Spending my 3rd winter in Japan, I decided it was about time to cave in and go to Hokkaido's famous "yuki matsuri" (snow festival.) I've always declined offers to go to Hokkaido, because it's Japan's northern most island and is known for snow, cold, green pastures, beer making, and dairy farming.... sound familiar?
Coming from the Midwest, there just wasn't a big draw for me to go to Hokkaido. If I wanted to see that sort of thing, I'd just as well go home to WI. BUT Hokkaido does have one thing that WI doesn't have- and that is the Snow Festival in February.
This year I went up there with a group of Shiga JETs to see what all the buzz was about. Am I ever glad I went!!! I never realized how much snow, cold, and central heating makes me feel right at home. The festival was held in Sapporo (the biggest city on the northern most island of Japan) and had all sorts of things to keep us entertained and amused in the freezing temps. Snow sculptures the size of houses, detailed ice carvings, mazes big enough for people to walk through, ice carving stations, ice cream making booths, the list just goes on and on....
Why don't we do these sorts of things in WI? All of the activities made the cold weather so much more bearable. I don't think I've ever spent 3 solid days outside in the middle of the winter, before this. Granted of course it's much colder in Wisconsin... but still- unless you're a lumberjack- most folks in Wisconsin do not hang out outside in the winter, not all day and straight into the night.
Of course there were some downsides...the snow for one.... I was traveling with a group of boys who weren't use to seeing snow and they couldn't seem to keep their hands out of it. I still have bruises on my back from being pelted by snow balls. Central heating (believe it or not) was also a problem. Hokkaido, unlike the rest of Japan, has central heating in hotels/schools/restaurants/etc. This seemed great at first...but turned out to be a problem for all us Kansai folk who aren't use to it anymore. Although the heat was turned off completely in our hotel room, we couldn't sleep at night because it was still too hot.
In Kobe my apartment is so cold that I curl up in a ball, and don't move from that one warm spot in my bed all night. But with central heating, we were tossing and turning, and throwing our blankets off our beds in fear of a heat stroke. After the first rough night we started propping open our balcony windows to get a nice breeze through the room.
Food was also a downside... it was all soooo delicious! My Japanese teacher told me that Hokkaido probably has the most delicious food in all of Japan, and she doesn't lie. We ate fresh seafood, and nabe, and miso ramen, and fresh lamb, and festival food, and crab legs, and chocolate (okay, you're right, there was no 'we' about that last part, but the folks I was with ate chocolate- freshly made from the chocolate factory.) And the list just goes on and on and on... that on top of an all you can eat breakfast buffet each morning at our hotel added a couple of pounds to help thicken up my nikubuton (literal translation : meat blanket (ie- extra layer of winter fat)) and prepare me for the cold tundra.
Hokkaido was a blast. I'm so glad I went. Going to such a different part of Japan helped me to remember that I can't judge the entire country based on my living experiences in Kobe and Tokyo.
People from Hokkaido were warm and friendly, eager to talk with foreigners, and willing to speak to them in Japanese. Women seemed less fragile wearing sturdy winter boots and trucking through snow banks. The day at Sato-Land (a children's play park) showed me that there are fathers in Japan who enjoy spending time with their children. All of these things were a much needed attitude lift that will hopefully help me appreciate these last few months in Japan more than I would have before.
I'm glad I took this trip. Happy to have traveled with such a great group of people. Ecstatic that I finally saw the snow sculptures and understood what all the commotion related to the Snow Festival is about. I hope my pictures can help do the same for you!