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Ice Sculptures and Frozen Fun at the Sapporo Snow Festival

By: Chris Willson

Date Posted: 2001-01-07

As a young boy in a family without a VCR or a games console I spent many of my winters days amusing myself by trying to make snowmen out of the half an inch of slushy snow that had fallen over night. By mid afternoon all I would have to show for my efforts would be a small ball of dirty snow, a pair of saturated mittens, which had started to smell funny and several battle scars from the neighbors inquisitive cat.

Even as a kid I knew there must be a place where a person could practice his inalienable right to build snowmen, where your creations wouldn’t have disappeared by 2 p.m. and where you could do all this without being mauled by anything of the feline or canine variety. It took me twenty years of looking but last winter I found it at the “Yuki Matsuri,” snow festival, Hokkaido, Japan.

In winter Hokkaido, Japan’s most northern main island is cold. Not just the “ooh I better put on a sweater cold,” but rather the “if I stay outside any longer my extremities will freeze up and fall off,” cold. It also snows a lot which may be why skinny teenagers that start shoveling snow in October end up looking like Schwarzenegger by April. The people of Hokkaido although regularly frozen and snowed in have a great love of the fluffy white powder. Every year for a week in early February they celebrate their passion at the Sapporo snow festival. Now world famous the festival attracts two million visitors and international artists which like to practice their craft in sub-zero temperatures.

The attractions are in three main areas, Suskino, Makomanai Park and Odori Park. Suskino is the neon lit amusement hub of Sapporo. Here people flock to see the stunning ice carvings. It is a place where ice sculptors can break free from the mundane work of small table decorations for weddings. Here they can show off their talents with projects ranging from an eagle snatching a salmon from a river to a ski jumper captured mid flight. Last winter there was also a somewhat bizarre exhibit of various kinds of fish frozen into blocks of ice. The blocks were then stacked giving the effect of a futuristic cryogenics lab for aquatic life.

The highlight of Makomanai Park were the ice slides, where proud mothers and fathers escort or carry their bundled up little ones to the top of a five meter shoot. After a few words of encouragement and or a firm push their child then glides happily to the bottom. After the first few children have been down, the ice surface becomes polished to an almost frictionless surface. The toddlers begin to fly down at speeds usually reserved for Italian sports cars while watched by surprisingly unperturbed onlookers. At the bottom of the slide stands a man with one of the world’s more stressful jobs. With his feet firmly planted in the snow he catches each child as they fly off the end of the slide. He then brushes off any residual snow from the kid before handing them over to their beaming parents completing what I guess may be a rite of passage for every Hokkaido under five.

Odori Park is where the main attractions are and the biggest crowds. It might be difficult to see the sculptures if they were smaller but even in a crowd it’s difficult to miss a carving of a whale when it’s the size of a bus. Sculptures ranged from huge buildings to an eight-foot high likeness of Pikachu the Pokemon. For me all other exhibits paled in comparison with the dinosaurs. Standing high over the crowds were two icy behemoths. One was a snarling T-Rex while the other looked like the loch ness monster after a dose of anabolic steroids and a bad day at the office. The sculptors obviously had no problems with lack of snow even the elements seemed to be on their side. The midday sun was just warm enough to melt a fraction of the snow off the dinosaurs’ heads. Moments later the droplets of water refroze as icy beads of drool on their teeth and lips making the giants seem to be salivating as the tiny people scuttled by beneath them.

In the shadow of T-Rex I made my snowman. It wasn’t much more than three large snowballs and the M&M eyes were slightly askew but I knew it would stay frozen their for days and there wasn’t a cat in sight.

This year the Sapporo Snow festival will be from the 6th to the 12th of February. Direct flights are available with ANA and JAL from Naha to Sapporo Chitose Airport.

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