A towering dragon from the Final Fantasy game series, an almost identical replica of the Great Lecture Hall of a Nara temple, and the giant head of Astroboy, a robot boy created by manga artist Osamu Tezuka, were just a few of the highlights from the snow sculptures featured at this year's 69th annual Sapporo Snow Festival, or Yuki Matsuri
. The festival running from February 5 – February 12 2018 boasts 201 snow and ice sculptures, spread across three sites, the majority of which span a stretch of 1.5km in Sapporo's famous Odori Park.
An ice sculpture near the Sapporo TV Tower
The entrance to the festival starts near Odori station at the base of the Sapporo TV Tower, where people can enjoy skating on a rink near the iconic landmark, which offers one of the best nighttime views in Japan. The festival attracts around 2 million Japanese and foreign visitors every year, so a one-way only route up and down the park makes it much easier to navigate. Sculptures ranged from life-size buildings built by the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force, to small sculptures made by citizens of Sapporo celebrating popular culture.
A cosplayer posing in front of the Artic Armageddon: The Final Fantasy XIV Online snow sculpture
An epic Final Fantasy scene is brought to life with dramatic projections
Indeed, Japanese gaming and anime culture was given centre stage at this event. One of the most impressive large sculptures was Artic Armageddon: The Final Fantasy XIV Online. This sculpture recreated an epic scene from the popular Japanese online game franchise. In it, a dragon called Nidhogg gnashes his sharp teeth as his arch foe the valiant Azure Dragoon, Estinien Wyrmblood, tries to pierce him with his legendary spear Gae Bolg. Models wearing Final Fantasy cosplay walked in front of the statue posing for pictures with onlookers.
At night the sculpture was further transformed, with dramatic Final Fantasy theme music playing, and a coloured light show projection equipped with neon lights, and lightning bolt and wild fire special effects, bringing the epic struggle between man and roaring dragon to life.
Osamu Tezuka’s famous manga characters - Black Jack, Astroboy, Leo, and Sapphire
A snow sculpture commemorating the late Osamu Tezuka, one of the most influential manga artists, on what would be his 90th birthday, was a firm nod to this beloved creator. A snow mountain set out in a format mimicking the US Mount Rushmore depicted Tezuka's most famous characters. In the centre was his most iconic character, Astroboy, a sweet robot boy, alongside Black Jack, a gifted surgeon operating in secret, Leo, a white lion, and Sapphire, a princess masquerading as a knight. It was a delight to see the grandiose sculpture lit up in neon at night, as it faithfully celebrated the great achievements of Japanese manga and anime.
Daikodo, The Great Lecture Hall of the Buddhist Yakushiji Temple, Nara
The almost full-scale Daikodo in profile
As well as popular culture, traditional Japanese culture was also placed on the forefront. The largest sculpture was the Daikodo, The Great Lecture Hall of the Buddhist Yakushiji Temple, Nara. It was a stand out piece as unlike the other large-scale sculptures, which were mainly facades, this was an almost identical 3D reproduction. It was amazing to see the painstaking detail put into an installation of this scale, built by 3,800 personnel from the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force, taking 28 days to complete.
The light show at night added to the realistic nature of the reproduction by projecting coloured lights to fill in the red walls and green doors. The dramatic traditional Japanese music, and projections of the solar system and trees and natural landscapes onto the building evoked the spirituality and wisdom of a religious temple where learned priests discussed their practices.
The Taichung Railway Station, Taiwan
As much as it celebrated Japanese traditional and popular culture, the festival also embraced internationalism. Three of the major snow sculptures were of famous buildings and figures from other parts of the world. My personal favourite, the sculpture of the Taichung Railway Station in Taiwan, was carved out of ice in intricate detail, and looked breathtaking lit up in neon and green against the night sky.
An ode to American composer Leonard Bernstein
American musician and composer Leonard Bernstein renowned for his music from the 1950s classic musical West Side Story, was paid tribute to by a snow sculpture commissioned by the Pacific Music Festival. The regal statue and live performances from classical singers highlighted the legacy of this great pianist and conductor.
Storkyrkan, a.k.a Stockholm Cathedral
The HBC Square highlights a different country every year, and this year chose the Northern European country of Sweden, which has had diplomatic ties with Japan for 150 years. The snow sculpture of Storkyrkan is a half-scale version of the famous Stockholm Cathedral, famous for hosting the royal wedding of the current King Carl XVI Gustav of Sweden. The sculpture is 15m high and 26m wide, and took 1,200 people over the course of 27 days to complete.
The Finnish team hard at work on their snow sculpture
The global nature of this festival is most apparent at the International Snow Sculpture contest. Twelve countries from Asia, North America, Europe and Australasia are working from 4 – 7 February to complete their snow sculpture designs. Seeing these countries side by side in friendly competition was really inspiring, and a testament to the festival's importance in fostering positive relations between Japan and abroad. Participants could be seen working day and night trying to perfect their designs.
Crab on a stick
Grilled scallops and squid
Hot beverages aplenty
With Sapporo being one of the foodie capitals of Japan, it is unsurprising that a lot of delicious eats could be found at the festival when taking a break from the visual wonder. The Hokkaido Winter Food Park, in the middle of the festival, hosted a variety of delicious Japanese and international food. All of Hokkaido's famous cuisine could conveniently be sampled in one place, with stalls selling the grilled mutton dish Genghis Khan, Sapporo miso ramen, soup curry, and baked potatoes with famous Hokkaido butter.
With Hokkaido situated near the sea, it is known for its remarkably fresh seafood, and there was plenty of delicious seafood to be tasted. I sunk my teeth into a tasty crabstick and grilled scallops topped with squid. With the weather reaching minus temperatures, stalls were selling all types of hot drinks ranging from hot chocolate, to lemonade, and even mojitos!
As well as the snow and ice sculptures there were also performances and entertainment throughout the venue. The HTB Park Air ramp sponsored by the Shiro Koibito Sweet Park, the famous producer of white chocolate sandwich biscuits popular from Hokkaido, drew interest from onlookers as they watched snowboarders do tricks on the steep ramp.
A fan posing their collectible with the Snow Miku sculpture
There were also acappella groups around the stage near the Snow Miku sculpture, a winter themed version of Hatsune Miku, the vocaloid superstar who appears as a hologram at live concerts. Avid fans lined up to buy exclusive merchandise and took pictures of the Snow Miku sculpture with their collectibles.
Nivea’s sculpture with logo, polar bears, and real bubbles
There was certainly a commercial aspect that came through at the festival, which was understandable for an event with a footfall of 2 million every year. Nivea commissioned a sculpture celebrating 50 years of its famous skin care brand, complete with cute polar bears and real bubbles, evoking the squeaky clean freshness of the brand. Doshin Ice Square featured several equestrian-themed ice sculptures sponsored by the JRA (Japan Racing Association). Here the designated smokers area was given an icy makeover, and horse-racing scenes were brought to life at night by neon lights sparking through the crystal-like ice.
Ice sculpture sponsored by JRA (Japan Racing Association)
Another standout was a quirky snow slide coming out of a giant snow version of ramen cup noodles, where families had fun sliding down to the bottom like noodles falling out of a cup.
Parents and kids slide down the cup noodle ramen slide
Perhaps the most commercial-centric part of the festival was focused on the Susukino site with 60 intricately carved ice sculptures. Two columns of crystal-like ice sculptures lined the middle of the road in the busy red-light district of Susukino. Everything from Sapporo beer to Nanaco e-money cards were being promoted, but despite the sometimes in-your-face commercialism every piece could still be appreciated for the skill and dedication used to complete it.
Indeed, I had a sneak peak the day before the official opening where I saw scores of people working busily using power tools to shave and chip away at the ice to make these beautiful forms. The theme of the sculptures not showing brands seemed to be animals and mythical creatures—sculptures of polar bears and fish, unicorns and dragons could be seen to the joy of onlookers.
Sapporo Beer Ice Sculpture in Susukino
Finishing touches on a mythical creature ice sculpture in Susukino
Despite the commercialism it is clear that at the heart of the festival are the local citizens and community of Sapporo, which is where it all began. Medium and small sculptures created by local organisations and citizens reflected the cultural landscape of Japan, with odes to classic characters such as Doraemon and Pikachu, alongside more traditional homages to Buddhist statues and family scenes. Interestingly, it was tributes to Minions that appeared most throughout the citizens' sculptures, showing the general admiration for these cute yellow creatures in kawaii-obsessed Japan.
A citizen’s snow sculpture of Doraemon
One of many of the Minion-themed snow sculptures
A Buddha snow sculpture
The Sapporo Snow Festival never seems to disappoint, and this year was no exception. It is easy to see why this has become a must see national and even international winter event. The festival manages to successfully bring together traditional and popular forms of Japanese culture, whilst also promoting stronger ties between international communities, never losing sight of the local Sapporo community at its core. If you're visiting Japan during this February I strongly recommend coming out to see the festival, it's worth it even if you have to brave the cold to see the 'best in snow'!
Odori & Susukino Site: February 5 2018 (Monday) to February 12 2018 (Monday).
Tsudome Site: February 1 2018 (Thursday) to February 12 2018 (Monday)
The Festival is best accessed from Odori Park Station, which is 10 minutes from Sapporo Station on the Hakodate Line (including transfer time to the Sapporo Subway), or 2 minutes from the Sapporo City Subway Namboku or Toho Line. Take any exit leading to the Sapporo TV Tower. Odori Park is a 15-minute walk from Sapporo Station.
The Susukino site located near Susukino Station is an 11-minute train ride from Sapporo Station (including transfer time to Sapporo Subway), or 3 minutes from the Sapporo City Subway Namboku Line (one stop after Odori). The Suskino site is a 20-minute walk from Sapporo station.