Saturday, 16 February 2013

Sapporo's Snow festival is amazing!

Friday 8th February 2013

MP3 track: Snow – White Christmas (Bing Crozby)

Weather: Piles of snow; more than I have ever seen within an urban area. Still it was pretty warm; until 3pm when a strong wind picked up creating a snow storm.


One thing that annoys me about 'cold climate countries' is there 'indoor temperature'. For some unknown reason, the colder the weather outside the hotter it is inside. I mean, within a cold climate I dress appropriately for the weather making sure I'm wearing a coat, fleece, hat gloves etc and yet, when I enter a train carriage, shopping center or any other building I have to change into shorts and a t-shirt so I don't drip with sweat. This leads to arms full of clothes and a rather annoyed demeanor. The overnight train was no exception.

A part from the heat I had a rather pleasant night. The man behind me finally stopped eating at midnight and, with no one sitting in the seat next to me, I must have had a good 4/5 hours sleep. I did wake up throughout the night however, on reflection, I don't think it affected the quality of my sleep. When I was a awake I looked out of the window eager to see what Hokkaido looked like. The view that presented itself was very different from the Northern part of Japan's main island. Even though I couldn't see far into the distance Hokkaido seemed flatted than it's southern neighbor; it also seemed like a barren snowy dessert with big buildings rising out of the snow like huge ships, which had got stuck in the arctics frozen waters. These views would never last for long; soon I was back asleep to wake up thirty minutes later to let the process repeat itself. As time dragged on within this endless cycle day braked; with this a few 'keen workers' could be seen driving their cars to work, with walls of snow on either side of them.

I arrived in Sapporo on time and switched onto the underground. With all signs in English this was a breeze and soon I found myself at the west exit of 'Nakajima-koen station'. Once I had got my bearings I headed north.

I seemed to have walked forever. Ice was on the pavement preventing my standard 'sprinting speed' however, I was sure the hotel should have been closer than this. Finding a convenience store my thoughts proved correct; the stores only member of staff told me to back-track and headed one block east. There I would find 'Marks Inn'; my hotel.

The receptionist looked baffled that I'd turned up at 7:00am to 'check-in'. Actually, I had turned up at 7:00am to put my bags within the hotel before heading out into town. Gradually the receptionist got the message and so I handed my bags over and headed back outside, thought not before checking my emails.

The amount of snow was so great that my feet must have been six inches off the normal tiled pathway. Walls of snow, waist height, stood proud either side of me giving me many photo opportunities. It therefore took me quite a while to head north. This wasn't a problem; the time was 8:00am and I wasn't that hungry.

I turned a corner to find a road with a center isle of snow. On said snow were many ice sculptures ranging from mythical dragons to normal animals. Each one was a marvel to view and each must have taken ages to cut. As I photographed each and every one I tried to appreciate the craftsmanship, the time and the fact that one little mistake and it would all be ruined. These sculptures were in three groups; at the end of each group was an 'ice pub'. The building was, you guessed it, made out of ice. I hadn't even reached the main event and I was as giddy as a school boy, as happy as a penguin and as excited as a Japanese elementary student when I say the word 'game'. As I went into McDonald's (for a pancake breakfast) I couldn't wait to get back out again.

I eagerly made my way towards the main event. Sapporo is designed like an American city; the buildings are arranged into 'blocks of buildings' and signs indicate which way is north, south, east or west. 'odori koen' (odori meaning 'old street' and 'koen' meaning park) was a street six blocks south of Sapporo's train station. It consisted of ten blocks, running east to west, of parkland. I reckon that during the summer, the office workers from the many skyscrapers looming overhead would visit here for their lunch. This week however, the ten parks were the main location of the snow festival.

I had arrived roughly in the middle of the street and, normally, I would take a moment to plan a 'walking route' around whatever I had come to see, making the most logical choice. As I stood at the corner of one of these blocks an ice sculpture, as high as a two story building (I am not joking), dominated my view. Logic went out of the window and, in my rush to get a better view, I walked through the exit; much to the annoyance of a Japanese security guard.

Mouth open I stared at this marvel in front of me. With a huge horse to my right, and a woman to my left, a ancient Japanese curved bridge was in the middle leading to an old Japanese temple high in up in the mountains. Now I know that I am not the best writer in the world and therefore I cannot begin to describe, in words, just how over-powering and magnificent this piece was. I must have stood their for ages just pondering at the work involved and telling my logical brain that the bridge in front of me, a good 10 meters up into the sky, was made out of snow and was wide enough for four people to cross it in one go.

As I went further west things got better and better. First of all though I corrected my mistake of entering the park on the wrong side. This being Japan, everything is well organised. Within each 'squared park' the sculptures, souvenir stalls and eating facilities are in the center. On the flanks are two walking paths; one for heading west and one for heading east. As the parks were individual blocks (with a road between them) there were always 'roadside footpaths' you could use to change direction. This was a well thought out plan; my only criticism being that, as you descended from the park path down onto 'street level' (the parks are slightly raised) the path down was very slippery indeed. The 'Sapporo Snow Festival' work force were continually gritting the area however, some sort of 'grippy mat' (or blow torching the snow away from these areas), I felt, would have been better.

Next up was a Japanese temple which, again, was two stories high. Unlike the first snow sculpture this was made out of blocks of ice, giving it a very 'aquatic blue' colour. The next park seemed to have been bought by the 'Thai tourist board'. Within the center of the square stood a 'Thai tourist information center' and it's snow sculpture was a Thai temple … life size! I couldn't believe it; the doors looked big enough for me to pass through, the windows seemed the right size and the lion guardians were as large as I remembered from my travels. At this point my logical brain had gone to sleep with my smaller creative brain jumping for joy; I felt as though I was in a dream, how could any of this be real … but it was.

Next up was a western looking house. The great thing about this was that each window had a small balcony that actually stood out; as the snow was falling it just looked like a normal white house with snow building up on the places you would expect.

The final big sculpture was an Hawaiian scene, two stories high, with cartoon characters (dressed in t-shirts), palm trees and the sea all made of snow. With Hawaiian music playing in the background I though it was all a bit ironic, but nether the less entertaining. The last two 'park blocks' consisted of a 'worldwide competition' and a garden. The competition has entries from ten countries including Malaysia, New Zealand and Sweden. Most either showed the counties cultural identity or were a modern piece to make people reflect on climate change and how the world is evolving. Personally these 'thought provoking pieces' were too much for me and so I liked the cultural ones, with Thailand's 'painting elephants' being my favourite closely followed by New Zealand's Maori legend. The final square had a restricted 'oval park' in the middle with a large house at the back. Around this oval were smaller 'face sculptures' of many different things though, this being the furthest 'block' in the park, the sculptures hadn't been cleared of the recent falling snow making some hard to work out what they were.

With this I switched lanes and headed past all the sculptures I had already seen, stopping to gaze upon them once more. I saw a few new things which included 'ice slides' for children and an Audi stand. Within this stand was a snow sculpture of a Audi car going up a hill; a simple but stylish piece.

Now I was heading east and into the last four 'blocks'. The first block consisted of a huge snow ramp where snowboarders would through themselves into the air and land only meters away from an onlooking audience. As no snowboarding was currently happening I watched a small TV advertisement of last years performance before checking out the viewing times.

The next 'block' had more ice sculptures with a whole castle made of ice (though this was a miniature castle) and more mythical creatures. The last 'block' consisted of an ice rink before Sapporo's 'TV tower' loomed high above me. At 147 meters high my guidebook informed me that this was an excellent place to view the festival at night. I checked the opening times and prices before promising myself that I would return later.

Now I had seen all the 'blocks', I returned back to the snowboarding slope to see 'Japanese youths' throwing themselves into the air without caution and landing (some gracefully, others not so) to an applauding audience. With some of the snowboarders doing tricks, watching these 'youths' repeatedly throwing themselves down this slope kept me entertained for ages. The time however, was coming up to 11am and so my stomach was rumbling for 'elevenses'. Fortunately a coffee shop was positioned with a commanding view of the action; I went in and order a slice of chocolate cake and a 'chilli hot chocolate' (which was a mistake; the chilli overpowered the chocolate … still I had never tried it before) to be surprised to find the place almost empty and a window seat waiting for me.

As I watched the snowboarders, ate my cake and drank my drink, I also flicked through my guidebook wondering what else Sapporo's city had to offer. Not a lot, was my answer. Being winter the botanical garden was closed and so there were only shops, the Ainu museum (located on the edge of the botanical garden), the 'Hokkaido Government building' and the station to view. There was a green house you could visit, but that sounded as much fun as punching myself in the face; repeatedly. Therefore with my cake ate, my drink drunk and the 'youths' having finished messing around, I picked up my bag and headed towards the government building.

The government building was built in the late nineteenth century and is a mix of European, 'new world' and Japanese architecture; or so my guidebook stated. I, on the other-hand, saw it as mostly European design with a little Japanese to remind you of where you were. Within the snow this red-bricked building looked beautiful and so my camera was red hot within no time. Behind the government building was the botanical gardens, the greenhouse and the Ainu museum. I walked past the closed botanical gardens entrance, ran past the open greenhouse entrance and started to search for the museum. Try as I might I could not find it; the wind was picking up and so I re-read my guidebook to find that the museum was IN the botanical gardens not CLOSE TO. I left the area, with a new appreciation for the smaller words within our language.

It was now 2pm and I was getting hungry. I ventured into Sapporo's huge train station in search of ramen. A friend of mine had said that there were a lot of stores, selling ramen, within the train station but, as I got up to the 6th floor, all I could find were expensive restaurants, Japanese menu's and lines of hungry Japanese people. I left the station and found a small convenient restaurant near to the festival.

While eating my 'curry and rice', I planned my next moves. Being quite tired I fancied heading back to my hotel. Check-in was an hour away and so I had enough time to look through the park once more, buy some 'omiagi' (souvenir cakes) for two of my schools and see if there were any photo books. Once back at the hotel I would relax for a bit before leaving once more at around 6pm, to see the park at night. I finished my meal and went into the park, still not fully believing what I was seeing. I found a souvenir store with a rather attractive young Japanese lady. I inquired into a product for sale and asked if it was 'omiagi', how many were in a box and whether they tasted good … all in Japanese. It was all rather fun and she was smiling a lot; she however wasn't a true 'saleswoman' as she replied 'no' to whether they tasted good. After a bit more probing she said that 'she hadn't eaten them, so she didn't know'. Why she said 'iie' (no) instead of 'tabe-masen' (have not eat) I do not know, all I know is saying that her English was great (after she said it wasn't very good) brought out a laugh and a smile. This I noted as a good 'plan of attack' when it came to Japanese women; I suppose it's like saying their hair looks lovely, only more original. As the weather worsened we chatted a little longer; I asked if she had a picture book for sale but alas, none was available; they did have post cards which I decided to have a 'think about'. With the wind picking up I left her to resume her work; I went to the closest underground station, trying to think of a plausible way of giving her my mobile number.

My hotel room was small, functional and bland; I could have been anywhere in the world. It mattered not, only the lack of a strong internet connection annoyed me and so I sat down, chilled and wrote yesterday's blog. Once 6pm came I headed back to the underground and back to the park.

It was like I had arrived at a whole new snow festival; sure the sculptures were all the same but, now illuminated buy different coloured lights, they had an altogether different feel. The only annoyance was that the wind had picked up and minor snow storms would occur every so often. Still in awe a gazed up at these pieces of art until I found the Audi stand. Music was blaring out a projector was projecting stars over the sculpture. It was very impressive; and then everything went quite...

What followed was truly unbelievable; the music picked up once more however the projector now projected an image of a car which fitted the sculpture perfectly. It was truly amazing and it really did look as though this 'snow car' was moving upwards and through many 'space aged'
settings. Once again my mouth was open, filling with snow, as I watched this two minute display of genius wondering what was going to happen next. As the projector showed the wheels turning it actually looked like they were! All too soon the show ended; a round of applause went up (as no member of staff was there, the applause was directed at the snow car) and, as I looked to my right, I noticed an information board stating “... check out the making of this video on Audi's facebook page...” I shall do just that.

Moving on I viewed all the same sculptures I had viewed previously. The ice sculptures were particularly impressive as they were lit up by coloured lights which showed all the little details.

Once again Sapporo's TV tower rose up in front of me. On my way I past the 'youths' throwing themselves into the air once more, though this time lit by spot light. I joined the tower queue and waited around thirty minutes until it was my turn to take the elevator to the top. The whole 'waiting process' had been very 'Japanese'; very well thought out, very logical and not that boring due to information panels, about the tower, being dotted around the queue. There was one of those annoying 'we will take your photo and then stick it on a fake background so you, a year on from now, can wonder why you paid an extortionate amount for a cheap quality souvenir' photo booths. As I had to go through this 'photo session', to get to the elevator, I had no choice; I gave a 'I'm not going to buy this tack' smile before heading towards the elevator.

The elevator had a small young Japanese woman in there giving facts about the tower in Japanese. As the doors opened onto the observatory I thanked her as no one else had. Due to the snow and the wind and visibility wasn't as great as I had hoped. My initial thoughts were of regret; maybe I should have waited until tomorrow. However, having no idea what the weather would be like tomorrow, this thought faded quickly as, at least, I could see the 'youths' still messing around with pieces of wood stuck to their feet. I took a few photos but didn't stay long. I got back into the elevator, said thank you again to the woman and walked past the 'photograph stand' without even looking. Once outside the wind was stronger than ever; I left the park and headed to a restaurant for a quick meal.

The Japanese are usually very polite however, I am in Japan's 5th largest city and it would appear that politeness is reserved for only certain people. People in the service industry, for example, seemed to be treated liked they are only there to serve. Take the woman in the elevator for example, and now the girl serving within the restaurant. Many business men came in and the only words they issued were what they wanted; no thanks for serving me, no thanks for wiping the table. No; they seemed to think that it was there right for these things to happen, even though they were only spending around £4 each. I, on the other-hand, thanked the girl at every opportunity. I think she was grateful as she smiled a lot; I left the restaurant determined that “... manors cost nothing...” would be the next Japanese phase that I would learn.

Once outside the snow was falling more than ever. The wind was picking up and so I did one last circuit of the park before calling it a night; I had been up fifteen hours, with little sleep the night before. I went past my favourite survivor shop though, alas, with a sea of people my 'girl' was busy. Maybe tomorrow I'll give her my number.

After I finished walking I took one last look at the park before diving into the underground station. I bought some chocolate, a bottle of orange and a hot chocolate before reaching my hotel. My room was pretty cold but that didn't matter; I put the 'do not disturb' sign on the door, eat and drank my recent purchases, before getting into bed. I read a chapter of my book before turning off the light. As soon as my head hit the pillow I was asleep, dreaming of what I shall do tomorrow.

Toodle Pip!

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