Like most expats, we have a long list of places we want to visit before we repatriate. Many of the destinations that are on our list are outside of Japan, but there are still many places in Japan that we want to check out, too. In fact, we’ve spent so much time (and money) focusing on our trips abroad that it’s been awhile since we took a trip within Japan. I’m happy to report that this (unintentional) travel break was remedied last weekend with a trip north to Hokkaido to visit the Sapporo Snow Festival.
Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, has been on our list of destinations since before we moved to Japan in 2015. Jason has wanted to visit Hokkaido ever since he started traveling to Japan for work back in 2013, and he put The Sapporo Snow Festival on his bucket list as soon as we found out that we were moving to Japan.
I am happy to report that we officially crossed this trip off of the list last weekend!
Day 1: Friday, February 10
On Friday afternoon, we all flew to Sapporo from Nagoya via SkyMark Airlines. I’ve heard horror stories from people traveling on budget airlines, so I want to take a moment to gush about SkyMark. Our flights cost $130 round trip per person and included 20kg of checked luggage each (you can check skis, snowboards, and surfboards as part of your 20kg as long as they are shorter than 280cm) for no extra charge.
The direct flight from Nagoya to New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido was 90 minutes, and was the smoothest flight we’ve been on in a long time. My expectations for comfort were quite low, but decided that it was worth it for the low price and short flight. Boy, was I wrong! This is the first economy flight I’ve ever been on with extra legroom. One thing to note: they charged for refreshments on the flight, even for water. They did give out complementary Kit-Kats, which definitely made up for it. Chocolate > water. Duh.
After our uneventful flight (the best kind!), we made our way into the city. It took us about an hour by train to get from New Chitose Airport to our accommodation.
We almost exclusively use Airbnb when we travel, and this trip was no exception. Our Airbnb apartment was in the perfect location: only steps away from Nakajima Park and Nakajima Koen subway station. The apartment was huge, especially for Japan: two bedrooms, living area, full kitchen, laundry, balcony. Much more comfortable for the three of us than a hotel room.
Note: you can use one of the Airbnb links above to save $37 on your very first Airbnb stay!
After getting checked in to our apartment, we turned right around to venture out. Right outside our building was a man selling Amazake, a hot drink made from rice — kind of like warm, sweet, sake. Jason enjoyed it, but decided that he wouldn’t have been able to drink more than one small cup.
Sapporo made us feel right at home with the snow and the cold. We didn’t realize how much we missed it until we got here!
Our first stop was the main festival location: Odori Park. Like (pretty much) everywhere else in Japan, the subway is the most efficient way to get around Sapporo. We walked about a minute to get to Nakajima Koen station, got on a train, and were at Odori park in less than 10 minutes. We came out of the station and were at the festival. It was busy, but the crowds were still manageable at this point. I was happy that we were able to visit the festival Friday night rather than waiting until Saturday because of the expected weekend crowds.
I didn’t get too many photos of the festival as I was Snapchatting most of the time (follow me on Snapchat: seelayne).
Odori Park is home to the festival’s huge snow and ice sculptures. This is the main location for the Snow Festival, and the enormous sculptures draw the most visitors of any of the three locations. Here are some of the photos I took from Odori Park:
I wish someone had been standing in front of this one so you could see how big it was! It was nearly 20 feet tall:
We spent a few hours admiring the sculptures, people watching, trying not to slip on the ice, and sampling the festival food. We were ready to warm up at this point, so we decided to search for some dinner.
Next Stop: Dinner
The three of us had a difficult time agreeing on where (and what) to eat, so we finally wandered into Bacchus Meat Cafe near Susukino station.
By this point we were cold, hungry, and cranky — a terrible combination for our first evening in Sapporo. All was forgotten as soon as we looked at the menu! We ended up sharing a huge platter of assorted grilled meats, a Caesar salad, and Racklett, a slab of melted cheese you pour over potatoes, vegetables, and bread. The food was DELICIOUS. We are usually happy to try local Japanese restaurants whenever we travel, but sometimes you just need to go for the meat and cheese!
Day 2: Saturday, February 11
We all wanted to do slightly different things on this trip, so we split up for the morning hours on Saturday. Jason loves Japanese whiskey, so he made plans to visit Yoichi distillery. The distillery is located about an hour by train from Sapporo.
Em and I went to Shiroi Koibito Park for a tour of how they make the famous Shiroi Koibito cookies.
We met up again in the afternoon to do some shopping and to visit the other downtown location of the festival: Susukino. The Susukino site is where you can view the festival’s ice sculptures. Some of the sculptures were so detailed!
This site was a fraction of the size of the Odori location, so it didn’t take as long to see everything. There were tons of ice sculptures here, as well as an Ice Bar where you could get a hot drink (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic). We also saw an ice slide that looked like it was a lot of fun for the kids in the crowd!
After walking around for about an hour, our hunger led us towards Ramen Alley, a famous Sapporo alleyway filled with, you guessed it: ramen restaurants. We walked up and down the alley for about 15 minutes before deciding on the winning ramen shop. It was so hard to decide! There were so many great options, and in the end we chose the shop with the longest line.
We waited for about 20 minutes before we were invited in. We took up 3 of the 8 seats in the shop. The shop was cozy and warm, and the ramen was tasty. It was the perfect remedy for spending too much time out in the cold!
With full bellies, we decided to head back for a relaxing evening.
We thought we were done exploring for the day, but we were wrong! When we emerged from the subway station, we saw a glow coming from Nakajima Koen (koen means park in Japanese) across the street that stopped us in our tracks. We were so excited to see that the park was lit up with hundreds of lanterns and snow sculptures! It started to snow while we were exploring the park, which only added to the atmosphere. It was magical.
After spending about an hour in the park we were finally ready to head back. But not before stopping at the conbini (convenience store) for a bottle of wine and some snacks first!
Day 3: Sunday, February 12
Sunday was our last full day in Sapporo. In the morning, we decided to make our way out to the third location of the Sapporo Snow Festival: Tsudome.
This location was not in downtown Sapporo, but about 30 minutes away. The site is a 10 minute walk from Sakamachi station on the Toho line, but there are shuttle buses ready to take you there. The shuttle bus isn’t free (100 yen per person each way – cash only!), but taking the bus was totally worth it to stay out of the cold and off of the icy sidewalks.
This location was more for families with younger children. There were ice slides, sledding hills, a chance to ride in a raft behind a snowmobile, snowball throwing challenges, a snow blower station (where you can operate huge snowblowers) and much more.
Growing up in the tundra of northern Minnesota, these activities weren’t all that appealing to us. Plus, there were lines of at least 30 minutes for the hill, slide, and the snow rafting. I could see that others were REALLY excited about all of this, though! We only spent about 30 minutes here before making our way to our next activity.
We wanted to get out of Sapporo for the afternoon, so we made plans to visit Otaru, located about an hour away by train.
But first, Asari
On the way to Otaru, we had to make a pit stop at Asari station so that we could fly our new drone!
We were excited to find a secluded location on this trip so that we could take it out for a flight! You have to be super careful about following the local laws when flying, especially in such a densely populated country like Japan. For example, there is only one place we found that is easily accessible by public transport near Nagoya where we can legally fly.
This drone is so compact that it fits into a case the size of a lunchbox, which means that it will be coming with us wherever we travel from now on. I can’t wait to share future videos with you all!
Here is the footage we were able to capture in Sapporo:
We were in awe of the scenery here, especially since this was the first time I’d ever seen the sea and snow at the same time. It was seriously incredible.
After our pit stop, we got back on the train and soon arrived in Otaru. We were there to see the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival, when the town glows with thousands of flickering candles and illuminations. In addition, they float candles on the canal each night at 5:00 PM.
It started snowing pretty heavily as soon as we arrived in Otaru, and it didn’t stop until we left. The snow made us northerners pretty happy, especially since we hadn’t gotten to enjoy the snow much so far this winter. Otaru was lovely, but it was PACKED with tourists. We saw the canal, did a little shopping, and ate some (more) ramen to warm up. At this point we were all getting pretty tired. We decided that were were done being outside and got on the train back to Sapporo.
Day 4: Monday, February 13
Time to go home! We checked out of our Airbnb at 10:00 AM and went straight to the airport.
We knew that the New Chitose Airport has its own ramen alley, and we couldn’t resist checking it out. The restaurants are before security, so we got checked in for our flight, dropped off our bags, and went in search of the perfect bowl.
At this point I decided that it would be a shame to leave without having some seafood ramen! I tried a seafood ramen piled high with crab (which sank to the bottom of my bowl by the time I got my camera out!). Delicious.
After lunch we flew back to Nagoya. After a busy weekend, we were happy to be home again! We really enjoyed Hokkaido and the Sapporo Snow Festival! We would definitely go back to visit — perhaps during the sweltering late-summer months to escape the heat?
Do you like seeing trip reports like this? Want to see something different? Have a question about Sapporo or the Sapporo Snow Festival? Leave me a comment to let me know! I’d love to hear from you!