Field Report: Sapporo, Japan (06 February 2014) – Part 1/3

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The Sapporo Yuki Matsuri is a big annual event, and it has a giant footprint to match: no less than three large venues in different parts of Hokkaidō’s snowy capital. We’ll hit all three sites today, starting with a place that’s great fun for families.

Breakfast at the hotel was followed by a short stroll to Sapporo Station. From here, I took the subway to Sakaemachi Station, the northern terminus of the Tōhō Line. My destination was about 800 metres from the station, easily walkable in the right conditions – except that I wasn’t about to risk freezing to death or bashing my brains out if I were to slip on the icy pavements.

Fortunately, the festival planners had put on a special 100-yen shuttle bus service, thereby allowing the non-adventurous/non-suicidal sort of visitor (which I clearly was) to reach the venue safe and warm.

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Judging from the time, this would have been the first bus of the day, which explains why there was room to spare. If I’d waited until later, I expect we’d have been rammed into the vehicle like sardines in a tin.

The view outside the bus windows was of a city half-buried under snow . . .

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. . . and a city whose residents were clearly not about to let it ruin their day.

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After a short ride through streets cloaked in white, we were deposited at the entrance to the Tsu-Dome, a multi-purpose hall in northern Sapporo and the venue for some of the Yuki Matsuri’s most family-friendly attractions.

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The structure isn’t much to look at on its own, but the snow covering its roof and the icicles hanging from the edges lent it a certain otherworldly beauty.

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The festival site wasn’t due to open until 9 AM, so we cooled our heels (not that they needed much cooling) inside the lobby of the hall. Just outside one of the windows was a large snowman, which gave waiting families a decent photo-op from within the shelter of the building.

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Just after 9 AM, people began making their way back into the freezing (but thankfully sunny and snowfall-free) outdoors.

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The gates are open. Right, now for some fun!

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Unlike the Yuki Matsuri’s two other venues – which were essentially open-air art galleries showcasing ice carvings and snow sculptures (with some food, merchandising, and sports mixed in) – the Tsu-Dome site served primarily as a family-oriented activity centre. Here, it was less about admiring the snow and more about becoming one with the snow: a massive outdoor playground where kids of all ages can play with snow to their heart’s content.

Best of all, it’s possible to enjoy many of the attractions without paying a single yen.

Not that there weren’t any snow sculptures here – there were lots of them. But unlike the corporate/agency-sponsored behemoths we saw last night, these were mostly carved by ordinary citizens, which ties in well with this venue’s orientation towards hands-on wintertime fun.

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Let’s have a look at some of the attractions. I didn’t spend all that much time here, since the venue was geared more towards families and children – I just tried one activity (the Tube Slide), glanced at several others, then headed back. There were lots of other activity areas that aren’t shown in this post, including one (involving an inflatable boat pulled along a short course by a snowmobile) that I might have tried out had I known at the time that it existed. Not that I wouldn’t recommend coming to this site, in fact I do think it’s worth the trek, but I imagine parents with tots in tow will find much more to appreciate here than a solo traveller.

The first thing I headed for was the Tube Slide. Five lanes, ten metres high, a hundred metres long, and powered by a limitless revolving supply of inflatable rings. No need to explain what I did here, other than to say that it was a whole lot of fun.

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Not far away, a mini-steam locomotive chugged passengers around a circular track. The centrepiece of a giant hot-water kettle – modelled in snow of course – should come as no surprise, in view of the ride’s main sponsor. (Hint: look at the “passenger” perched on the end of the train.)

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Children were very well catered for with activities like smaller ice slides . . .

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. . . and a gentle slope where visitors can float down on bamboo skis.

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Speaking of children, it was readily apparent to me that they (and their families) were the main target of this particular Yuki Matsuri site. There were hordes of them everywhere, bundled up in thick winter garments and walking about like overstuffed, red-cheeked little sacks of fluff. It seems that kindergartens liked sending their pupils here: columns of tiny tots headed by adults (probably their teachers or guardians) were spreading out across the venue like an invading army of infants.

I recall two particularly cute episodes that took place just outside the parked bus I was waiting in, on my way back to downtown Sapporo. One was a young kid being pulled along in a sled by another young kid, a scene that made the two elderly women seated near me exclaim with delight. The other was the sight of two columns of what seemed like kindergartners marching towards each other, one approaching the Tsu-Dome and the other walking away from it. When the two groups met, the children started yelling “Konnichiwa!” to each other at the top of their shrill little voices. (The sort of thing that would make a talk-show audience sigh “Awww” in perfect unison – and the sort of thing that makes me regret not shooting a video and making a million dollars off it. Awww. In a sorrowful tone this time.)

Looming large over this frozen festival was the Tsu-Dome itself, looking like a spaceship stranded on an ice planet.

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Close up, it looked rather like an ice planet itself.

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And all around lay swathes of freshly laid snow, unmarred by footprints.

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Unremarkable, perhaps, for those living in northern latitudes who are used to the stuff (and who probably curse the days when it falls and causes chaos in the streets). For someone like me, born and reared in tropical climes, it was like something straight out of a dream.

Inside the shelter of the dome, more attractions and various promotional booths – as well as food stalls for the peckish – were ready to receive visitors in search of a warm break from the bitter cold outside. It was still fairly quiet in here (the site having opened just 40 minutes before), but it would probably have become quite packed later in the day as the people playing outside started freezing up and dashed indoors to thaw out.

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On my way out, I passed one booth that didn’t need a tout to catch my attention.

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As a train (and more specifically a JR) enthusiast, I’ve long looked forward to the day when I can board a shinkansen train at Tōkyō Station and step off, hours later but looking none the worse for wear, at Sapporo – without a single transfer along the way. The fulfillment of that dream is still about a couple of decades away, but in just a couple of years, we will be a few steps closer when the first section of the Hokkaidō Shinkansen opens for service as far as Hakodate.

But that’s all in the future. Right now, we’ve got a bus to catch – and more of the Yuki Matsuri to see.

To be continued.

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3 responses to “Field Report: Sapporo, Japan (06 February 2014) – Part 1/3

  1. Pingback: Field Report: Asahikawa, Japan (08 February 2014) | Within striking distance·

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

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

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