THE Sapporo Snow Festival is Japan’s biggest winter event and one of the most popular Japanese festivals both in Japan and internationally. Around two million visitors flock to Sapporo every February for the week-long Sapporo Snow Festival.
This year’s event, held from February 5-11, is the 60th, and is shaping up to be one of the best yet. There are several celebratory events scheduled, including an Anniversary Fiesta in Sapporo Dome on January 31, and the Happy Candle Night on February 7, when 7000 candles will be used to light up Odori Park like a giant birthday cake. All the other lights in Odori will be turned off from 4pm until 4.30pm on the February 7 to promote ecological awareness and, of course, to show the candles in their best light.
Unlike most festivals in Japan, which are usually religious and/or cultural celebrations, the Sapporo Snow Festival is an entirely secular celebration of winter and winter activities, with a large helping of art festival thrown in. Odori and Susukino, the two central sites, have been until quite recently almost entirely about the sculptures. Over the past few years, however, Odori has been returning to its roots by making its site more interactive with slides, concerts, a skating rink, live shows and a snow maze built into the front of one of the stages. The third site, which is moving this year to Tsudomu, will continue the tradition the third site has always maintained, to be a winter fun-park for children of all ages. Snow golf, snow rafting, tube slides, cross-country skiing, skating, and snowshoe hiking names only a few of the activities available at the Tsudomu site.
The Sapporo Snow Festival follows traditions that go back to the first years of Japanese settlement in Hokkaido. The Sapporo Snow Festival has been an annual event since 1950, when a group of high school students made the first snow sculptures in Odori Park and provided the spark around which the first festival coalesced. At that first festival there were only six sculptures but there were dog sled races, American-style square dances and other winter activities and contests. That first year, 50,000 people attended out of a population of just 300,000. Last year, there were 290 snow and ice sculptures in three locations about Sapporo and 2,159,000 visitors. In 1955 Japan’s newly created Ground Self-Defence Forces began participating in the festival, trucking in tons of snow and building or preparing the large sculptures that are such a prominent feature. The largest sculpture ever built was the 25m-high statue of Gulliver, which sat outside the entrance to the venue for the 13th Winter Olympics in 1972.
It was at the Sapporo Olympic Games, with international media focussed upon Sapporo, that the snow festival gained international attention. It might well have been the spirit of the games that inspired the Snow Festival Committee to create the International Snow Sculpting Contest, which started in 1974. Over 20 different countries have participated in the event at one time or another. Most of the teams are either national teams or teams from Sapporo’s sister cities. This year, teams from Indonesia, China, Finland, Hong Kong, Korea, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Portland, Singapore, Sweden, Thailand and the USA will be competing. Most of these teams are selected and sent by their country, and the event has as much to do with tourism advertising as it does snow sculpting, but they have produced some amazing art work over the years. Last year’s winners were Thailand, Hong Kong and Japan. The sculptures created for the 36th International Snow Sculpting Competition will be on display at West 11.
Over the past 60 years feature sculptures have been made depicting landmark buildings from countries all around the world. The Sydney Opera House, London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, Rome’s Trevi Fountain, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Seoul’s Kwang-Hwa-Mun, Egypt’s temple at Abu Simbel, and the Brussels’ Stock Exchange to name a few. This year, the feature sculptures are the Old Hakodate Court Building on West 5, Seoul’s Nandaimon Gate on West 7, and Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Castle Hamamatsujou on West 8. Sculptures representing famous people or characters from books, TV programs or movies are also popular, as are scenes depicting major events of the previous year. All of these feature sculptures are first done in scale models from which the sculptors can identify problem areas and which they use as blueprints for the actual build. Many of these models are now on display at the Sapporo Snow Festival Museum, located at the Hitsujigaoka Observation Hill.
One of the most amazing aspects of the festival is the Citizen’s Gallery, where every year so many groups apply to participate that the organising committee holds a lottery to see who will be given space for their designs. These groups can, and do, include anyone aged about 12 years old and up. This year there will be 112 sculptures in the Citizens’ Gallery at West 12. One of the other features that bears mentioning is the West 6 Hokkaido Winter Food Festa, where there will be dozens of shops selling local cuisine like giant crab, ramen, gengisukan and yakitori.
Construction starts a couple of weeks before the opening and it’s quite a sight to see the massive ‘blanks’ slowly growing as army trucks bring in tons of snow for the festival. Then, the morning after the official closing of the festival, large earthmoving equipment arrives to knock down all the sculptures. This is done to keep them from becoming a hazard, as the snow softens and the 20m piles collapse. Most people advise getting in early to see the sculptures whilst they’re still pristine because, though every effort is made to repair damage and remove snow after a storm, winters just aren’t as cold as they used to be, and even a slight warming into positive digits can blur the edges of some of the more graceful designs. They also advise people that, whilst there are public lavatories, none of them provide toilet paper, so it’s best to take your own in the form of pocket tissues.
NGS is running day-return trips from Hirafu to the festival for ¥4000. Departing from the Hirafu Ski Area Parking Lot #1 at 1.30pm, returning to Hirafu at 10.50pm every day of the festival. Contact NGS to book on (0136) 21 7151.