I can’t believe two months have already passed since I went to Sapporo! The memory has become almost dream-like in quality, so I suppose I’d better get on with writing my snow festival posts before I’m awake for too long and can’t recall all the glittering details!
Quick geography lesson: Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido, which is the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. It is possible to travel to Sapporo, from Tokyo, by shinkansen (bullet train), but this would take at least an entire day (if exclusively using JR trains, to make use of pre-bought JR passes), and wouldn’t really be worth it unless you were planning to stop for a while at some of the in-between towns. I mean, this would’ve been a great option, but we were short on time, so I made the executive decision to fly instead.
On February 5, which was a Sunday, KF and I flew from Tokyo to Sapporo via Japan Airlines. (Side note: JAL is a budget airline, but certainly doesn’t feel like one. They also have deals for foreign travellers. You can book flights between a number of Japan’s domestic airports for just 10,000 Yen (equivalent to about $100). I discovered this on japan-guide.com, from which I got a lot of other very useful travel advice/tips.)
The Sapporo Snow Festival was due to start on February 6 (Monday), so I figured that flying in the day before would give us a chance to settle in before immersing ourselves into the festivities. I intentionally booked a flight scheduled to depart late in the morning to (1) allow us to avoid any peak hour train crowds, and (2) give us plenty of time to get lost and eventually show up, stress-free, at the airport (we didn’t really get lost, I just went to the wrong terminal…) Anyway, the plane was delayed an hour, so we received vouchers to use at the terminal, and had enough time to eat lunch before the flight.
The plane we were on had a 3-3-3 seat configuration, which, as far as I know, we only get in Australia for international flights (a simple 3-3 plane is pretty standard for domestic flights). But I suppose Japan has a lot more people…
Not sure if I just missed the part about seat selection, or maybe that was part of the deal for the cheap tickets, but we didn’t get to chose seats. This was fine, of course, but it made it a bit harder to marvel at the snowy landscape as we approached Sapporo.
Oh, but it was amazing just to be there, in this city I’d wanted to visit since I was a kid!
The main sites of the Snow Festival are Odori Park and Susukino, with another site at Tsudome. Since Tsudome seemed to be a smaller site, and was more for kids and families, we figured we’d just stick with Odori and Susukino. When I was investigating accommodation options, hotels around Odori seemed rather expensive (it’s also closer to Sapporo Station), so it seemed like Susukino was the easy choice.
We stayed at ANA Holiday Inn Susukino, and were actually given a pretty decent-sized twin room. Between Sunroute in Tokyo and this one, Japan’s hotels were looking pretty good (except that, while Sunroute had coin laundry machines you could use on your own, ANA charged per item laundered (you had to fill in a form and give them your clothes in a bag)).
When I made the booking for the hotel, which is also just a couple of minutes’ walk from Susukino Station, I did see a few reviews that mentioned the noise in the area. But I just thought, oh well, I live near a highway, so noise at night doesn’t really bother me. And it didn’t bother me (or KF) there. It’s just that I hadn’t realised the reason for the noise was that it was in the so-called “red light district”, as my Sapporo friend kindly informed us on our first night.
Oh well, not to worry – the noise wasn’t too bad, and the area wasn’t obviously dodgy or anything. In fact, there were lots of good food places, and shops, and overall it was as civilised as anywhere else you’d expect to find in Japan. (Maybe it helped that it was always about zero degrees Celsius, so all the girls outside the clubs were wearing big long coats…)
Some of the reviews also mentioned the rooms were a bit small, but our room was probably the most perfectly sized room (apart from the very generously sized room we got in Hiroshima, but more on that in a later post). And of course the front desk staff were very polite and pleasant. You kind of walk in the direction of the front desk to get to the lifts in the lobby, so I got a greeting every time I walked into the hotel, and even sometimes on exiting the lift to go out. I also appreciated that, quite often, there was one elevator just waiting, open, on the ground floor when I got there. (Seriously, does that ever happen here?)
Well, enough about the hotel. Once we’d dropped off our luggage (we’d only brought one suitcase between us because Sunroute helpfully allow you to leave baggage with them for a few days if you’re making a short trip elsewhere), we headed down the street in search of more sustenance.
We’d seen several “Mister Donut” cafes around the place (and who doesn’t like a good donut?) so we chose this as our next pitstop. Since it was just a block from our hotel, we’d also return here a few times during our stay in Sapporo (well, I remember at least two trips here). It’s supposed to be popular with students because they give free coffee refills, and, indeed, as we sat at our small table by the window, we noticed our surrounding tables were occupied by students busy completing homework or assignments.
With furtive glances, we admired their impeccably neat handwriting, and the way they just left all their possessions unattended whenever they went to the bathroom – books left open, phones on the table, bags on the seats… Of course, we weren’t surprised by this (where was the risk, anyway?) but it’s a shame that this probably wouldn’t be so unremarkable in an equivalent Australian cafe (or probably in many places around the world…?)
Once we’d warmed up and rested a bit, we ventured forth, and wandered the streets of Susukino. The main attraction at the Susukino site of the festival was ice sculptures. However, since the festival hadn’t officially started yet, some of the sculptures were not quite finished, and none of them had lights installed/operating yet, so we only looked at these briefly (noting to return the next night).
Nevertheless, there were plenty of other things to catch and hold our attention. Before long we found the main shopping street in Sapporo, and of course everything is open late, even on a Sunday night. For a small-ish city with a population comparable to Brisbane’s, Sapporo certainly felt a lot bigger and fuller. In a way, I felt like I’d found my second hometown.