For most of my life, I have been what you would call "an island girl" - someone who hasn't had much experience with extremely cold weather. Growing up in Hawaii, I wanted to live somewhere cold and snowy for my placement teaching English in Japan. However, I ended up in Okinawa, Japan's southernmost tropical islands, which I realized later was a blessing in disguise.
That being said, I got my first real foray with snow this past February when I traveled north to Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido for a snow festival tour.
Preparing for the Trip (and what I actually used)
I had cold-weather clothes at my disposal, having experienced winters in San Francisco and Tokyo, but this would be my first time walking in snow and experiencing snowfall.
According to the experiences of friends and family and Google-sensei, the advice I received was to get a good pair of snow boots with deep treads, snow cleats (which are available in convenience stores in Hokkaido), layers that are easy to take off, a heavy-duty jacket with a hood, a hat and gloves. My mom and I definitely overprepared and overpacked as we didn't end up using some of the items we ordered.
Many stores and restaurants in Hokkaido blast hot air when indoors so wearing layers proved to be good advice because we could remove layers and leave them on our tour bus as needed.
Mostly all the tour members, including myself, bought snow cleats but only ended up wearing them on the first day when we visited snow festival sites. We learned that you can’t wear them indoors nor on the bus because they might scratch the floors. Everyone had a hard time finding places to put them on outside because
there was no place to sit on the sidewalk and wearing bulky winter clothes also made it a lot more difficult. After that, we all decided just to be careful when walking or use a a walking stick if necessary.
Sapporo Snow Festival
2023 marked the return of the Sapporo Snow Festival after the pandemic. The snow festival was made up of two main sites: the Odori site and the Susukino site, both within walking distance of each other.
The Odori site consists of 10 blocks of snow sculptures made by both locals and businesses. There were many popular anime sculptures from Spy x Family
and Demon Slayer this year. There was even a tribute sculpture to the late Yu-gi-oh creator, Kazuki Takahashi. The walking route was heavily monitored and required all visitors to walk in one direction. Walking backward was highly discouraged. Due to COVID precautions, there were no benches in order to prevent people from sitting and crowding.
The Susukino site, located in Sapporo’s entertainment district, is where about 100 ice sculptures were on display. The ice sculptures were lit up until around 11pm and featured ice sculptures from various businesses such as Sushizanmai, Donki, and Sapporo Beer. This year there was an ice sculpture show and contest. The winning piece was an intricately carved dragon.
There is normally a third site called the Tsudome site, where visitors can experience snow slides and outdoor snow tubing. However, this year it was canceled.
The rest of the trip
Because our tour group was made up of old retirees, we did not do any snow sports or outdoor activities as most would do when visiting Hokkaido. Instead, we visited Shiroi Koibito Park, Royce Cacao and Chocolate Town, Noboribetsu, and Hakodate.
Shiroi Koibito and Royce Cacao and Chocolate Town
There were three things on this tour that I was most looking forward to, the first being able to visit two of Japan’s most beloved omiyage (souvenir) parks: Shiroi Koibito and Royce Cacao and Chocolate Town.
Shiroi Koibito Park is attached to its factory where you can see the assembly line of how this beloved cookie is made. After the factory tour, we made our way to the cafe where you can have exclusive desserts found only at the park. My mom and I got a chocolate parfait topped with a almond toffee brittle.
The Royce Cacao and Chocolate Town was so new that it had not even had its grand opening yet. We were one of the first tour groups to experience the site. It is also attached to their factory and throughout the tour there are many interactive
features to get a more in-depth knowledge about how chocolate is made. There is also a section about the history of chocolate and of Royce Chocolate. You can also experience decorating your own chocolate bar.
Both Shiroi Koibito Park and Royce Cacao and Chocolate Town have gift shops that have items you can’t get anywhere but in the parks.
The next thing I was looking forward to was onsens (natural hot springs). I love going to the onsen and I think they feel the best when it’s cold outside. Noboribetsu is one of Japan’s most famous onsen towns and there’s even a legend that demons or ‘oni’ inhabit this town because of the nearby Jigokudani
(Hell Valley). The town plays heavily into the Hell theme, as you can see many colorful oni statues around town and souvenir trinkets with oni characters. There's even a shrine for Enma, the King of Demons near the shops down by the hotel.
The third thing I was looking forward to was the seafood in Hakodate. Now, I had
already been having some great seafood in Sapporo and Noboribetsu, but Hakodate is supposed to be the best since it’s also a port city.
We learned from our tour guide that the hotels in Hakodate all have a rivalry with each other for the title of having the best seafood and breakfast. I will say that our hotel in Hakodate definitely did have the best breakfast because it not only had continental breakfast items but also cuisines from different cultures. Our hotel was also a 10-15 minute walk (or shorter without the ice and snow) to Hakodate Morning Market, which was a perfect place to stuff our bellies with a second breakfast or early lunch. Many of the tour members stocked up on dried seafood ingredients and snacks here as well.
As someone who has never grown up with snow, I can honestly say that this was a good experience. I was amazed by the Hokkaido residents because on our second day in Hokkaido, it was snowing non-stop throughout the day. The streets were covered in snow, to the point you couldn't even see the street lines, and people still drove in these conditions.
However, having visited Hokkaido in both summer and winter, I can truly say that I prefer going in the summer.
About the author:
Samantha is currently a 5th-year JET in Okinawa, originally from Hawaii. She has been somewhat connected to Japanese culture her whole life despite being Chinese American. She's had the privilege of traveling to Japan and experiencing Japanese culture at a young age. She loves food and is always looking to try new places. When she is not working or out eating, she is an avid baker at home and has been known to feed her colleagues an excessive amount of baked goods.