A Winter Wonderland: Sapporo Yuki Matsuri

Last year in January, I saw snow for the first time. As someone who grew up in Southern California and never went to the mountains during winter, I had never really seen snow before. When I was a toddler, my family visited my grandparents in Oregon during winter, and there are pictures of me playing in the snow with my mom, but I don’t remember any of that. So even though I’ve technically seen snow and played it in before, I can’t remember the experience of it. So I usually tell people I’ve never seen it.

That changed last year when in snowed in Chiba. I only saw a little bit of snow then, really, but it was enough to shut down trains and buses all over Chiba.

Last year, I really enjoyed seeing the snow, in spite of the difficulties it caused me. I thought it was something I wouldn’t mind seeing again.

And then I heard about the Yuki Matsuri.

Every year, Sapporo, the biggest city in Hokkaido, holds a Snow Festival, complete with snow and ice sculptures. I really wanted to go last year, but you have to make reservations early, because it’s very popular and there won’t be space left for long.

So back in August, I made all the reservations, all the preparations, for going to Hokkaido in February. And despite all of that, I was totally not prepared…

For all the pretty!

View from LeTao Tower in Otaru

View from LeTao Tower in Otaru

I was, however, prepared for the cold.

But still overwhelmed by all the pretty.

But still overwhelmed by all the pretty.

I had my snow boots that I got in the U.S., my fluffy winter jacket, Heat Tech shirts, and my cupcake hat. I was worried about looking like a silly Southern Californian tourist who had never experience cold before, but I just wanted to be comfortable. And I was quite comfortable.

Early in the morning on February 8th, I left from Haneda airport with a group of friends. We spent four days in Hokkaido, from the 8th to the 11th. Four wonderful, snow-tastic days.

But Hokkaido wasn’t the only place having a snow-tabulous time.

We left on Saturday morning, on the eve of the Great Tokyo Blizzard, apparently. Right after we arrived at Chitose Airport in Hokkaido, people were posting pictures all over Facebook of the crazy snow in Chiba. We might as well have stayed home and played in the snow there. Saved ourselves 700 bucks. And as it was, we might have been stuck in Tokyo, because of the blizzard.

But then we would have missed…

The Odori Snow Sculptures

When we arrived in Hokkaido, we took a train from the airport to Sapporo station. We ate lunch there, and then hopped on a subway train to our hotel, which was very conveniently located.

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After checking in, we played in the snow a little and then headed to the Odori site, where there were hundreds of snow sculptures lining twelve blocks.

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And those are only a few that I chose to show you. Over the entire four days I was in Hokkaido, I took over 400 pictures.

I know, right?

I know, right?

The snow sculptures in Odori were amazing, and it was really fun to walk around in the snow with everyone. I recommend trying to spend a day there; our day was a little short. After spending the afternoon there, it began to get dark.

Sapporo Bier Garden

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We had a reservation at Sapporo Bier Garden. Although we were planning to get the nomi/tabehoudai set, it turned out that the tabehoudai only came with mutton—boring! (Plus, I don’t eat mutton.) So we scratched that and got nomihoudai and just ordered whatever food we wanted.

We all agreed that the food was good, but not spectacular. We had “Genghis Khan,” and that was less exciting than everyone was making it out to be. Before I left school on Friday, all my teachers were telling me I had to try it, but I guess they didn’t know that Mongolian Barbecue is pretty common. (At least in California, I guess.)

Really, the BEST part of the dinner, besides everyone getting drunk and happy, was the garlic cheese they had as part of a bread and cheese plate. You guys. That Cheese. With a capital C. So good.

So if you’re going to Sapporo, maybe walk around the Bier Garden (which we didn’t get to do), but possibly go somewhere else for dinner. The company was good, but the food was a little boring.

Except for that garlic cheese. Oh, the garlic cheese…

Susukino Ice Sculptures

On the second day, we went to the Susukino site to see the ice sculptures. These were my favorite sculptures during the whole weekend. They were gorgeous, and these pictures definitely can’t do them justice. I think this was my favorite site for the Yuki Matsuri.

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Shiroi Koibito Chocolate Factory

After looking at ice sculptures for a while, our toes were getting pretty cold, so we wanted to do something indoors. One of the people I was with mentioned a chocolate factory.

Chocolate factory?! DONE.

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This factory makes the famous Shiroi Koibito cookies. It is definitely worth a visit, if only because there is an ice slide.

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We walked around the factory, which had exhibits about how chocolate is made, the history of chocolate, and racism.

I’m just gonna leave that there.

I’m just gonna leave that there.

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They also had a café with delicious desserts, and we couldn’t help ourselves.

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The café had a gorgeous view, and we were lucky enough to be right next to the window.

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Ramen Yokocho

In Susukino, there is a famous street of ramen shops. We had some trouble finding it—Japan never labels these things properly, nor puts street maps anywhere, even in tourist spots—but we did eventually. You just gotta look for this:

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And don’t be fooled by the “new” Ramen Yokocho. There are some signs on the main street that indicate a Ramen Yokocho, but it’s not the Ramen Yokocho. You have to go down a side street for it.

A lot of the places were full, and one place was even completely empty, because someone had made reservations for the whole thing (and weren’t there yet). We ended up finding a tiny place and had ramen for dinner there. I recommend possibly making reservations, or maybe getting there earlier.

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It was delicious, and the man running the shop was very friendly. I got the spicy ramen, and I was surprised by how much black pepper was in it. I’ve never had ramen that was so peppery. I liked it, though.

Nijo Fish Market

In the morning of the third day, I went to get breakfast at this fish market, just like the internet told me to.

Best idea the internet has ever had.

Besides LOLCats, I guess.

Besides LOLCats, I guess.

We took the train down to Odori station and walked to the fish market, which wasn’t far at all.

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It was a really cool market. I read that the locals shop there all the time, and I could see why. First of all, Hokkaido is known for its fresh seafood, and the seafood there was definitely fresh and relatively cheap. Before I left Tomiura, everyone kept telling me that I had to try all the seafood in Hokkaido, because it was bomb. (Not their words.) They were right; everything tasted so fresh and not fishy. I’m not a big fan of fish, but this stuff—this stuff I could eat every day.

And I basically did.

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This was my breakfast. I’m sure it looks strange, but it was delicious. It was crab, uni (sea urchin), and ikura (fish eggs) over rice. Ikura is usually really salty, and a lot of people I know don’t like it, but this ikura was fresh and sweet, not salty at all. This was my first time eating uni, too, and I figured that this was as good a time as any to try it. Especially since it was probably the best uni out there.

So. Good. I will never forget that breakfast.

The place we ate at was great, too. The owner greeted us outside while we were looking at the menu, and he was so friendly. He spoke English a little, and then he noticed Arisa and asked if Japanese was okay. She said that it was okay for all of us, and he was like, “Ahh! Why didn’t you say something?” Haha!

I recommend the place. It was delicious, and the people were friendly, and there was writing all over the walls by people who had been there before. It’s just around the corner from the fish market. Check it out if you’re there!

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Tsudome Snow Slides

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After breakfast, we took a train and then a bus to the Tsudome site for the snow slides.

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So much fun. Anyone who didn’t go here while they were at the Yuki Matsuri really missed out.

First, we went on the high hill, pictured above. You sit down in an inner tube, and they push you down a hill carved out of the snow. The wait wasn’t too long, and the ride was worth it. Do it.

Next, we got on a raft and a man pulled us on a snow mobile.

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Everyone was so excited about it, and it was awesome. The wind against your face as you slide across the ice is really cold, but there’s a thrill that comes with gliding over the earth like that.

Otaru Light Festival

At around 2 PM, we went to Otaru, a harbor city about 40 minutes by train from Sapporo. I didn’t want to miss what Otaru had, and I’m glad we made the trip there, because it was gorgeous and amazing. A day trip to Otaru is ideal, though, so if you go to the Yuki Matsuri and want to check out Otaru, get up early and go.

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Otaru has many things to see, but we stuck to cheesecake at LeTao (another chocolate company, like Shiroi Koibito) and walking around to see the Light Festival.

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In the Light Festival, they make snow and ice sculptures and put candles in them, which makes for brightly lit snow.

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I really wanted to see the Otaru Canal, too, which was supposed to be lit up as well.

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Otaru was definitely worth the trip, and I wish I could have spent a whole day there.

Because Otaru is a harbor city, its seafood is supposed to be especially good. It’s known for sushi, so we went to the sushi street and found a place there.

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Preparations for Departure

After Otaru, we returned to our hotel in Sapporo and ate pizza at the restaurant there for second dinner. I ate so unhealthily on this trip. I’ll have to jump back in the pool right away. I also spent a lot of money on snack-souvenirs (snacks I can only get in Hokkaido). I may have gone a little overboard.

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On the last morning, everyone went omiyage shopping at the local Aeon grocery store (for local cheese) and in Sapporo station. I split off from the group to get ramen by myself at a place my friend had recommended.

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This is Keyaki. I didn’t know before I got there and started researching it on my phone, but apparently this ramen shop is very famous. It’s really lucky I went by myself, because Keyaki only seats 10 people, and you have to wait outside in a line until there is room inside. It wasn’t too bad of a wait, because I arrived at 11:30 for lunch. I waited in line for a little while, looking at the menu that was posted outside, and then when there was standing room inside, a woman invited me in to order. She placed my order, and I waited inside in the heated room (that smelled so good) until there was an open seat.

And then, ramen.

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Hokkaido: Impressions

Hokkaido is beautiful and I definitely want to visit it again before I leave. I think I’d like to see the mountains and the lakes (sounds like a camping trip is in my future). There is a lot to see in Hokkaido, and there’s no way to see it all in four days, much less while Yuki Matsuri is going on.

I read that Hokkaido has the most open space out of every island in Japan, so it sounds like it’s my favorite island. The weather in the summer is bearable, even if it’s cold in winter, and there is a lot of beautiful scenery.

The people were very nice, too. Everyone was helpful and friendly—probably because they are accustomed to tourists. A lot of shop owners spoke English readily, too.

Travel Tips

First of all, PLAN YOUR TRIP. I made the mistake of not researching what to do in Hokkaido during the Yuki Matsuri until two days before, and even then I didn’t coordinate with anyone else who was going. That was definitely a mistake. I ended up spending a lot of money on unnecessary trips back and forth across the city, and our group got split up and confused a lot.

Speaking of groups, don’t go with 10 people. The size of the group of people I was with was a surprise to me—I didn’t know that many people we knew were going—and it would have been better if we split up in the first place or at least planned with each other. Either way, there is never enough room for a group that large anywhere, unless you make reservations. And as I said before, we weren’t that prepared. The only reservations we made were for the Sapporo Bier Garden.

On Transportation: The airport is an airport, and the trains are trains. In Hokkaido, they have JR Lines and subway trains, and your rail pass (Suica, etc.) will work on all of them. On the weekend, the subway trains have a nice deal. You can get a day pass on the weekend for 500 yen, and that’s a great deal if you’re traveling a lot on that particular day. We bought it for one day, and it was great. Be careful that you don’t lose it though!

As for your itinerary, I’m going to put two lists here. The first is what we did, and the second is what we should have done. Take the second list as an itinerary suggestion. :)

PLAN 1: Making mistakes

Saturday: Arrive at New Chitose Airport. Take a JR train to Sapporo Station. Check in at the hotel. Take a subway train to Odori Station. See the snow sculptures. Take a subway train to Sapporo Bier Garden. Carry your drunk friends back to the hotel.

Sunday: Have breakfast at the building across from Sapporo Station. Take a subway train to Hosui-Susukino Station. Walk around to see the ice sculptures. Make awed faces. Take too many pictures. Your iPhone shuts down because it’s too cold. Discover that if you keep it in your pocket, it won’t over cool. You didn’t even know overcooling was a problem. Now you do. Take a subway train to Miyanosawa Station and walk to the Shiroi Koibito Chocolate Factory. Walk around the factory and get a snack at the café. Take a subway train back to Susukino and find Ramen Yokocho to have dinner.

Monday: Take a subway train to Odori Station. Walk to Nijo Fish Market and have breakfast. It’s delicious. It ruins all food for you forever. You will never eat again. Walk back to the station and take a subway train to Sakaemachi Station. The station workers direct you to a bus that takes you to the Tsudome site. Ride on the ice slides there and get lunch there. Take a subway train back to Sapporo Station, then transfer to a JR Line and take a train to Otaru. Eat cheesecake at one of the LeTao locations. There are lines at all of them, so don’t think you’ll avoid waiting. See all of the lights, all of the lights. Have sushi in Otaru. Take a JR Line back to Sapporo Station.

Tuesday: Shop for omiyage. Split off from the ginormous group and have ramen by yourself at Keyaki. You have to go back to Susukino to find it. The snow is very bright. Put your sunglasses on, and forget to take them off when you get inside the ramen shop. Oops. Go back to Sapporo Station and catch a train back to the airport. Do more omiyage shopping at the airport. You really could have waited to do all the omiyage shopping until this point. Oops.

PLAN 2: The Better Plan! Hindsight is 20/20

Day 1: Check into your hotel, if you can, or put your things in lockers for the day. Take a subway train to Sakaemachi Station, then a bus to the Tsudome site. Enjoy the ice slides and the snow sculptures! Try to get to the ice slides when it’s still sunny and light out. For dinner, you can try the Sapporo Bier Garden. If you have time, do try to walk around the Bier Garden while it’s still light out.

Day 2: Wake up early and take a subway train to Odori Station. Walk to Nijo Fish Market and have a seafood breakfast. Then walk to the main Odori site and look at the snow sculptures. At around lunch time, take a subway train to Hosui-Susukino Station. Find the ramen shop Keyaki and have lunch. Then, walk around the Susukino site to see the ice sculptures. They are beautiful and sparkle in the sun. For dinner, go to a seafood place! If you have time, try to check out an onsen.

Day 3: After breakfast, take a subway train to Miyanosawa Station and walk to the Shiroi Koibito Chocolate Factory. Around noon, take a subway train to Sapporo Station, and then transfer to a JR Line for Otaru. Walk around Sakai-machi Main Street and have cheesecake at LeTao. The cafes are LeTao Fromage, LeTao Pathos, and the café above the main store. This main street has a lot of neat shops, so take your time! The Light Festival begins at 5:00 PM and ends at 9:00 PM. Walk to the canal and down the main festival street (it’s small and difficult to miss, so watch out!). Otaru is famous for seafood, and especially sushi, so find Sushi Yokocho and eat sushi for dinner. The onsens in Otaru are nice too.

Day 4: Wait to shop for omiyage until you get to the airport. Everything I bought throughout my Hokkaido trip, I could have just bought at Chitose Airport, for around the same price (in some cases, cheaper). I saw it all. You can get the Shiroi Koibito cookies here, and everything else in the picture of my omiyage.

Omiyage you should get: Marusei Butter Cookies, White Thunder cookies, Shiroi Koibito cookies, melon-flavored anything (I got jelly), cheese (they had a really great selection that I haven’t see anywhere else; look in grocery stores and at the airport)

:) Enjoy your trip! I enjoyed mine, even if I think we made some planning errors. It was a lot of fun.

Expenses

Unfortunately, it was also very expensive. Here’s the breakdown:

Hokkaido Trip February 8th to 11th

Cost in JPY

Rakuten booking: plane & hotel (3 nights) 58100
Charge on Suica 4000
Weekend 1-Day train pass 500
The Don — Sapporo station lunch 880
Sapporo Bier Garden — dinner 3550
Japanese breakfast across from Sapporo Station 1155
Shiroi Koibito Park 946
Ramen @ Ramen Yokocho 1150
Nijo Fish Market – breakfast 3300
LeTao cheesecake 420
Sushi @ Otaru 2100
Pizza @ hotel 1150
Keyaki ramen 900
Snacks (combini, street food, bread shops, etc.) 3961
Omiyage for other people: Marusei Butter Cookies (30), chocolate strawberries, chocolates 4399
Mitsukoshi – Cheese omiyage 3089
Daiei – omiyage 2024
Misc (locker, picture) 200
Total 91824

Vocabulary

Hokkaido n. the northernmost main island of Japan
ikura n. “fish eggs.”
kani n. “crab.”
matsuri n. “festival.”
nomihoudai n. “All You Can Drink.”
omiyage n. “souvenir.”
Otaru n. a harbor city in Hokkaido, near Sapporo.
Sapporo n. the biggest city in Hokkaido
Shiroi Koibito n. literally “White Sweetheart,” these are a brand of cookie that are famous in Hokkaido.
tabehoudai n. “All You Can Eat.”
uni n. “sea urchin.”
yuki n. “snow.”

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