Sapporo or Bust: Fun and Ice up North

Bailey Jo Josie (Miyazaki)

Even after more than a half century, the Sapporo Snow Festival is still going strong, and this year will be no exception.  

As millions (yes, millions) of people flock to its icy fortitude, it’s hard to ignore the Sapporo Snow Festival. Though it is well-established to Japanese people, the massive event can still take foreigners and JETs by surprise, myself included.

When I first think of Japan, I don’t necessarily think of enormous ice sculptures or even any snow at all. I think of hot and humid summers, of sunshine and cherry blossoms, though it doesn’t help that I live on the east coast of Kyushu island, where it took an entire class of students a while to remember the word “snow”. Obviously, I am wrong in this, but nonetheless, when I tell the folks back home about the snow festival, they can’t believe it because their mindset is that ice sculptures exist in places like Russia, Norway, Canada, etc. I think maybe it’s because of this naïve perspective that the festival in Sapporo is so intriguing.

From the beginning, the festival was a huge surprise. According to the snow festival’s website, the very first event was held at Odori Park in 1950, where the local high schoolers made only six sculptures. With the help of the snow sculptures — which included a bear and a person reclining like a model in a baroque painting — and other activities surrounding the festival, over 50,000 people attended the event. It took another couple of years for the rest of the country to catch on to the event, but by 1965, the snow festival had become so large that a second location was sought after.

Fast forward a couple of years, and the festival was reaching international fame, thanks to the 1972 Winter Olympics held in Sapporo. From here, more sites were added (currently, Odori, Tsudome, and Susukino) and the event has grown into what it is today — a monumental achievement in artistry and ice in the harsh Hokkaido winter.

I absolutely love all the sculptures and the detail that goes into them,” says Lina Orta, a JET alumnus, currently living and working in Sapporo. “For the past couple of years, the festival has added projection mapping to some of the bigger sculptures. These shows are a must-see.”

Though I haven’t had the pleasure of attending the festival, I would like to see it in the next few years. As I said, I live on Kyushu island, so plane tickets to Hokkaido can be very expensive for me, especially since I would have to pay for two tickets (can’t just go have fun in the snow without the husband, you know?) I can find cheap tickets through Google Flights that are below 30,000 yen per person, but that can be a lot if you don’t plan properly, and planning is needed when you consider that the Sapporo Snow Festival lasts 12 days with a ton of things to do.

Like what, you ask? Well, at the original Odori site, there will be a skating rink, a jumping platform for amateur and professional skiers and snowboarders, food vendors, and the chance to marvel at 118 different sculptures. Not only will there be Japanese sculpting teams, but teams from all over the world who participate in the festival; another great reason for JETs to make their way to the event.

“As busy as it gets,” Orta said, “I highly recommend going on the first couple of days while the sculptures are still in their prime.”

At the Tsudome site, there will be a snow slide, where people can ride inner tubes down a large, snowy hill; a spot for “snow rafting”, which is when you ride in a rubber raft that is pulled by a snowmobile; a sled run; a spot to play a hybrid game of soccer and golf — named “Mini Snow Foot Golf”; a snow labyrinth, and many more events. Tsudome is geared more towards families and people who want to do more than just look at the sculptures.

The Susukino site is, more or less, where you can see and touch the ice sculptures and be there as teams actually create them for a grand contest, which you can then vote on. Also, there are a few bars (one had an literal ice entrance last year) and outdoor eating tents where you can warm yourself up with fried food and hot (or cold) drinks before wandering around. This is the site that is geared more towards adults.

The Tsudome site is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from February 1 to February 12. The Odori and Susukino sites can be visited at any time, but the official activities at these sites run from February 5 until February 12, which is when the entire festival ends. There’s no use dawdling though; everything will be destroyed the next morning.


All photos courtesy of Lina Orta









Naked and Unafraid: A Hadaka Matsuri Experience

Chris Golden (Miyazaki)

Ah, winter: the bane of seemingly every Japanese person’s existence. Granted, there are worse things out there: earthquakes, tsunamis, freakishly large-but-harmless spiders, and the equally freakish-but-not-so-harmless centipedes immediately come to mind.  But that’s just me. Having experienced winters in places like Baltimore, Seattle, Minnesota, and New York City, where temperatures can easily reach and stay at -22C or lower, seeing Miyazakians wearing huge, puffy jackets and layers upon layers of heat tech on bright, sunny, 15 degree days always makes me chuckle.  Most people in Miyazaki see the temperature gauge drop and immediately pull out the ol’ kotatsu for some cozy avoid-all-cold-experiences time.  But, there are a few brave souls who, every year in January, look outside, think of the cold air, the frigid ocean water, and think “Let’s get naked and jump in there!”  Enter, Japan’s Hadaka Matsuri.

The one I participated in was in Aoshima.  However, there are festivals like it all over Japan around this time of year.  They exist for a variety of different purposes: praying for good luck and blessings, mental and spiritual purification, testing your mettle.  There’s lots of different customs for the festival, depending on where it is. They run the gamut of everything from a moshpit-fight over a wooden figurine, a joust between men holding bamboo poles and a water hose, romps through the streets to the local shrine, a king-of-the-rope climb, etc.  But nearly all of those festivals involve cold water in some way. And all of them involve being nearly completely sans-apparel…

I’ve wanted to do this festival for a few years now. But, between that sans-apparel part and the chubby little man who lives in my stomach and very often screams “CHEESEBURGER!!!” at me, I’d been stricken with very acute but temporary case of selective memory around signup time.  But this year, my mettle won over my personal cookie monster, and I signed up with some friends to take the plunge.

We showed up on the appointed day, and got our special clothes.  That term is funny now when I think about it in context, because “clothes” actually meant a headband, a pendant necklace, a pair of tabi, and the underwear that was around before there was underwear, called fundoshi.  Anyway, we put on the ceremonial clothes and went out for an adventure in purification.

Aoshima’s festival involves a short jog to the beach in front of the local shrine, followed by some warm up exercises to center yourself.  Then, you take a double shot of insanity sauce, and wade into the brisk sea water, squat down until the water is up to your neck, and pray/make a wish/meditate/wait until you see the people ahead of you stand up and turn around before you do so you’re not the first (that part is about 2 minutes).  Then you get out of the water, go directly to the shrine to pray again, then run past another priest and his cauldron of onsen-temperature water, which he will “bless” you with using a special tree branch. To complete the ceremony, you will then jog to Aoshima’s main shopping street, do a pseudo ice-bucket challenge, tag-team some old fashioned mochi pounding, and then head back for a dip in the onsen and some food.

This was a great experience for me.  It was cold, then hot, then cold again, then warm and relaxing (onsen for the win).  Granted, I did forget to make a wish while I was in the water. But there I was, naked and unashamed, being a part of the local community, and experiencing another part of Japan’s rich history and age-old traditions.  If you’re like me and prefer winter over summer, I recommend you try this festival. If you’re not like me and hate the cold, I still recommend this festival. If not for the community, the adventure, and the overall wonderful experience, do it because participating in this festival is apparently worth 1000 normal, any-other-day, fully-clothed shrine visits.  An hour in a fundoshi in the middle of winter for a  sweet, community-building, friendship-deepening (or starting) adventure, and kami-sama’s blessing, and +1000 luck points… that’s a fair trade in my book.

Photos courtesy of  and Chris Golden