The 2016 Sapporo Snow Festival

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February 5, 2016

Sapporo’s cityscape is a lot whiter these days: multi-story ice sculptures have joined the brick buildings, glistening in the sun and bearing likeness to everything from Portuguese churches to Dragonball Z facades.

The city is bustling with people preparing for its 67th annual Snow Festival, which begins Friday and draws visitors from all over the world. Military trucks haul ice to the festival grounds, bulldozers move the snow, and people crawl over ice sculptures perfecting them in preparation for the festival.

One of the largest pieces, a 17-meter-tall replica of the Ruins of St. Paul’s, took 3,000 people, 30 days, and 2,400 square meters of snow to make.

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It’s clear that the locals take pride in their famous festival, and despite the low temperatures, they joke and laugh as they prepare, particularly in the Citizen’s Square section of Odori Park where teams from countries and companies carve sculptures from enormous blocks of snow. One group, upon noticing me watching them, ushers me over to help with their rabbit sculpture.

The first step: Create a slush mixture in a large trough using shovels to slosh water and snow together. Then, taking the sludge in handfuls, we build and smooth the rabbit’s paw.

At the same time, the neighboring group, a bit behind in the process, is using a length of barbed wire to cut into their block, pushing ice to the ground in large chunks as they go. They size up my work on the paw and then ask if I’d like to switch to their team. Then, they erupt in laughter at the thought.

It’s meticulous work, and tools from chainsaws to brushes are invoked in the process. One group tells me they’ve been working for four days on theirs. The attention to detail is very admirable – and very Japanese.

The festival runs from Feb. 5 to Feb. 18 and, in addition to seeing the intricate sculptures, visitors can also enjoy local-style street food, ice skate and zip down a snow slide. And, of course, the food stalls all sell the city’s namesake local brew, for those able to tolerate a cold beer in below-freezing temperatures.

Because it’s an internationally known event, floods of people come to Sapporo when the festival runs, shrinking hotel inventory and pushing room rates to a premium. Book sooner rather than later, and if you wait too long (like I did) and accommodations are scarce, AirBnb has alternative options.

Access:

From New Chitose Airport: Take the JR Chitose Line toward Sapporo. At Shin-Sapporo Station, transfer to the Tozai Line toward Miyanosawa. Get off and Odori Station, which sits just below Odori Park, the main exhibition site.

In addition to Odori park, the festival has two other sites: Tsudome and Susukino. The former has snow slides and children’s attractions. To get to the Tsudome site from Odori Station, take the Toho Line to Sakaemachi Station. The site is a 10-minute walk from the station.

The Susukino site, dubbed “Susukino Ice World,” features ice sculptures rather than snow sculptures. My favorite? One that had fish frozen inside of it. The Susukino site is less than a 10 minute walk from the Odori site.

For more information on the attractions, visit www.snowfes.com/english

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Journalist, photographer, travel addict.

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