Field Report: Sapporo, Japan (05 February 2014)

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Sapporo. Snow. Wow. (And that’s all I really need to say.)

I had an amazing time on the first night of the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri, though I can only offer a few photographs to illustrate today’s post. I’ve travelled in winter before but never in a place this cold or snowy, and I found myself dealing with two enemies: one, occasional bursts of wind-driven snow that made me reluctant to expose my camera and its sensitive lens for extended periods (generally I’d pull it out only during moments when the snowfall slackened); two, the bitter chill that forced me to don two pairs of gloves and made operating the camera very tricky indeed. We’ll have more images in the next day’s post, where I benefited from being better prepared and from visiting all 3 venues of the festival in different parts of Sapporo (tonight was just the Ōdōri site).

After spending part of the morning at Kiyosumi Teien, I made my way to the domestic terminal of Haneda Airport.

05Feb14 Tokyo Haneda 002

Check-in only took a few minutes, so there was plenty of time for lunch. I popped into a place specialising in Sanuki udon and sat down to a light meal (well, light by my standards anyway) of tororo udon and a jumbo inarizushi.

05Feb14 Tokyo Haneda 001

Mm, that udon was quite good. I could get used to eating the thick, squarish Sanuki variety – nice firm texture and very filling.

Today’s flight was All Nippon Airways NH 965, bound for New Chitose Airport (Sapporo’s main air gateway). I had originally considered taking a series of trains all the way there – the cheapest option by far as my Japan Rail Pass would have covered the whole thing – but at roughly 10 hours long it wasn’t a journey I looked forward to enduring. After learning of ANA’s Experience Japan Fare – just 10,500 yen per leg (due to rise slightly from April 2014), to virtually any destination within the country – I decided that it would be worth paying extra to cover the distance in less than 90 minutes.

Here’s today’s route.

There’s not enough material for a full flight report as the experience was pretty unremarkable all around. Let’s just sketch out what happened and move on.

Our bird was a B777-200 – clean and well-maintained as per Japanese standards, but clearly showing its age. Even the business class seats seemed like they were long overdue for retirement, with their last-generation design and ancient-looking control panels.

05Feb14 NH 965 HND CTS 001

Interestingly, the seats in the economy section (my part of the plane on this flight) looked better than the ones in the forward cabin. Might be due to the nice, slim profile and the contemporary look of the upholstery.

05Feb14 NH 965 HND CTS 002

This domestic flight was only about 1.5 hours long, so those of us in cattle class were only served beverages. (Apple juice for me.) I can’t recall if we were given nuts or something else to nibble on, but I doubt it, and in any case it wouldn’t have been necessary.

The conveyor at New Chitose Airport took a while before it started spitting out our baggage. After retrieving mine, I donned my heavy-duty winter gear and made my way to the JR station connected to the terminal building, from where I caught the rapid service train to Sapporo.

There isn’t much to say about the next couple of hours or so: ride the train, get off the train, get a taste of the freezing cold on the platform, struggle across the icy pavements to my hotel (thankfully not that far from Sapporo Station – but man, was it a cold walk!), check in, dump luggage all over the place.

Right, so much for that.

Now then, we all know what I came here for – and tempting as it was to stay in the heated confines of my hotel room, I wasn’t about to waste the evening watching game shows on the telly. A short one-station hop on the subway system’s Tōhō Line brought me to the eastern end of Ōdōri Kōen: a long, narrow strip of green that runs for about one and a half kilometres through the heart of Sapporo.

Well, green for much of the year anyway. Today it was a long, narrow strip of white.

It’s a very long venue – you’ll need to drag the map along several times before the other end shows up. The perfect setting for the biggest event on Sapporo’s 2014 calendar: the 65th Yuki Matsuri.

And when I say big, I mean big. The festival runs for seven days each February, during which hordes of visitors – more than 2.3 million in 2013 – pour into the event’s 3 venues, each located in a different part of the city and featuring its own unique set of attractions. Massive quantities of snow and ice are brought in to create nearly 200 sculptures, an undertaking so huge that troops from the Northern Army of Japan’s Ground Self-Defence Forces are brought in to help with the preparations.

Speaking of visitors, the fact that millions of people are in town for the festival is something one clearly feels not only in the venues themselves, but elsewhere in the city – including transport hubs like Sapporo Station and New Chitose Airport. If you’re planning to attend one of the event’s future iterations, I highly recommend preparing for massive queues and long waits, especially for trains and flights. Book accommodations as far in advance as possible, because unless you’ve got a sky-high budget it will be very difficult to find reasonably-priced rooms as the date marches closer. (I arranged mine well beforehand, and even then I had to switch hotels mid-trip because my first choice was booked out for the last couple of nights I was in Sapporo.)

Coming up from the subway station, one of the first major sights I came across was a large ice sculpture . . .

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. . . which formed the backdrop for a stage where performances were underway.

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People took turns to hammer out tunes on an electric organ, within the safety of an enclosed (and presumably heated) booth. This girl was really good – I didn’t recognise the piece she was playing but it sounded like something out of a game or anime series.

05Feb14 Sapporo Yuki Matsuri Odori Night 001

From here, I walked westwards to see the rest of the attractions. Ice carvings (like the one below) were present, although the Ōdōri site is known mainly for giant snow sculptures. (We’ll visit another site tomorrow evening where ice is the medium of choice.)

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Not surprisingly, major brands were in place to promote their products. This tent was being used by Suntory to showcase one of their tipples. (I took a peek but passed on the tasting; apart from the occasional glass of wine I’m not really a fan of alcohol.)

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For those after something more solid to warm up on, food stalls set up along the paths were ready to help out.

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They don’t do half-measures here – even the smoking room was decked out in winter finery.

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Further along the park, on the 3-chōme block, Ishiya – makers of that supremely scrupmtious Sapporo speciality, Shiroi Koibito – had sponsored a 60-metre long, 24-metre tall snow jump. Snowboarders (many of them just teenagers) were out in force, their skills and spills on full display for the cheering crowds gathered below.

05Feb14 Sapporo Yuki Matsuri Odori Night 009

On the 4-chōme block was the first of the giant “national” sculptures. This one represented Taiwan.

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The 5-chōme block featured one of the festival’s landmark sights: an enormous snow sculpture titled “Winter Sports Paradise, Hokkaidō!”, with a theme chosen to commemorate the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the upcoming 2017 Sapporo Asian Winter Games. This was a contribution of several units from the Japan Ground Self-Defence Forces.

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I wish I could get a better shot; alas, as one of the festival’s main attractions, it had attracted a sizeable crowd and prime vantage points were long taken.

A large collection of food and souvenir shops were clustered on the 6-chōme block. The 7-chōme block had a Malaysia-themed snow sculpture (no photo from tonight, but I have a shot of it taken on a different day so we’ll see it in due course).

The 8-chōme block had one of the best “national sculptures” in the park. On its own, the snow replica of India’s Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah was nice enough, though nothing spectacular (we’ll see it “at rest” during the daytime in a future post). But tonight, the darkness offered the perfect opportunity for an incredible light-and-sound show projected onto the sculpture, easily one of the best such performances I’ve seen.

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I really regret not shooting a video of the whole thing; it was that good. The images were so precisely plotted onto the structure that the white edifice seemed so explosively alive – at one point it was covered in a projection that made it look as if it had been coated with shimmering gold leaf.

There was lots more to see – and we’ll get a glimpse of them in an upcoming post – but for the moment, I was satisfied with what I’d seen so far. Besides, the park seemed to stretch on forever (in fact, it goes on for another 4 blocks after 8-chōme) and with the bitter cold I felt that a bit of rest was in order. I called it a night and returned to my hotel.

No worries, we’ll be back – and we’ll even swing by the two other venues.

To be continued.

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2 responses to “Field Report: Sapporo, Japan (05 February 2014)

  1. Pingback: Field Report: Sapporo, Japan (06 February 2014) – Part 3/3 | Within striking distance·

  2. Pingback: Field Report: Sapporo, Japan (06 February 2014) – Part 2/3 | Within striking distance·

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