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Northern Beauty of Icy Winter in Japan


The Sapporo Snow Festival 2018 came to a close on the 12th February.  There were 203 snow and ice sculptures on display in three areas in Sapporo city, welcoming over 2.5 million visitors in eight days.  2019 will be the 70th anniversary of what started as a bit of fun using excess snow.

Hokkaido – Island of Natural Beauty

Hokkaido is the most northern island of the Japanese archipelago.  It is the largest but the least populated prefecture, boasting amazing natural beauty attracting nearly 8 million tourists per year, most of them from other parts of Japan, but increasingly more from overseas as the direct international scheduled flight increased since 2014.

Tourists can enjoy skiing in the winter, beautiful flowers in the spring, rolling green hills in the summer, a burst of autumn leaves colours, and a variety of seafood dishes all around the year.  There are plenty of tours from all over Japan, by coach, flight, and most recently the Shinkansen Bullet train since 2016.  Its municipal capital Sapporo hosts one of the three biggest snow festival in the world, Sapporo Snow Festival every February, is the highlight of the year.

Local Fun to World Famous Sapporo Snow Festival

Sapporo city’s main street, Odori Park, was always used as a disposal point for excess snow.  In 1950, some local businesses and municipal offices combined three small events, a snow sculpture festival, a snowball fight day, and an ice carnival, into one, to utilize the snow dumped in the middle of the city.  Local high school students built just six statues:  the highest was an impressive 7 metres.

It was not even meant to be an annual event then, but it exceeded everyone’s expectation and attracted over 50,000 visitors.

Within five years, the festival became the main tourist attraction in Hokkaido’s calendar.  The locally stationed Self Defence Force started making massive snow sculptures using heavy building equipment, in the name of a defence construction exercise in a snowy battlefield, and, more so, for recreational purpose.  They opened up their station in 1965 during the festival, hosting activities for visitors to publicize their work and welcoming local civilians.  (It stopped in 2005, after 40 long years, for security and budget reasons.)

In 1972, Sapporo hosted the Winter Olympic Games, and the Snow Festival was the central piece to showcase to international media.  It featured the tallest statue in the history of the festival, “Gulliver:  Welcome to Sapporo”, which was 25 metres tall.

Following international publicity, the Snow Festival opened opportunities for overseas participants.  In 1974, it started the international snow sculpture contest and invited the teams from sister cities, Portland USA, Munich Germany, Shenyang China, and many others in the following years.  The main centre-stage sculptures often feature buildings from many corners of the world.

Collective and Voluntary Festival

The festival committee is run by the local government, sponsored by businesses, local newspapers and cable TV stations.  The majority of statues are made by volunteers. A total of 200 volunteers participate every year, from statue making to customer services/venue logistics assistance.  It is usually oversubscribed by about 5 times capacity, even after the committee stopped handing out rewards vouchers.  For many people, it is not only an event to visit, but it is something to take part in.

The budget is over 200 million yen (2 million dollars), but the estimated local benefit is well over 40 billion yen (400 million dollars), which does not include the sales of package tours from all over the world.

Interaction before, at, and after the Festival

There are many events around the venues, and the festival website suggests other tourist sites to visit before and after the festival.  After all, Hokkaido has a lot to offer, and access is improving constantly for visitors from all over the world.

The official website started in 1986, and since 2002 the Korean and Chinese languages have been added.  International aspects are beginning to be more important, and the committee is determined to welcome everyone who would choose to visit the city in sub-zero condition and make the visit as comfortable as possible.

The theme of the festival has been “World’s Open Space of Pure White Dream” since 1978.  There have been many difficulties over the years, but the committee made changes and improvements to make sure that the festival goes on.  The warmth in the cold of the northern island remains, and reaches out to the world.

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