I had elementary school visits for the last two weeks, which means the inevitable… I’m sick again. Although it’s doing wonders for my conversational Japanese. Here is what I’m getting really good at saying:
- I became sick.
- Yes, I have a cough. I’m sorry that I’m loud!
- No, I don’t have a fever.
- Yes, I’m taking medicine.
- Slowly, slowly I am getting better.
Being sick for like the 4th time this winter, I have been disinclined to blog lately. But this didn’t stop me from going to the mother of all Japanese festivals… The Sapporo Snow Festival. Dun-dun!!!!!
Vivien the unflappable joined us in Noshiro for the few days preceding the festival. This must have been tiresome for her, but we tried to spice it up a little by dragging her to a few tasty restaurants and an elementary school, as well as introducing her to the boredom banishing joys of purikura and karaoke.
As for the festival… this year was kind of a great and kind of a terrible year to go. Great because the timing was such that the festival culminated on a 3 day weekend. This is essential for anyone traveling from Akita who wants to spend more than a day in Sapporo. The logistics of the trip are a little insane… 7-9 hours by train, and around $150 each way, but hey, this is a once-in-a-lifetimer, right? On the other hand, it’s a not such a good year to go because, well, it’s the warmest winter in Japan in like 100 years, which has turned visions of grand icy vistas to slush.
Viv and Chris took off early on Friday, since they’re not chained to the Japanese school system as I am. I left later with a flock of JETs… we drove an hour to Akita City, then took a 9 hour red-eye ferry, followed by a bus to the train to the subway, finally arriving in Sapporo at 8am on Saturday with 3 solid hours of sleep. I have to say, if you’re thinking about taking the ferry in Japan, go for it, cause it’s super cheap (comparatively… unless you have one of those super amazing gaijin train passes, in which case, never-mind) and SWANKY! This boat was totally decked out with an outdoor hot tub (sadly, not in service in the winter), a pub, cafe, restaurant, video-game room, and movie theatre. Also included were some of the most awesome food vending machines I have ever seen. One spit out ice cream, for those in need of immediate gratification. Another would produce your choice of karaage or onigiri, providing you had a few minutes to wait for the manufacture of hot food. Also awesomely present was a “sports” room, which consisted of two ping pong tables, only one of which had a net. Let me repeat that so it can sink in: a boat with ping pong. Seriously, how great is that?
We made up an elaborate set of rules that allowed all 4 of us to play at once with only 2 paddles. I believe the other two people made do with a cell phone and a hair brush. Rules included spontaneous verbal commands, including “llama” (switch tables), “eagle” (aim for the ceiling), and “tiger” (aim for your friend). It all smacked a little of Calvinball, and produced not a few sidelong glances from our fellow passengers.
So! Sapporo! Full of great restaurants, parks, and temples, all on an orderly and not-so-Japanese grid system, along with extensive underground tunnels, shops, and stores to duck the harsh winter. Fabulous city, just fabulous. Except, this year, for the lack of snow. Kind of a disappointment when you go to a snow festival, eh? I’m not a very hearty winter soul, so I was happy enough with the weather, which hovered around freezing, and got to -5 Celsius at its coldest. It snowed just enough to be atmospheric. Apparently, earlier in the week when folks were making the snow sculptures, it was too warm, and snowy appendages were falling off left and right (the horror!), but the cold returned just in time to rejuvenate the sculptures for the hoards of incoming tourists.
Pretty much what you do for a snow festival is walk around and look at stuff between snacks. We sampled the gamut of Sapporo’s festival food: corn, potatoes (these mysteriously were covered in powdered sugar), amazingly delicious frankfurters, condensed milk crepes, pork buns, and chocolate covered bananas. The snow sculptures were of course the main attraction. The sizes ranged from person-sized to larger-than-your-house. All sorts of snowy gimmicks were employed, including a sculpture with fish frozen in it, and all manner of blinking and colored lights. Performers took to the snow stage at night, ranging from hard core heavy metal to cuter than cute J-pop.
Though we were severely sleep deprived, we took a whirlwind tour of everything the wintery city had to offer. In rapid succession, we ate the famed Genghis Kahn at the Sapporo Brewery, followed by a tour of their museum. How fun is it to see old pics of Japanese brewing masters with vests and handlebar mustaches? We also liked the wall of advertising, showing geisha after geisha from multiple eras with a nice tall frosty pitcher of beer.
Then it was off to the Ishiya chocolate factory, which produces Sapporo’s famous white chocolate delights. We made it there just in time to see the slightly sinister and overly happy on the hour clock display, which lasted for a good 10 minutes, and involved singing dogs, gophers, pigs, and chocolate chefs. After a quick cake and coffee and sled down the kiddie snow hill, we hit the third museum of the day, tried to learn about sake. Really we just ended up taste-testing, as it was more of a one room store with pictures than a museum.
Phew. Exhausting. With that we had to go and eat a very speedy (but utterly delectable) ramen meal before sending Vivien on her way home by train. If you go to Sapporo, it is mandated that you try their ramen. I don’t care how hot the weather is. I don’t care if you think all ramen tastes the same. You’d be wrong, and you shall kick yourself a thousand times over if you don’t sample the liquidy noodle-tastic delight that is butter-corn ramen. If you can find it, patronize MOGURA („āā„Āź„āČ). It’s on the southeast corner of the big central intersection of the Susukino nightlife district, just a few doors down from the subway station entrance. It’s the ramen shop with filled to the gills with equal parts steam and local character, with the lady at the door telling anyone who will listen, “Doozo. Oishii, yo!!!”
Of course, with evening came the illumination of all the snow sculptures, so we had to go see them again, taking goofy thematic pictures with as many as possible. At night, the ice bars also open for business, which are pretty fun to try… bartenders pouring whatever you just ordered down an ice slide to chill your beverage of choice. Or there was the “carve your own shot glass out of ice” booth. Or you could be boring but happy like me and get some hot Bailey’s to warm you to the tips of your toes.