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Exploring the Sapporo Snow Festival

Sapporo snow festival
The Sapporo Snow Festival is an incredible winter wonderland of all things snow & ice. Spread across 3 huge sites it's the biggest winter festival in Japan so here are a few tips for getting the most out of your visit.

The Sapporo Snow Festival is amazing!  It was my first time in snow and I was a bit over whelmed by just how much snow there is in Sapporo and how soft and fluffy it is.  Maybe I was imagining a snow cone all icy and crunchy but I really hadn’t expected it to be so dry and well … powdery.  The Sapporo Snow Festival is the biggest winter festival in Japan and will bring in Sapporo’s biggest crowds of the year when it gets underway again from the 6th to 12th February 2017.  Around 2 million people are expected to rock up again this year for this winter festival.

The three sites of the Sapporo Snow Festival

The festival is located over three sites in Sapporo so while it’s good to stay centrally it’s not absolutely essential as you’ll be heading out to different spots anyway.  Something to keep in mind that I didn’t appreciate on our first visit is that what is a really easy walking distance normally isn’t an easy walk in snow.  Unless you are staying right near Odori Park you will probably use the subway for one or two stops.

Sapporo Footpaths

 Odori Park

Your first spot you’ll probably hit up is the centrally located Odori park.  It’s really impressive and runs right through the middle of town for 12 city blocks or 1.5 kilometres.  This is the main venue and hosts internationally themed snow and ice carvings, lots of food stands called yatai, an ice bar, skating rink, an air jump ski ramp, live entertainment and ice slides for the children.  There is so much to do here and when you need to warm up or take a break duck down one of the many sets of subway stairs and you’ll find yourself in huge warm shopping malls with loads of cafes, restaurants and bars.

Sapporo snow sculpture

sapporo-2

Given that smoking is still very socially acceptable in Japan I did find it a bit surprising that the festival had a dedicated smoking area, I didn’t go inside but even if you were a pack a day smoker I imagine being relegated to the ice out-house could make you think twice.  Or perhaps they were reinforcing the message that smoking is still ‘cool’?

Sapporo-3

Several of the larger snow carvings had stages for music and other entertainment.  The taiko drumming on the Lion King stage was one of the most popular.

Sapporo snow festival

 Susukino

The Susukino site is all about ice. There are dozens of ice sculptures, an ice slide if you’re so inclined, the festivals lovely ice queens who must have been freezing and a sparkly ice tunnel.

Susukino ice festival

Really bad selfie but the tunnel of lights and reflections on the snow on the ground was so pretty.

Susukino ice festival
Susukino ice festival

So just to clarify it is a SNOW festival and the weather is a bit variable.  Mostly we had a dull sky but no actual snow although there were a few squalls that come through that were quite intense like this one.  Best thing to do is head inside for a hot drink or a bowl of noodles and it’ll likely be over by the time you’re done.  Sapporo makes the best ramen all buttery and naughty but well you need to stay warm don’t you.  Also you’ll find many of the shopping and eating malls are underground.  They are well heated too so it’s easy to thaw out and get toasty warm again.

 Tsudome

The Tsudome site has loads of fun things mostly focused around active and interactive activities for the children.  So of course I LOVED it.  We didn’t stay as long at this venue but you don’t want to miss out either.  There were a couple of local school trips on the midweek day that we went too, oh so cute.

Tsudome site
Tsudome site

Traditional skiing with a rope attached to your narrow bamboo ski’s is at the more skilled end of the spectrum.  A few  children were giving it a try but this young man was one of the few who was getting any distance.  He just would not give up, I think we might see him ski for Japan one day.  The snow slide on the other hand was super popular and every child seemed happy to queue to give that a go.  I wanted to try but there were only children on it.  Without being about to converse in Japanese or read it I couldn’t work out if there was an age limit or whether adults in Japan are just a little more conservative about participating in that sort of thing.

Tsudome site

The big slide was also quite popular and at this one they gave you an inflatable tyre for some cushioning to protect your butt.

Tsudome site

And finally a math puzzle for the junior school, how many children can you fit in an igloo?

Tips for surviving in the snow for those not used to it

Dressing for the cold

If you aren’t used to the this much snow then it does pay to dress for it.  A good warm jacket is essential, hat, gloves, wool socks and thermals were a good idea but I just layered those with my normal clothes.  Either tights or thermals under my jeans, a thermal under my top and a warm ski jacket.  What surprised me most my first time in this sort of climate was that I didn’t feel cold.  In fact I felt uncomfortably hot more often than the chill.  There are so many underground shopping malls, restaurants and arcades and they are all kept toasty warm.  Each time I descended the steps I’d start stripping layers and with the thermals underneath I still couldn’t really get cool enough.

Kairo heat packs

If you do feel cold and want to stay outside exploring then the pharmacy’s and dollar stores sell little hot packs.  They are single use items that you activate and put in your pockets or where ever you want them and they generate a comfortable warmth for several hours.  They were really cheap, if you can’t spot them on the shelf just ask for kairo.  I hadn’t come across these before our first trip to Japan but oh my goodness I am their biggest fan now.

And a random tip, probably best not to ride a bike in these temperatures.  Seriously!

Bikes in the snow

Footwear in the ice and snow

Do make sure you pack boots with non skid soles.  I had one very lucky escape when crossing the road in Otaru just outside Sapporo.  There was a collective gasp all around me as I flailed my arms around, fortunately I regained my balance before hitting the icy ground or skittering everyone else on the crossing.  It shook me up, I’d thought I’d been careful but living in such a warm climate I wasn’t used to slippery ground and my boots in honesty weren’t built for it. They call it black ice I believe, you can’t see it but it’s a slippery sucker.

You can buy bands that wrap around your footwear called Suberi Dome in train stations if your vanity allows.  They give more traction or you can walk like a penguin with short steps and your arms low at your side ready to take on your surfer pose to save yourself at any moment.

All the information you need to plan your visit to the Sapporo Snow Festival held in Japan every February
All the information you need to plan your visit to the Sapporo Snow Festival held in Japan every February

Sapporo Snow Festival Information

Getting to the various sites of the Sapporo snow festival is easy, exit the subway at either Odori or Susukino and you can’t miss the festival right outside.  For Tsudome there are a couple of options.  Buses run between the sites for a few hundred yen but they can be a little cramped.  We preferred taking the subway to Sakaemachi and it’s a 10 minute walk (or shuttle bus)  from there.  There are so many volunteers waiting to make sure you head off in the right direction it’s impossible to get lost!

And a final tip, if your itinerary allows for it.  Try to see the Odori Park and Susukino sites in both day time and lit up at night.  It’s a quite different experience and like most of Japan it’s very safe at night even in the subways.

For all your detail planning around this years specific displays, teams, events and entertainment check out the official site.

And finally if you have a day or evening free there are a couple of other snow festivals in Hokkaido where the timing overlaps with the Sapporo one.  We got out to the Otaru Snow Light Path festival.  It’s a smaller community event but that adds a different element and we enjoyed it just as much.

Have you been to a Japanese festival?  If you were in Japan during winter would you travel to see the Sapporo snow festival?

Sapporo snow festival in Japan
Sapporo Snow Festival in Japan

27 Comments

    • Hi Dee, I wouldn’t specifically recommend our hotel, there was nothing wrong with it but we booked late so it was a case of finding something as close as possible to the city centre that wasn’t booked out and not ridiculously overpriced 🙂 The room was very small, we’ve made a number of visits all round Japan and the room was small compared to all the others we have stayed in there so I think being during the festival you got a lot less for your money. Also we went with something that we considered was very easy walking distance but didn’t take into account we had no experience walking in icy snowy conditions and only the main central paths are kept really clear and ice free so we ended up using the subway even though I think it was only one stop from memory. In hindsight I would have paid a bit more to be closer if I was making the same trip again where a large part of the reason for being in Sapporo was to spend most of the time around the festival areas and central city. I also hadn’t allowed for even the soft powder snow being wet, yes that is obvious to most people but I had no experience so it was quite nice to duck back to the hotel during the day or before going out for dinner and the evening light-up and shows to warm up and dry out for an hour or so before tackling it again.

  • I always wanted to visit this festival while living in Japan but alas, no money to do it and I was stuck in the city (Tokyo). It really does look like a fun time and worth a try at making it someday. I had a friend who lived in Hokkaido and taught there. I always loved seeing his photos of a snow-covered car in October so it kind of surprised me that you mentioned there wasn’t so much snow falling. I guess I just imagined it always being a blizzard. Haha.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this! I look forward to reading more of your Japan travels:)

    • LOL yes I guess it’s relative – I’ve never lived anywhere it snows so I’d imagined when there was that much snow everywhere it must snow constantly but in 3 days we only really got properly snowed on the once. It was amazing though and if I do get the chance to go back to Hokkaido I want to stay significantly longer, there was so much we missed. We got to Sapporo and Otaru festivals but we missed another that was on at the same time and really saw little outside the festivals themselves and a few city spots in that time.

  • This looks incredible! Japan is an obsession of mine – and because of the distance, I try to see as much as possible on each trip – but my Japan list is getting too long to do in one hit! Thank you for sharing & inspiring!!

    • I’m the same Vicki, I shuffled and juggled our first itinerary, and then subsequent ones, to fit in as much as possible but still my Japan wishlist continues to grow not shrink 🙂 It really is an incredible country to visit.

  • You picked a hell of a place to see your first snow!! LOL It looks beautiful though! And I’m glad you recommended seeing places during the day and night, because it can be a completely different experience. 🙂

  • I’m not usually one for cold weather, but these snow festivals look like they shouldn’t be missed. Now, I need to add this to my travel list.

  • It’s so cold here in NYC right now, it’s hard for me to think about another cold country. However, those ice sculptures are fantastic and the children’s slide looks like so much fun! Also, anywhere with good buttery ramen is golden for us! Will definitely bookmark this.

  • Wow..now this is a snow festival worth traveling to and braving the cold. But, then again I’m not surprised how well this is organized considering it’s in Japan. Those sculptures are amazing including that Lion King stage. We’ve only ever traveled to Japan during the summer but this looks so “cool” 🙂 I do’t think my kids would want to leave that snow tubing area.

  • Oh my goodness, that looks like so much fun! I am no fan of the cold but I thik I could brave it for something like this. I am just thinking of how much fun my kids (and I) would have on those slides!! Great pics too, thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Fiona, watching them be built is amazing. The main ones were in place by the time we got there, they build those for weeks before but the international competition takes places during the festival so you can watch both snow sculpting in action and ice carving with chainsaws!

  • That looks like so much fun. Ive always wanted to see the Tunnel of Lights. I never really knew where it was though! I will have to add this to my ever growing bucket list! 🙂

    • Japan is (one of) my travel obsessions since childhood but it’s only in recent years I’ve started travelling there. I doubt I’ll ever run out of things to see and do on my Japan wish list, each place is completely new with each season too which is wonderful but doesn’t help with ticking off the list.

    • Hi Rachael, We really enjoyed going through some of the smaller ones too and talking to the sculptors from the different countries that were working on their competition pieces. We’re planning on making another winter trip next year to get to a few more places, working on ideas and planning for that one now.

    • Hi Rachael, We really enjoyed going through some of the smaller ones too and talking to the sculptors from the different countries who were working on their competition pieces. We’re planning on making another winter trip next year to get to a few more places, working on ideas and planning for that one now.

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