Hokkaido Feature

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One of Japan's best-known annual events, held for a week beginning February 5 or 6, is the Sapporo Snow Festival (Sapporo Yuki Matsuri). More than 300 lifelike ice sculptures as large as 130 feet high by 50 feet deep by 80 feet wide are created each year by the Japanese Self Defense Forces. Memorable statues include baseball star Matsui, cavorting whales, dinosaurs, and the Taj Mahal.

The festival began in 1950 with six statues commissioned by the local government to entertain Sapporo citizens depressed by the war and the long winter nights. Now the event is so large that the sculptures are spread around three different sections of the city: Odori Koen, Susukino, and the suburban Tsudome site. You'll also find ice slides for children. One highlight is the international teams of amateur and professional ice sculptors (some from countries without snow, such as Singapore), hired by major local businesses, who spend four days sculpting their creations. Although statues are roped off, taking photographs is no problem. The festival attracts more than 2 million visitors each year, so book your stay well in advance.

During the Yosakoi Festival every second week of June, Sapporo's streets stage Japan's version of Carnival. Based on the Kōchi Festival in Shikoku, more than 40,000 performers go wild in brightly colored costumes and face paint as they run, jump, and chant soran soran (a Hokkaido fishermen’s folk song) through the city streets. A boisterous Japanese take on hip-hop crossed with aerobics, Yosakoi is far more exciting than the traditional bon odori community dancing. Dance teams wave enormous flags and snap naruko (wooden clappers) in the wake of giant trucks, mounted with powerful sound systems and taiko drummers in loincloths. Ticketed seats are available in the stands along the route in Odori Koen and at an outdoor stage, but they aren't necessary—most people just perch wherever they can get a vantage point. Dance teams also perform in Susukino at night.

Updated: 2014-02-10

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