Yuki Matsuri...

Trip Start Oct 27, 2007
Trip End Feb 27, 2008

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

My other remaining priority for this trip to Japan, having succeeded in seeing Mount Fuji, was to travel up to Hokkaido for Sapporo's famous Snow Festival, or Yuki Matsuri. Apparently two million people flock to Sapporo each year for the ten day event, and accommodation is very hard to come by, hence why I reserved my place at the YHA some three months prior, and it turned out to be a fantastic place...

After flying up to Sapporo from Tokyo on one of Japan's budget airlines, I soon discovered that it was pretty darn cold, with temperatures around minus ten! This didn't bother me at all though, as it was great to be surrounded by so much snow, with bicycles completely buried in it...we just don't experience that back home anymore.

The main focal point of the Yuki Matsuri is situated in Odori-koen, a 2km long stretch of parkland in the city centre. Here, monumental ice sculptures with incredible detail are erected each year, interspersed with numerous other attractions and plenty of eateries (which goes without saying!). As I arrived before the official start of the festival, I was able to see the sculptures being made which was both interesting, and mindboggling...

I met up with Rich, the English guy that I'd met in Kyoto, and we had a good few days together, drinking plenty of beer. We went to the Sapporo Draught brewery one afternoon, which was completely free, and included a twenty minute 'all-you-can-drink' session afterwards! Needless to say, we filled our boots (not literally), and one of the waitresses was quick to tell us that our time was up as soon as the clock hit the twenty minute mark! We contemplated doing the tour again seen as though it was completely free, but that really would have been taking the piss!

There are some great pool hall/darts bar places in most Japanese cities, and Sapporo was no exception, so we enjoyed some marathon sessions. I came out on top in the pool, but the darts was a lot closer, except on the last night when everything I touched turned to gold! Unlike in a game of 501 on TV, you didn't have to finish on a double here, and my luck was in evidence when an attempt at double fifteen, when needing thirty to win, missed by so much that it landed in treble ten...just as good!

Along the main street of Sapporo were dozens of smaller ice sculpures that were just as impressive as the ones in Odori-koen, albeit in a different way. I think that I appreciated these ones as you could see them being made throughout, with the sculptors using chainsaws and chisels to achieve remarkable detail. Also here were various igloos that had different themes, such as Bailey's and Moet. Rich and me regularly stopped for a warm glass of Bailey's, and we even splashed out on a five pound glass of Moet each one evening...living the high life!

After Rich had flown back to Tokyo, I began to explore the areas around Sapporo a bit more, starting with a day trip to the onsen town of Jozankei. This was quite a scenic area with plenty of snow covered mountains, and I got a great view of it all whilst relaxing in a steamy rotemburo. In fact, I had the whole bath to myself for the duration, so there were no old men's dangly bits to detract from the idyllic surroundings...always something of a bonus!

There are many snow festivals in Hokkaido throughout January and February, although Sapporo's is by far the most extravagant and well-known. Even so, I wanted to see other ones, and so headed off to Otaru for their annual Snow Gleaming Festival. The town is known as "the Venice of Japan" which is ridiculously wide of the mark, but it did have an attractive canal with picturesque old gas lamps running by its side. It was typically busy though as everyone waited for darkness to descend, so that the hundreds of lanterns placed in the water at this time of year could be seen. I've never seen so many tripods gathered in one place before, but it was a photogenic scene so the crowds were understandable...

Back in Sapporo, I spent my last few days taking it easy, enjoying the climax of the festival. There was a pretty big ski jump facility in amongst the sculptures of Odori-koen, and I spent a couple of hours watching all the snowboarders attempting to do spectacular jumps, sometimes to great effect, and sometimes...not! One guy couldn't apply the brakes quickly enough and crashed into the fence and then the crowd, but after much panic he emerged, presumably a little red-faced, in one piece...

Soon after, the Yuki Matsuri, and my time in Hokkaido, drew to a close. I'd had a wonderful time though, and I was now looking forward to the final part of my trip, a time when my tour guide expertise would need to come to the fore...
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