About This Festival
The origins of the Sapporo Snow Festival date back to 1950, when a half-dozen local high school students got together and built a half-dozen snow statues in Odori Park. This sort of activity is historically commonplace in the winter on the island of Hokkaido because of its typically heavy snowfalls. A few years later, in 1955, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, viewing participation as a training exercise, came from a nearby base and built sculptures. Their participation continues to this day. However, in 1972, Sapporo hosted the Winter Olympics—its location as Japan’s northernmost island blesses its landscape with lots of snow and skiing opportunities. The Olympic games introduced Sapporo’s Snow Festival to the rest of the world. The festival now averages about 2 million visitors per year, most of them Japanese; a tiny 3 percent visits from the rest of the world, including Asia.
Sapporo Snow Festival - Why Go?
The staging of nearly 400 spectacular ice and snow sculptures is what draws visitors to the 12-block stretch of Odori Park, home to much of the action and the majority of sculpture activity. During the day, stroll and watch the artists at work, carving up everything from life-size renderings of animals and historical monuments, temples and buildings (Taj Mahal), to scenes of Japanese life, manga characters, internationally recognizable cartoon characters, religious icons (life-sized Ganesha, anyone?) and mazes you can walk through.
In the past, native son and baseball player Hideki Matsui found himself famously rendered in sculpture form after he left Japan for the New York Yankees. The participants who create these works of art come from Japan and around the world. At night, contemporary Japanese artists take the stage at Odori against the backdrop of an illuminated, magical landscape. In the past, renditions of historic and famous buildings such as the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall have been given the icy treatment and lit up.
Throughout the streets and at all three sites, you won’t go hungry. You’ll find plenty of native eats to sample, from noodle dishes and ramen to fresh seafood such as oysters grilled and served on the half shell and soup curry, along with veggies such as potatoes and corn. If you are pining for a switch, there’s even an international food court at your disposal. Burn it all off just by walking in the cold, donning ice skates and doing a few laps at the rink or if you want something more adventurous, you can bushwalk on skis on a special course set up in the park.
Other Sapporo Snow Festival Locations, Other Fun
The main action is concentrated in Odori, but check out Susukino, the nightlife district, a ten-minute walk or one subway stop south of Odori. Here, you’ll predominantly find ice carvings. It’s also where the International Snow Sculpture Contest began in 1974, and Sapporo’s sister cities, Portland, Oregon; Munich Germany; Shenyang, China; Novosibirsk, Russia; and Daejeon, South Korea, have been consistent participants. It’s also the site of the Susukino Queen of Ice beauty contest: the queen must be a city resident, and the local tourism office bestows the crown.
The other spot for winter fun is Tsu Dome, a remote spot northwest of Odori, best accessed by train. Tsu Dome is the place to go to interact with and experience the snow firsthand; it’s also the most family-friendly spot. Hop on a snow tube and go ice sliding, or grab a raft and brave the cold on your face as you get pulled by a snowmobile. Or take in the spectacle of winter sports at their competitive best and watch the acrobatics of snowboarders and ski jumpers soaring in the air.
Warming Up and Fueling Up in the Cold
It wouldn’t be a festival in Sapporo without its namesake beer, Japan’s oldest premium brew, which is widely available. At Tsu Dome, duck inside under the dome itself for some relief from the weather–you’ll find food vendors, a traditional crafts market, and an ice bar serving hot sake. Kids can scamper around in an indoor snow playground. Or head to nearby Sapporo Beer Garden, not far from Odori, and warm yourself from the inside out, sipping the city’s brew and dining on fresh lamb and crab. It’s situated in an historic, high-ceilinged building.
Remember to dress in layers and pack all essential cold weather gear. Festivalgoers seek out disposable automatic handwarmers (kairo), widely available at drug and convenience stores, along with public kiosks in train and subway stations.