Park, also serves as a valuable resource for festival visitors because its observation deck offers an incomparable view of the festival grounds.
The Susukino site is located just a single subway stop away from the main location. The site boasts a street-long display of dozens of intricate ice sculptures of things like people, animals, and even mythical creatures. And finally there is the Tsudome site, which is less centrally located but includes more family-oriented activities such as snow slides, snow rafting and more snow sculptures. This year’s festival is expected to include a total of 199 statues distributed between the three sites.
Although the Sapporo Snow Festival is the most well-known and heavily trafficked, it is not the only snow festival held in Hokkaido during the cold winter month of February. I wanted to mention the Snow Light Path Festival in particular, held in the small port city of Otaru and only a short 30-minute train ride from the main site in Sapporo. The Otaru Festival occurs around the same time as Sapporo’s – this year’s dates are from February 7 to February 16 – so visitors can easily attend both festivals, and many often do. Its scope is significantly smaller, however, with only two main festival areas: the Unga Kaijo area located along the iconic Otaru Canal, and the Temiyasen Kaijo area along the tracks of the abolished Temiyasen railway line, both within walking distance of the train station.
What the Otaru festival lacks in extravagant feats of snow and physics, it more than makes up for in atmosphere and a glowing sense of wonder. At the main site you follow a literal path, surrounded by tall rows of packed snow, with shining snow sculptures guiding the way. Lanterns fashioned from snow and ice litter the ground and trees, as well as illuminating from within the snow walls themselves. Some of the walls even feature hidden sculptures of things like stars, owls, and mini snowmen. It’s also common for restaurants and businesses in the city to contribute to the festival by placing snowmen and snow lanterns outside their storefronts.
While on spring break from studying at Soka University in Japan last year, I had the opportunity to travel to Hokkaido and attend both the Sapporo Snow Festival and the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival with a few of my friends, and it ended up being one of the best and most memorable experiences of my entire stay in Japan. All of the photos I’ve included are ones I took from both festivals in 2013. If you ever find yourself in Japan during the month of February, I highly recommend you make a trip to the Sapporo and Otaru festivals and experience these winter wonderlands for yourself. Though be sure to bring your warmest winter clothing along because Hokkaido in the winter is unbearably cold!
P.S. Interested in the snow sculpture process? Check out the step by step explanation here on the Sapporo Festival website.