Monday, February 13, 2006

Sapporo Snow Festival

The Sapporo Snow Festival is a world famous event that draws around 2 million visitors to Hokkaido every winter. Odori Koen, a long narrow park in the city center, is filled with hundreds of snow and ice sculptures, including some that are built with thousands of truckloads of snow. Dense crowds of tourists walk up one side of the park and down the other, stopping to watch concerts, sip hot chocolate and sweet sake and send their children shooshing down ice slides. After dark, the action shifts south a few blocks to Susukino, the biggest entertainment district north of Tokyo, where pitchers of Sapporo Beer, plates of grilled lamb and bowls of miso ramen help festival-goers ward off the icy chill.

Bright Lights in Susukino

Sound like fun? For many people, it is. But to me, the Snow Festival epitomizes Japanese tourism at its worst. It is a shamelessly commercial spectacle carefully wrapped in tightly scripted schedules and package deals. Every flake of snow in Odori is a marketing tool, every visitor a consumer and the festival itself a product that has been quality controlled, leveraged and promoted to the extent that the experience is as stale as a walk down the aisles of Wal Mart.

This year, the festival was as popular as ever. Walking down Odori was like moving through customs at the airport, except much colder. Heavily made up women with sing-song voices directed traffic over loudspeakers, a never-ending babble of "Thank-you for coming to the world famous Sapporo Snow Festival take care not to slip on the ice the line for photos is to the right thank you for your patronage." While some of the smaller sculptures were cleverly designed, the crowds were so thick it was almost impossible to stop for enough time to take a picture, let alone to admire the quality of construction. There was enough space to linger in front of the larger sculptures, but one might as well have stayed home and watched infomercials instead. Japan Airlines advertised trips to Okinawa, the Taiwan tourist board recreated the famous sites of Taipei and Disney sculpted a scene from the new Narnia blockbuster, supplemented by movie posters lining the icy sidewalks for the length of Odori.

It wasn't always this way. In fact, the origins of the Snow Festival over fifty years ago are heart-warming to relate. It was a hard time for Japan, as the country was only just beginning to recover from the devastation of war and the ignominy of defeat. The nation was depressed, and the long, cold Hokkaido winter only made matters worse. People hurried along Sapporo streets in threadbare coats looking for jobs and hoping for rice. One day, in the depths of winter, a few high-school students began playing in the snow that had piled up in Odori. They made a few snowmen, and then, in a burst of red-cheeked activity, packed snow into a structure that made people stop on the sidewalks and smile. The next day the students brought their friends, and in a few weeks the park was full of sculpted bears, people, temples, cars and mountains. Vendors set up stands serving hot drinks, candles were placed in the snow at night and Sapporo began to reclaim its soul.

The problem, as I see it, arose when the Snow Festival became famous. Japanese culture assigns value to fame to a ludicrous extent, and nowhere is this tendency more pronounced than in the tourist industry. Famous places and events are worth going to, while anywhere without a brochure and gift shop is ignored. Once, while planning a hiking trip with some Japanese friends, everyone agreed that Mt. Tokachi would be more beautiful and less crowded, but we ended up going to Mt. Asahi, because, after all, it is the more famous peak. When Japanese tourists arrive at a popular destination and see the crowds, they are relieved and happy to have come to the right place. The commoditization of travel is by no means limited to Japan, but in such a densely populated and wealthy country, it becomes easy to recognize.

Hokkaido is a beautiful place and Sapporo is a wonderful city. It is a tribute to Sapporo that visitors usually end up having a good time despite coming during the Snow Festival. By all means, come visit Sapporo and explore the mountains and coasts of the North Island. But ditch the crowds and give the Snow Festival a pass.


Blogger Samantha said...

I was in Sapporo from the 4th-7th and I had a great time. The atmosphere is fantastic, the people in Sapporo are amazing, the food is outstanding, the city is lovely. The Snow Festival is really no different than any other large festival in Japan besides the fact that there is snow. All big events in Japan are tourist traps and anything that becomes famous in Japan is ruined because of it.
There is a cherry tree in Nara called Matabezakura which became "the most famous cherry-tree in Japan" thanks to an appearance on NHK a few years ago... It's in a quiet town called Ouda in the east of Nara prefecture but for 2 weeks in the spring, hundreds of thousands of people descend onto this one spot... why? because it's on TV.
The tree is beautiful and just because it's a tourist trap is not a reason to avoid it. You just have to learn to ignore the commercialism and enjoy the atmosphere. The Snow Festival is no different.

10:54 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Thanks for the comment Samantha. I'm glad you had a great time in Sapporo. It's an awesome city and I hope I got that across in my post. Like you say, all big events here are tourist traps - the Snow Fest is no exception. Ignoring the commercialism is one thing, but I think a better idea is to visit cool places out of season, when the crowds are gone.

8:14 PM  
Blogger ryan libre said...

humm, i was there with tim. i felt mostly the same as him. When we got just one block from ground zero i took my first deep breath in an hour. it felt good like i woke up from some kind of coma. but you have to go to know. What about the festival we went to in Aug. it was one of the best nights i can remember. it's true it doesn't have "famous" status yet, but it is a well known about travel spot during the high season.

9:07 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

Good point Ryan - the festival we went to in August (on Rishiri Island off the North Coast) was definitely one of the best times I've had in Hokkaido - up there with the sea urchin festival on Teuri Island in July. But remember - we hadn't heard that there was a festival happening and stumbled on it by chance. There were a few people from Tokyo there (those beautiful girls in black shirts), but very few tourists overall. When I first came to Hokkaido, my parents were excited because I could see the Snow Festival - publicity had spread to Vermont!

6:50 PM  
Blogger Scott Lothes said...

Katie in Muroran told me about your blog. I like your writing. I visited the Sapporo Snow Festival on the 11th and left with feelings similar to yours. My wife and I were enjoying the crowds and the sculptures, the cold air outside and the warmth of the inviting booths along the path. Perhaps my enjoyment was propped up a little longer by my Japanese illiteracy. And then we came to the Taiwan sculpture, where we laughed at a man dressed up as a tea kettle with a long, gray fumanchu, and then went inside for a free cup of tea. Then I realized that the tea wasn't really free. It came with a sales pitch -- posters and videos of Taiwan vacation packages that even I could understand. My light heart became a little heavier, and the day seemed to lose something.

That night, we went up in the Sapporo Tower for the night view down Odori, but with the crowds it was get-in-fast and get-out-faster, no time to observe or enjoy. For my money, I prefered my visit to Tower 38 at the JR station that morning, where I was free to linger in the warm sunight in a leather armchair and watch the world go by.

Thanks for relating the charming history of the snow festival's origins. It's a shame when things become victims of their own success.

10:50 PM  
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8:14 AM  

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