If you haven’t gone to the Sapporo Snow Festival (Sapporo Yuki Matsuri), you’ve never been walking in a real winter wonderland. Every February, Japanese and international artists gather in Hokkaido to create ice sculptures and snow statues for the winter festivals. During this time, Sapporo City doubles in population as two million visitors gather to join in the fun.
The Sapporo Snow Festival began in 1950 when local high school students built six snow statues in Odori Park. More than 50,000 people showed up, and it became an annual tradition. The first towering sculpture debuted three years later, and by 1955 the Self Defense Force began to participate with imposing designs.
Every year, the festival saw increases in innovations and participants. It caught national attention in 1959 and world-wide coverage during the 1972 Winter Olympics. Now, it’s a celebration of art, winter sports, local cuisines, and Sapporo’s relationships with cities across the globe. 2020 will be the 71st Sapporo Snow Festival.
Odori Koen is the main site of the Sapporo Snow Festival. The centrally located city park stretches 1.5 km from the Sapporo TV Tower to the former courthouse. Along the way, you’ll see several enormous statues and sculptures and hundreds of smaller ones. But there’s a whole lot more to do besides appreciating the exhibits!
Start by taking in the view of the entire park from the TV Tower’s observatory. When you exit, you’ll come across an ice skating rink where you can rent skates for a small price. On the second and third blocks, you can watch themed shows, and competitive skiers and snowboarders show off their skills on a jumping ramp. Further along, you’ll finally reach the ice and snow statues.
From the third to the fifth blocks, you’ll pass three massive structures that are as tall as buildings. They’re often recreations of famous landmarks or feature pop-culture characters depending on the yearly theme. On the sixth block, you can take a break at the food stalls before moving on to the next colossal displays. You’ll also pass small sculptures made by locals, while the twelfth block hosts an international food festival.
Depending on the day and time that you go, you’ll also be able to watch performances. Some of the snow and ice sculptures double as stages and hold contemporary and traditional music concerts, plays, and contests. From sunset, lights and projection mapping illuminate the sculptures until 10:00 pm. The Odori Site of the Sapporo Snow Festival is free to enter day or night.
The Susukino area is the largest entertainment district in Hokkaido and the best place to grab dinner and go duty-free shopping in the city. If you arrive in Sapporo before the festival, you can watch sculptors carving their pieces with chainsaws at all hours of the day to get ready for the Ice Sculpture Contest. The Susukino Site is the smallest of the three, but it’s well worth exploring.
From Susukino Station, you’ll see ice sculptures lined up one after the other. They’re much shorter than the ones in Odori Park, but they have intricate details and sometimes objects and seafood frozen inside of them. As you go further away from the station, you’ll also see interactive displays. There’s always an ice bar where you can grab a quick drink and often a small playground for children also made from ice.
The Susukino Ice Festival takes place on a public street, and you can see it at any time. However, for a real treat, go at night when neon lights illuminate them until 11:00 pm. Afterward, hit the town and explore the many bars and restaurants.
If you’re traveling with young children, the Tsudome Site offers family-oriented activities. Unlike Suskino and Odori, Tsudome has indoor and outdoor facilities so you can take a break from the cold. Also, instead of admiring artistic feats, the main draw of Tsudome is that you can have fun in the snow.
Outside, you’ll see quite a few sculptures and snowmen made by other attendees. You can build one yourself before moving on and practicing your throwing arm at the snowball target range. You can also walk through the snow maze and play mini-golf, but the real attractions are the hills and slides. You can sled, fly down ice slides, and go snow rafting on inflatable tubes.
If the weather starts to turn, or if your little ones start to get tired, you can have just as much fun inside of the dome. Gourmet food stalls sell local delicacies, and there are plenty of seats for everyone to take a much-needed break. There’s also an indoor playground with inflatable equipment if your kids are ready to play, but you haven’t recovered just yet.
The Tsudome Site kicks off from January 31st to February 4th. The Susukino and Odori Sites open from February 4th to the 11th. You can visit Odori and Susukino day or night. However, Tsudome is only in operation between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm.
With so many local and foreign travelers coming in during this time, airfare and hotel prices rise quickly. It’s best to make your reservations as soon as possible and consider arriving before the official dates. The week before the festival starts, you can watch trucks delivering snow and designers scaling scaffolding in preparation.
The best time to see the statues and sculptures is in the morning on the first day. By going early, you’ll avoid most of the crowds and see the displays in their full glory. At the end of the week, they tend to look somewhat melted and a little dirty. In the past few years, rising temperatures and unseasonal rain have also made their upkeep slightly challenging.
Most cities in Japan have curvy roads, but Sapporo’s streets follow a grid pattern making them easy to navigate. Many don’t have names but use coordinates like “North 1 West 3,” and their signs prominently hang next to stoplights. From Sapporo Station, you can take the subway to the Susukino and Odori sites, but they’re so close together, it’s more convenient to move between them on foot.
You’ll want to dress warmly, but more importantly, make sure you have proper shoes. The snow in the downtown area can get slushy and slippery during the day and freezes at night. Bring boots that are waterproof and consider purchasing detachable ice grips when you arrive. Or take the warmer route.
Underground walkways connect Sapporo, Odori, and Susukino Stations from north to south, and stretch from the first to the fifth blocks of Odori Park from east to west. There are exits you can take for nearly every block, or you can take a shortcut through one of the several department stores inside. In a wintery town like Sapporo, it’s the best way to get around!