Earlier this month, I went to Sapporo to visit the Snow Festival, go skiing, and celebrate my 24th birthday. Sapporo is the fourth largest city in Japan and capital of Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island. It is famous for its beer, food, and the annual Snow Festival, which attracts millions of visitors every year. Hokkaido is known for a variety of local food specialties, as well its ski resorts, massive snowfalls and world-renowned champagne powder. Hokkaido was a dream destination for me, at the top of my Japan bucket-list. I’m so glad that I was able to go, especially with the perfect timing of the Snow Festival and my birthday on the same weekend! It was an amazing trip, shared with wonderful people.
I went with five of my friends, Stephanie, Meera, Justine, Hana, and Marisa. We left early on a Friday morning, and stayed for two nights in an Airbnb . We were all worried about the cold, but we were blessed with nice weather. The temperatures were cold but bearable, and we had beautiful sunshine on Friday, and snow for the next two days. Sapporo is a large city, and to me, it looked a lot like Tokyo, just with snow. All of the people we met were incredibly kind and helpful, the food was delicious, and the Snow festival and skiing were a ton of fun. We had a great, full weekend, squeezing in as much as possible, and eating as many Hokkaido foods as we could. It was the perfect way to ring in my 24th birthday!
The Sapporo Snow Festival began in 1950, with just a few small snow sculptures in Odori Park, and has grown in size, popularity, and grandeur ever since. Now, the Festival is held at three different sites across the city. There are hundreds of snow and ice sculptures, food, music and snowsports performances, mascots, and even activities like snow tubing. Our first stop was to the main Odori site.
There were tons of different snow sculptures, very impressive in their intricacy and size – some were as large as buildings. The biggest sculptures this year featured Stars Wars, Final Fantasy, L’arc de Triomphe, and the Chu-Kondo Temple. There were many smaller sculptures of famous characters like Hello Kitty, Doraemon, Pikachu, and no less than four different PPAP sculptures. My favorite sculpture was of Cup Noodles, where the noodles were a slide. We wandered our way around the site, stopping admire the sculptures, pose with mascots, and eat. There were many different food stalls selling famous Hokkaido food, and it reminded me of a State Fair in the US. We ate fresh crab sticks topped with mayo, potatoes and butter, and macarons, and drank hot mulled wine and hot chocolate.
Sapporo Beer Museum
Next we went to the Sapporo Beer Museum. The beautiful old brick building, built in 1890, was originally a sugar factory, and is now home to a beer garden and Japan’s only beer museum.
On the way there, we passed by some kids sledding. They started showing off for us, so we said hello, and they offered us a turn on their sleds. It was a really cute moment, and I was touched by how nice and friendly they were, just like pretty much everyone I talked to in Hokkaido. It was a refreshing change of pace from dealing with busy Tokyoites. Once at the Beer Museum, we sat down in the restaurant and enjoyed one of Hokkaido’s signature dishes, “Genghis Khan.” It is lamb and vegetables that you grill yourself on a dome-shaped skillet, then dip in a sauce. It was some of the best lamb I’ve ever had in my life, served alongside a perfectly crisp Sapporo.
After the Sapporo Beer Museum, we picked up our luggage from the station and went to our Airbnb. We had a little difficulty finding the place and getting the hot water running, but were able to sort it out. We were all dead tired, so we rested for a little, and then headed out to Susukino, Sapporo’s nightlife district and the site of the Snow Festival’s ice sculpture competition. After walking to several restaurants which were closed, we found a Soup Curry restaurant that was open and could seat us. Soup Curry is another Hokkaido speciality, and one of my new favorite Japanese foods. It is a liquid curry broth topped with fresh vegetables and your choice of meat, with rice on the side. You get to pick the spiciness level, and it’s one of the few Japanese foods I’ve had that’s actually has a heat to it. It’s warm and hearty, just what you need after a day out in chilly Hokkaido.
Skiing at Ski Tiene
On Saturday we went skiing at Ski Tiene, a small resort just a 40 minutes from Sapporo. I would have loved to go to Niesko, Japan’s most famous ski resort, but there wasn’t time on our quick trip. No matter, I was happy just to be out in the snow and on skis, and I had a great time with the girls.
Ski Tiene is very close to the coast, and has an incredible view overlooking the ocean. I’ve never gone skiing so close to the ocean, and I couldn’t believe how light and fluffy the snow was, given our proximity to the water. I guess that’s why Hokkaido powder is so famous!
In the morning, we stayed on the easy slopes, since it was Hana and Meera’s first time skiing. They both did so well! Then Marisa and I went to the upper mountain, which was almost a total white out. We did a few runs together, finding moguls, steeps, and some nice trees, and then met up with the others for lunch. We rode up the gondola together and admired the view. In the afternoon, it started snowing really hard. It was extremely windy and some of the runs were really icy, so we went to down to the lower mountain. Not ideal conditions, but Marisa and I squeezed in as many runs as we could, taking four “last runs.”
After skiing, we had a really fun dinner at an izakaya (Japanese-style pub) in Susukino. At this point, we were all exhausted to the point of delirium, and slap-happy as a result. We were singing, yelling and laughing like little kids. Luckily, we had a super friendly waiter who was happy to play along with us. We had the cheapest nomihoudai (all you can drink deal) I’ve found yet in Japan, and some seriously good food. We ordered a sashimi plate, chicken wings, fried fish, pasta, fries, edamame, cabbage, and salad. Everything was delicious, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. On the way home we stopped for ice cream, getting our fix of Hokkaido’s famous dairy.
On Sunday morning, our group split in half, and Stephanie, Marisa and I headed to Otaru, a charming little town 40 minutes from Sapporo. Otaru is like a like a frozen winter Venice. It is on canals just like Venice, but covered in snow. The train ride was beautiful, going directly next to the ocean, so all we could see were waves and snow. We also saw people surfing, which is insane, given that it was snowing and in the negative digits outside. We started up a conversation with a friendly American guy and his Japanese girlfriend, and they were kind enough to give us recommendations of what to see and where to eat, and even walk us to the main street.
We had lunch in a sushi place recommended by our new friends. We got kaisendon (sushi and rice bowls) filled with all kinds of seafood – tuna, shrimp, salmon, umi, ikura (samon roe), squid, and unagi. Everything was fresh and delicious. After lunch, we walked down Otaru’s main street, which was lined with sushi restaurants, fancy bakeries, chocolate shops, and souvenir shops with Venetian-inspired hand blown glass art. Many of the restaurants had tanks outside with fresh oysters, shrimp, and even a live squid.
We stopped into the famous LeTAO bakery, and sampled an assortment of delicious chocolates and cheesecakes. Finally, we made our way to the canals, which were simply beautiful. The town felt very European and not like Japan at all. It was snowing, and I felt like I was walking around the cute little town inside in a snowglobe all day.
After a lovely day touring Otaru, we headed back to Sapporo. Stephanie and I stopped for dinner before departing for the airport. We found an indoor ramen yokocho (area of small streets and alleys with many restaurants) on the top floor of the station, and tried one last famous Hokkaido dish – miso ramen. I got the spicy kind, and it was delicious.
Full, happy, and tired, we made our way to the airport and returned home. I really enjoyed my trip to Hokkaido, and I hope to return someday!