Stretching 12 blocks through the centre of the city, Odori Park in Sapporo is home to a wide variety of festivals that take place in the city throughout the year. None, however, is as famous as the 'Yuki Matsuri' or 'Snow Festival'.
Starting in 1950, the festival originally consisted of snow statues made by local high school students. However from 1955, Japan's Self-Defense Forces became involved, producing massive sculptures that were to gain the event an international reputation. The week-long exhibits now attract around 2 million visitors a year.
Seriously, I've never heard so much English spoken on the streets of Sapporo. It's highly surreal.
The largest sculptures are replicas of famous buildings from around the world, consisting of several tons of snow. This year features included the Sultan Abdul Samad Building in Kuala Lumpur (bottom right in top picture montage) and Mausoleum of Itmad-Ud-Daulah in Agra, India (top left). During their construction, the army can be seen scuttling like black beetle ninjas up and down the scaffolding. This use of the armed forces is hard not to smile at, especially when considering the conversation that might result in case of a military emergency:
"I'm sorry sir, the army cannot defend the southern coast line. They're presently engaged in building a 8 foot 'Hello Kitty'."
Although the festival has spread to several sites around Sapporo, the most famous sculptures sit in Odori Park, along with a ski jump, ice rink, dancing and mini-shows. Scattered throughout the park are booths selling hot wine, beer and sake, crab and scallops cooked in their shells (right), grilled squid, hot chestnuts roasted in a smoking barrel (above) and a selection of meat skewers among a host of other festival foods. There was also a stall labelled "vegy burgers" selling pates containing both chicken and beef. Small point.
Kids run about in brightly coloured snowsuits with fur hoods, producing a scene reminiscent of a Discovery Show on a rare eskimo culture:
Children in the far northern tribe of Hokkaido are dressed brightly to avoid being eaten by the ravenous snow dragons.
There was also the odd compulsory visitor wearing a short skirt, no tights or leggings and heels. I do not know how these people survive. Perhaps their legs are prothetic. Or maybe just their brains.
At the far end of the park stood smaller sculptures from the international contest. For some reason, the USA entry was a giant rat eating a somebody's dinner (top right in above photo) but then, there also appeared to be a giant snow statue of the Greek letter, π, so who am I to judge? Beyond this were simpler sculptures made by local residents, all of which were still disturbingly impressive.
In case of accidents (or severe frost bite from utterly inappropriate clothing) , we spotted a wheelchair with giant inflatable tyres for traversing across the unevenly packed snow. There were also people using their own chairs, but with two short skis replacing the front wheels.
After dark, the sculptures are illuminated to produce a rainbow of multicoloured lights.
I find it staggering that this huge display lasts only one week, although presumably this is due to the difficulty of preserving the sculptures in good condition for a longer period of time. It is completely incredible to see and can also be combined with the 'Festival of Lights' in the nearby town of Otaru. Regardless of your choice, I would wearing long trousers. Maybe several pairs.