February in Japan is National Foundation Day, which equaled a day off of work for me (yay!) And since it fell on a Thursday, I took the Friday too to make it a long weekend to travel more of Japan. A couple friends and I hopped on a plane to explore Japan’s great white north: Hokkaido!
Hokkaido is Japan’s northern most main island, and is known for it’s cold snowy winters. As our luck would have it, the holiday also happened to fall at the tail end of the famous Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival), so it wasn’t a difficult decision to make the trip up.
We arrived on the holiday to Sapporo, and bundled up in the warmest clothes with had (plus a new coat I bought on clearance at UNIQLO just to be sure I’d be snow-ready) and braved the -5 degree temperatures (~18 degrees Fahrenheit) to soak up the sites of Yuki Matsuri. Before we checked out the festival, we stopped for some of Hokkaido’s well-known soup curry.
Although I am not exactly a big fan of curry, Japan has definitely been wearing me down to the stuff and I couldn’t not try the regions dish so I obliged. I was pretty happy with the meal, maybe even enjoying it a little more than expected. (I think the simple fact that it was soup in freezing weather definitely helped.)
Fueled and ready to take in the sites, we first came across a huge ski slope in the middle of Odori Park (in the downtown area of Sapporo), where we watched skiers of all ages do flips and tricks as they came down the hill.
From there we continued on to see an ice skating rink along with countless ice and snow sculptures that ranged from kawaii (cute in Japanese) to simply astounding. It was amazing how many things were made from snow, and that they all had lasted for the week-long festival.
It took us a few hours to see everything, which was no small feat in the cold temperatures (thankfully the sun was out and at least a little helpful). The sculptures were really something, and I couldn’t believe how many of them there were. There is definitely a sense of magic I feel being around so much snow and it was a wonderful way to be introduced to Hokkaido. Maybe it’s because I’m from California and just not used to so much snow, but it was hard to stop smiling and not feel like a giddy kid among the piles and piles of powder snow and snow sculptures that were nothing short of works of art.
For our second day in Hokkaido we headed to another part of the festival that was going on for a bit longer and was a little more hands on. At the Tsu Dome site visitors can throw snowballs at targets, jump in a giant pikachu bouncy house (well, the kids can at least), go tubing and snow rafting! Snow rafting was something I’d never seen or heard of before. Essentially it is when someone on a snowmobile pulls a huge raft loaded with you and your friends (or family) around a course, much like water rafting at an amusement park. It was heaps of fun and we laughed the entire ride as we were wiped around the course, setting the tone for a very fun day.
After our inner child’s were sufficiently entertained, we headed for the Sapporo Beer Gardens. Here we ate lamb yakiniku and enjoyed nomihodai (all you can drink) of Japan’s most popular beer. A good day of balance of child and adult fun, I’d say.
We ended our day journeying to Furano for the last leg of our Hokkaido adventure. In Furano (which is Hokkaido’s geographical center point, aka the belly button of Hokkaid0- they host a belly button festival in the summer) there was a beautiful ski hill, snow packed high and as far as the eye could see, some really great little shops and an all around fantastic atmosphere.
We were fortunate to have a local guide (a fellow JET member) who took us to a great cafe, the cheese factory (where we got to milk a mechanical cow, as well as try squid ink cheese and wine cheese and eat the best cheesecake I’ve had in Japan), local shops and one of my favorites- to my first onsen! Onsens (hot springs/public baths) are very popular in Japan but I just hadn’t made my way to one yet. So we, very carefully (it rained most of our day in Furano), made our way to an onsen up in the mountains where they had indoor baths (separate for each gender) and an outdoor coed bath where you’re surrounded by snow. It was so nice and relaxing, and again, the magic of the snow really added to the effect.
After dinner, we headed to Ningle Terrace where about 15 wood cabin craft shops sit on the hill side, lit up and covered in snow. It was a truly adorable and romantic place! Here, we were also able to get in some snow fun, going tubing and snow rafting again. We also drank hot sake in an ice bar (an igloo with a bar inside made of nothing but ice). We finished the night at a local bar owned by a JET alumni, and getting in a roll down a snow hill and snowball fight in on our way back our friend’s home.
One of the big priorities on my Japan bucket list is to go to all 5 of the major islands of Japan, and I’m really excited to finally be crossing off another from my list, and even more excited I got to do so during one of the best seasons to see Hokkaido. It was amazing how different it felt up there, while still being so similar to the rest of Japan. Although it’s a small country, it was really great to experience a side of it so different from what I am used to. I highly recommend Hokkaido as a place to see in Japan, especially during this season (if you can handle the cold!)