Head up north to the wide snowlined streets of Sapporo, the biggest city in Japan’s northernmost Hokkaido island

Taj Mahal

Transport
Plane or boat?
Flights from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport are usually pretty cheap, booking 2 months in advance gets you a return ticket for about 20,000 and if you’re a little flexible with dates there might be even better deals. Try not to spend too long in Haneda – the Domestic Departure Lounge contains one shop selling overpriced souvenir snacks, and overpriced souvenir airplane-themed toys. Unbelievably for Tokyo there’s no restaurants: microwaved food is available from the shop but you’ll have to stand up and eat it
Take sandwiches

Boats are not for the fainthearted – the sea separating Aomori and Sapporo is rough, stormy and freezing cold in winter – but if you’re feeling adventurous or simply cant bear the thought of delays in Haneda Airport then a boat could be for you. I don’t know of a direct Tokyo-Sapporo ferry, but you can head out to Oarai north of Tokyo. From there you can get a 19 hour ferry to Tomakomai, a city about an hour south of Sapporo. It’s cheap at just 10,000, but to travel at peak times or in “first class” comfort (ie a bed in a semi private room) you might pay twice that. The basic style is sleeping on a tatami mat floor in a common room.
Take earplugs and travel sickness tablets just in case

When?
The Sapporo Snow Festival is held in the first 2 weeks of February. A slight rise in temperatures mean the snow and ice sculptures start melting later in the month – to prevent this the sculptures are bulldozed down after the last weekend of the festival and the extra snow dumped in a nearby river.
This is the busiest time to visit, so expect to pay a bit more.
Hokkaido is a popular winter sports destination from January to March. Many Japanese will also visit in summer to escape the hot humid weather further south.

Where to stay
Central Sapporo has a ton of hostels.  Susukino is the nightlife area, a little similar to Tokyo’s Shinjuku, buzzing with bars, restaurants and stumbling tourists. It’s very near the Snow Festival.
For a more relaxing stay check out  the hot spring town an hours drive from Sapporo, and wander between onsen and ryokan.

Things to do
The Snow Festival is held in Odori Park, a long narrow park bizarrely situated between two main roads and broken up by sidestreets into 10 small blocks. Perhaps because of the unusual layout of the park, the larger sculptures take up one block each, while smaller ones are arranged in 2 or 4 rows. These range from 10 metre blocks elaborately carved by the Japanese Self Defence Force, international entries in blocks about  3 metres square, and smaller ones made by local students. Highlights from 2012 include a replica of the Taj Mahal, a huge underwater scene with sealife leaping out, and giant models from popular manga.

Light show on the sea life sculpture

During the day shows and performances are held in front of, or even on, the larger sculptures. Unfortunately most of these are organised by the sponsors, and definitely aren’t very impressive – a promotion for local apples, bingo,and a Coca Cola drinking contest are typical examples. At night the larger ones are illuminated with multicoloured lights and some of them even have specialised light shows, where carefully choreographed lights pick out details in the sculptures.

It gets crowded – over 2 million visitors come during the 2 weeks of the festival – so a ‘one way system’ is used to stop overcrowding and chaos as people bash into each other trying to get to the most popular sculptures. Volunteers in day glow jackets help at busy crossings by herding visitors en mass across the side streets.
These crowds will quickly tread fallen snow into thin dangerous layers of ice, so liberal amounts of grit are applied to the pavements. This makes the surface very uneven in places, so it might be difficult for disabled visitors, pushchairs, or high heels.
To fully enjoy it, wrap up warm. Youre walking outdoors for a few hours, between snow sculptures, in temperatures between -1 and -15 degrees. You can buy heat pads (hokkairo) which can help keep toes or fingers warm, and theres tons of food stalls selling hot snacks or warm wine too.

Real frozen fish

The sculptural fun continues round the corner in Susukino, where dozens of ice sculptures are displayed in 2 long rows, sprinkled with stalls and ice bars. Most of these are lit up at night too.

Other stuff
Snowboarders and skiiers can take the subway one stop to Niseko, a popular slope. You’ll pay up to 10,000yen for a lift pass and rentals during the festival, so if you dont mind travelling there’ll be better deals further from the city. If you go with a big group you can get some good discounts.

In the north of the city is Mount Moiwa Ropeway, which takes you up nearly 1,200 metres to the top of a ski lift. On a clear day you’ll get a good view over Sapporo.
I went up at night, unfortunately clouds obscured the night view of the city lights, but the lights from the ski slope made weird colours and patterns in the snow. Psychedelic, if you can deal with freezing wind and the odd mini blizzard… I lasted about 3 minutes.

The onsen town is about an hour and twenty minutes bus journey from Sapporo Station. Theres loads to choose from, offering a vast range of indoor and outdoor baths. Some even have bars in the outdoor area, if you want to sit in a hot bath, surrounded by snow, while drinking cold beer.

Food
Eating in Sapporo can be a day’s activity in itself. On the top floor of Isetan Tower (in Sapporo station) are several ramen shops crammed in, each with its own specialty sauce or topping. Crowds wait patiently in queues that often circle right round the shop, so try to avoid going at lunchtime on a weekend.
Jingisu Kan (pronounced a bit like “Genghis Khan”) is a local stew of lamb and potatoes, pretty unusual ingredients in Japanese food.
The seafood is ace, and especially kani, the huge crabs found around Hokkaido. Gluttons will love the all-you-can-eat deals involving these king-sized crabs.

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