Friday, 13 February 2015

Snap Shot: Sapporo Snow Festival 2015

Date: Saturday 7th and Sunday 8th February 2015

MP3 tract of the day: Walk like an Egyptian - The Bangles (please replace the word 'Egyptian' with 'penguin')

Weather: Superb on Saturday; for February, it was pretty warm (which overnight, led to the destruction of some of the snow sculptures). The weather took a turn for the worst on Sunday, with strong winds and a little snow.

Now before I go on, I suppose I should explain what 'snap shot' means within the title of this blog. It basically means that this blog will be a shortened version of my usual blogs, due to a variety of reasons. It is, in effect, a 'snap shot' of my trip.

This would be the second time that I would be visiting Sapporo's Snow Festival, and I was just as excited as I was on my first visit. Last time I'd taken the overnight train (arriving Friday at 6am), staying for three days. This time I'd opted to use a plane which, though decimated a nine hour train journey to just an hour and a half flight, was a lot more expensive than the train. Still, with only staying one night, the costs actually balanced out to be almost the same.

During my first visit, I found that having three days to look around Sapporo's, and Otaru's, snow festival was a little too long. Two full days is probably the perfect amount of time needed however, this time, I only had just over a day to see everything. As I balanced 'what I wanted to see' against 'time I had' I created a schedule which, though very busy, wasn't impossible. My flight from Sendai airport left around 9am, arriving at Sapporo's new airport around 10:30am. Being an airport it was of course out of town meaning that, at best, I would arrive in the centre of Sapporo at around midday. I would then walk to my hotel to drop my bags off. Once that was completed I would walk back to the train station, through the snow park, before catching a train to Otaru (hopefully arriving just before night fall). I would then spend a couple of hours seeing Otaru's snow festival at night, before returning to Sapporo to see it's snow festival at night. Sunday would be a lazy day, focusing mainly on the main snow park in Sapporo before heading back to the airport.

I had managed to coincide finalising my 'weekend schedule' with arriving at Sendai's airport. I parked my car within a '£2 for 24-hours' car park and walked the final half a mile or so to the airport.

Being me, I'd arrived, got my ticket (which nobody checked on either my outgoing, or returning flight. I could have said that my name was 'Mickey Mouse' and I would have been fine) and gone through security with plenty of time to spare. I spent the time I had writing my diary and completing small tasks I'd failed to do the night before (after work on Friday, I drove straight to Sendai and stayed the night in a hotel). I'd almost finished my tasks when my flight number was called for embarkation; and so on I went.

Due to it being winter, there is always a worry that flights will be cancelled however, looking out of one of the planes many windows, I'd noticed that the weather was fantastic. I sat back and enjoyed my flight. The company which I'd decided to fly with was called 'Skymark'; basically Japan's equivalent of Easyjet. Drinks had to be paid for (though they were cheaper than in the airport) but the leg room given was actually pretty good. One big difference between Skymark and Easyjet is that Skymark doesn't appear to be doing that well; whilst reading the 'in-flight magazine' I found a leaflet which seemed to suggest that, after March of this year, Skymark will be no more. It was a shame because, apart from the drinks, the crew were friendly and professional and the flight was a dream; bang on time we landed at Sapporo's new airport (Chitose) and though the skies had become cloudy, the landing had been as smooth as Galaxy milk chocolate.

Chitose airport is a strange place because the shopping area seems way too big for the terminal. Though it is Hokkaido's main airport, there was only one terminal with very few gates. The shopping area, on the other-hand, covered well over two-thirds of the airport with so many food stalls that, once I'd viewed them all and decided what I wanted to eat, I'd forgotten where my favourite stall was. It mattered not; I found a delicious looking snack, ate it and headed off to catch a train heading towards Sapporo's main train station.

As you would expect, the train was packed with people visiting the snow festival. I therefore could not get a seat and so I stood for about 40 minutes until we reached the centre of Sapporo. It was during this time that I made a decision; a decision that would ultimately result in less time at the snow park but, would mean that this years visit would differ slightly from my last visit. Most cities and prefectures (counties to you and me) have their own 'famous foods', and Sapporo is no exception with two 'famous dishes'; one is 'miso ramen' and the other is 'Jengis Gan (which I kept calling 'Genghis Khan') which is a lamb dish. The last time I came, I tried to eat 'Miso ramen' but I couldn't find it. This time, with a little pre-planning, I was determined to try both of them.

Eager to get started, I burst out of the train and walked quickly through Sapporo's huge train station and down an escalator to, what I thought was, the 'underground walkway' I'd used two years ago. I remembered that, when I used this walkway it took me halfway to my hotel, by-passing many roads, icy streets and worst of all … traffic lights. As I looked around, some things just didn't match with the memories I'd had and all-too-soon the 'walkway' came to an abrupt end. What had happened is that I'd left the train station at the 'south-east' exit whereas, two years ago, I found the 'underground walkway' when I had left Sapporo train station's 'south-west' exit. Being underground, it soon dawned on me that I had retraced my steps so many times that I was now not sure in which direction I was facing. I therefore decided to resurface and walk to my hotel along the streets; sure it was slower, but there were plenty of landmarks to guide me.

As I walked it dawned on me that it wasn't as cold as two years ago. I removed my beanie hat to discovered sweat pouring down my face and it was then that I realised that having a under-shirt, t-shirt, fleece and a big coat on was a mistake. As I looked around other people had shed layers and I was starting to fear for the sculptures themselves though, as I approached the snow park (which was located between the train station and my hotel), I could see that they were not affected by the weather. Once more I stood and found myself looking up in awe with my mouth wide open. In front of me was a four-storey 'Start Wars' themed snow sculpture. Darth Vader's eyes were probably as tall as I was! Darth Vader, three imperial storm troops, two X-wing fighter aircraft and the Death Star kept me paralysed for at least quarter of an hour and I had to stop my mouth from spilling out Star Wars quotes … which would have been heard by the 'none English speaking' crowd in front of me and, I can only assume, would have led to them believing that I was mentally ill. For the rest of that trip, around every corner, I wanted to tell everyone and anyone that “... the Death Star will be quite operational by the time their friends arrived...”.

I spent an equal amount of time watching snowboarders and Skiers throw themselves off a 'man-made' ramp, to the delight of the crowd, before I shook my head like an 'etch-a-sketch', cleared it, and remembered my schedule. I continued past the snow park and towards my hotel, more eager than ever to walk faster than I have ever walked before.

I screeched to a halt within the hotel's foyer and demanded to be able to leave my bags within their storage room. Of course this was allowed, but not before I'd filled out a small registration slip. Once done I left my hotel realising that this year's hotel was very close to the hotel I stayed at two years ago.

Being confident of knowing my way around the streets of Sapporo, I turned right out of my hotel which was, of course, the wrong way. After a while I rectified the mistake and headed back to the snow park. On the way I stopped for lunch within Sapporo's 'Ramen Street'. I ordered the 'miso ramen' which, not only was it delicious, it allowed me to tick one of Sapporo's famous dishes off my list. Once consumed I continued towards the snow park. The crowds were building though due to my height, my view was unhindered. I past a Japanese temple, many Japanese manga characters and a Malaysian palace, all made out of snow, before I left the park bound for the train station. This time I did find the underground walking path and, once at the train station, I realised my error.

The train station was as busy as ever however, due to the fact that most of the people were still debating on where they wanted to go, the queues at the actual ticket machines were fairly light. I, of course, knew exactly where I wanted to go. I bought a ticket for Otaru and managed to board a train which was just about to depart. This was good in a way as it meant that I didn't waste any time however, once again there wasn't a single seat free. It was an hours trip to Otaru and I tried to rest my feet as best I could whilst remaining on my feet.

I arrived in Otaru just before sunset. I also arrived extremely thirsty and so I disappeared momentarily into KFC and drank their biggest cola on offer. Once consumed I made my way down to Otaru's river front. As I mentioned last time, the buildings along Otaru's river front have more of a European feel than a Japanese one; with their slanted roofs and brick walls. They spanned the entire length of the river front and were covered in snow and icicles. Within the river itself, and along the river's walls, were hundreds of candles; all waiting for night to fall. Once I'd elbowed the packed crowds out of my way (telling some that 'these are not the droids they are looking for') I proceeded back into town to find a street I'd dreamt about many times. For those of you avid readers you may recall that, in my other 'snow festival' blog, I talked about a street of cake shops within Otaru and it was this that I was trying to find. As I walked in the direction I was sure the 'cake street' should be, night had fallen and the city had been consumed by candle light. It was extremely beautiful and very romantic. There were also many 'snowmen scenes' throughout the city, each one portraying an aspect of life which we all probably take for granted. There was a family of snowmen, snowmen on their own and another scene of a snowman asking a snow-woman on a date. It was all very beautiful and it reminded me of that John Lewis snowman advert.

Finally I found the street and it didn't disappoint. Each shop was lit up like a Christmas tree with a salesman, or woman, standing outside with a tray of 'tasters' for passers by to try. Not wanting to seem biased, I made sure that I tried each taster I saw, surprised to find that most of the stores along this street belonged to the same cake company. The only difference between the shops was that they each specialised in a different type of cake. I wondered freely grabbing a taster here and there. With the European look of the buildings, the snow, the cobbled road and street lights - which looked like oil lamps - the whole scene seemed to have fallen out of a Charles Dickens’s novel. I was fully expecting a horse-drawn carriage carrying the 'dark lord' asking people to 'turn to the dark side'.

Once I'd walked back and forth along this street I went back to the river front to see it lit in all of it's glory. The river front was as busy as ever and it took quite a few elbows to get the photo I wanted. After taking a few hits myself I withdrew from the area and proceeded back towards the train station. I was almost back at the train station when I saw a street totally transformed by snow and ice. Just like the rest of Otaru, this street was lit up by candles however, it was also covered in small pieces of snow art. These bits of art included circles of moons or stars – made out of snow – with a candle in the centre. I would have spent longer looking at the pieces of art if it hadn't been for the fact that so many people had walked through here before me and turned the snowy floor into a sheet of ice. To make matters worse, halfway down this street a small snow maze had been erected meaning that the ever reducing ground was having more and more feet trample on it … making it even slipper. I decided to adopt 'penguin mode' which required me to walk like a penguin. It did succeed in stopping me from falling over however, I did get quite a few funny looks from people striding past me.

After I'd waddled off the 'ice street of death', I changed back into a human and walked back to the train station. As I took my last look at Otaru I realised that, sure the small candles in the small snow huts could not compare to the colossal snow sculptures in Sapporo however, my god Otaru is very beautiful. It is much more beautiful than Sapporo.

Once I'd bought a ticket I found myself catching a train which was about to depart. Once again there were no spare seats and, this time, there was no view either. Apart from eating I'd been on my feet almost eight hours and so I was getting very weary. I fought the sleep which seemed to have taken everyone else within my carriage and stood there longing for Sapporo. I was overjoyed when an announcement came across the speaker stating that this service would stop at every platform from here to Sapporo. Apart from a cool breeze occasionally entering a 'over-heated' carriage, I was now praying for Sapporo to come into view.

After what seemed like years I found myself, once more, at Sapporo's train station. My feet begged me to stop however, the time was 8:30pm and I knew that there was only ninety minutes left before Sapporo's own snow festival would have it's lights turned off and be plunged into darkness. I therefore grabbed a snack, and a drink, and consumed them while sitting down. After ten to fifteen minutes I walked on.

I found myself within the middle of the park with an hour to go before it closed. As expected the crowds were eminence and my 'lighting pace' had been brought to a stand still. What I hadn't expected was that the weather, even at night, was holding up. Snow wasn't falling and there was little wind; also it was still quite warm. I moved along with the crowd, adopting my 'penguin walk' as the paths were incredibly slippery. I looked up to see Darth Vader bathed in light. I thought this structure was impressive during the day however, at night, the lights gave it a whole new dimension. I proceeded on, still awe struck however, things weren't quite as good as they were two years ago. I remembered that, two years ago, there was an Audi car made out of snow. Using 'projection mapping' this car came alive and, with the music, the whole show was sensational. I looked around to see if I could see something similar but alas, no decent 'projection mapping' shows could be found. I proceeded around as much of the park as I could before the lights were turned off and cars were once again allowed to use the roads located in between the individual snow sculptures. It was now 10pm and so I headed in the direction of my hotel, but not to it. I still hadn't had any tea and so it was time to search for 'Genghis Khan'.

I found a 'Genghis Khan' restaurant quite close to my hotel and took my seat at the very end of a 'diner like table'. This table surrounded a central part where the waiters and chef's worked. Apart from being close to the door (therefore, every time it opened – and it opened a lot – I would feel a chill) I was looking forward to my meal. Eventually a waiter came over with a salad and a plate with six slices of raw lamb on it. Then the waiter did something I did not expect; he bent down and put on 'heat resistant' gloves. Next he brought over a metal container and, using a pair of steel tongs, he put red hot coals into this container. Finally he placed a metal cooking lid over the container and filled it with butter, onions and a small amount of oil. As it was spitting away the waiter explained the obvious which was “...don't touch. Very hot...”. I then used the set of smaller tongs I'd been given and placed my first couple of pieces of lamb on the cooking lid. I watched it sizzle and waited.

Though the meal wasn't that big, I loved it. Lamb is one of my most favourite meats and these pieces were tender and juicy. I could have eaten another two plates however, seeing the price tag, I stopped at one plate, paid and went to a local convenience store for dessert. I took my cake to my hotel room where I collapsed on the bed forgetting to either eat said cake or put it in the fridge. As I fought back my eye-lids I thought “...what a day!...” and tried to retrace all that I had done however, it was no good … I was asleep.

Sunday 8th February

I had gone to bed around midnight and, though I was extremely tired, I found myself wide awake at 8:30am. Eight and a half hours sleep is pretty good however, I think it was the excitement of another day at the snow festival which stirred me from my sleep. I got ready and threw the fresh cream cake I'd bought yesterday into the bin. To rectify my catastrophic mistake, I swore that I would have cake for breakfast and, once ready, I left the hotel taking my bags with me.

I arrived back at the snow park around 10am and I still hadn't eaten breakfast. Of course I had walked past many cake shops along the way however, I wanted to eat breakfast within a café which I been to two years previously. This café's cakes weren't any better than the other places I'd already past; neither were it's drinks. The whole reason was because this café’s first floor eating area over-looked the ski jump and, at 10:30am, a performance was due to start. I went into the café ordering a sandwich, a hot chocolate and a chocolate cake. I sat down at a table next to a window slightly annoyed that, people who were more interested in reading their books / newspapers, had taken these 'prime viewing' seats too … even when they didn't want to watch what was happening outside. This lead to a lot of people, who wanted to watch the skiing, having to sit at the back of the building. I sat down and I ate my rather strange breakfast watching the action outside. Currently it was the juniors who were performing; obviously they weren't as good as the adults however, for their age, they put on a splendid show with many jumps and a few mid-air twists. My food had run out long before the performance had finished however, I kept in my seat nursing a glass of water.

Once finished I left the café noticing, for the first time today, that it was pretty windy and some snow was falling. I did one final loop of the snow park, seeing super-mario in his kart and the international tournament, before calling it a weekend. I was happy to see that, in the international tournament, Thailand had won with it's 'Tuk-tuk sculpture', Finland was second with Korea third, Poland fourth and Italy fifth. Once again the UK hadn't been represented.

With the snow being blown into my face by the wind, it was time to say goodbye to Sapporo once more. I found an entrance to the underground walkway and took my last look at the 'Star Wars' sculpture, which had dominated this years display, before proceeding down the steps.

Once at the train station I had time to grab lunch before taking the train back to the airport. I opted for more meat, ordering a beautiful steak dish. As I ate through the beautiful tender meat I realised that the food on this trip had been outstanding; every meal had been delicious and I will certainly pay more attention to food in the future.

With lunch over I purchased a ticket for the next train to the airport. Thankfully, for the first time this trip, I found a seat and so I crashed into it, occasionally chatting to a Singaporean couple across the isle from me. Once at the airport I found time to buy a few souvenirs and indulge in my final treat. When I arrived in Sapporo yesterday (was it only yesterday) I told you that I found a food stall I liked, only to loose it again. Well today I found it again and so I ordered an 'ice cream sunday' which came with a slice of cheese cake. Time was running out and so I ate it quickly before running to the gate however, it had been worth it; the cake was absolutely delicious.

As it turned out, I didn't need to rush the eating of my sunday; the boarding of my flight was delayed by about fifteen minutes. Apart from that – and a bit of turbulence as we ascended and descended through cloud - the flight was perfect (I even bought a drink). Once back at Sendai airport I left the terminal and walked back to my car. Above me dark clouds had formed however, they held off for most of the drive back to Miyako. Only when I was within an hour of home did they lower and produce a fog which reduced my visibility to only a few hundred feet. This added a little time to my journey however, I was back in my apartment by 10:30pm and tucked up in bed by 11pm with a cup of coco in hand. I didn't go to sleep straight away; the weekend had been so manic that I used this time to peer at my souvenirs and try to take everything in. I'd had a brilliant weekend however, I wished that I'd stayed one more night. With one more night I could have gone a little slower and really appreciated everything around me. Still; this is the second time I'd visited this snow festival in three years and, if this years event is anything to go by, I'll probably be back next year.

Toodle pip!

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