Since 2016 is the 67th year of this week-long celebration of all things white and frosty, you can bet the festival organizers pretty much know what they're doing. Sapporo, home to this celebration that sees well over one million visitors, is the capital city of the northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido. If you love winter, human ingenuity, sculptures made from snow and ice, great food and hot sake (rice wine) then this event should be high up on your must-do list! Here are my tips to help get you there with your sanity intact and enjoy yourself along the way.
Of course you need an airplane ticket to Chitose Airport in Hokkaido. Check out the many budget airline options. After you secure your flight, get your train tickets to take you from Chitose Airport into the city center beforeyou leave Tokyo (or from wherever you're departing). These tickets are available from any JR Midori-no-Madoguchi (green service reservation windows).
You will see this sign for the JR reservation window from Flickr cc by David McKelvey
Narita Airport has a JR ticket desk at both Terminals 1 and 2, but as there is no JR connection at Haneda Airport, you'll need to buy them elsewhere. When buying your tickets, ask for the "Airport" train from Chitose Airport to Sapporo. The name of the train is actually "Airport" with a number assigned -- easy! Tickets are about ¥1,400 one-way.
Landing at Chitose Airport in Sapporo from Flickr cc by Luke Lai
Once you deplane in Sapporo (with train ticket in-hand!), just grab your bags and head to the underground train station inside the airport. You can also use buses or taxis but these are less reliable, as traveling times depend on weather and traffic.
If you don't have a room yet, good luck! (Festival season is a peak time of year in Sapporo.) I highly recommend trying the Toyoko Inn, a reasonably-priced business hotel chain favored by locals and travelers from outside Japan. The hotels have free Internet, and breakfast. Best of all, they're consistent, and have multi-language labeling on everything (and I mean EVERYTHING!) Don't be shocked if asked to pay upfront; prepaying is how it works at many hotels in Japan. You can choose from five Toyoko locations within walking distance of the main snow festival venue. The most convenient (and largest) is at Susukino Kosaten.
Once you have your accommodation sorted, you are ready to see the sights. You should plan to visit the festival during both the day and night. The major snow sculptures are all brilliantly lit from about 5 pm.
The festival is divided into three major venues. Odori Park, the flagship location with the monumental sculptures; Tsudome, home of massive snow slides; and Susukino Ice World, where all the sculptures are solid ice, the size of small trucks or bigger! Plan to visit all three areas to get the most out of your festival visit.
During peak times, the Odori Park's main area is one-way foot traffic on each side, going in opposite directions. This easy-to-figure-out system helps the flow. Local Tip: Be careful where you stop to take pictures. The security and helper staff highly discourage photos in the most congested areas adjacent to the popular giant statues. Instead you will find several sponsored photo-spots where photographers will take your picture holding a branded festival sign, sometimes with a mascot. You'll get a claim number and URL to get your photo online. In some cases, you can wait a few minutes and get a print right on the spot.
Event dates:February 5 (Friday) to February 11 (Thursday / national holiday), 2016 Venue:Odori Park (Odori Nishi 1 Chome – 12 Chome, Chuo-ku, Sapporo) Illumination hours:Sunset to 22:00
Suskino will dazzle you with its spectacular ice sculptures. This super-dense entertainment and dining neighborhood is best viewed at night.
Event dates:February 5 (Friday) to February 11 (Thursday / national holiday), 2016 Venue:Ekimae-dori from Minami 4-Jo to Minami 6-Jo, Chuo-ku, Sapporo Illumination hours:Sunset to 23:00 (until 22:00 on the final day)
Tanuki Koji shopping arcade photo courtesy of Welcome to Sapporo
While in the center of town, you should consider making time to visit Tanuki Koji. This shopping area used to be a regular street and is now limited to pedestrians only. The shopping arcade is halfway between Odori and Susukino, running parallel to the park.
You'll find a variety of winter dining options at all three venues, but the Odori outdoor food court is especially interesting. Sink your teeth into various Hokkaido regional specialties and even some international choices, reflecting Sapporo's cosmopolitan side.
Away from the crowded walkways of Odori is Tusdome, the family area near Sakaemachi Station on Sapporo Subway's Toho (blue) line. The subway is a marvel, as it runs on pneumatic tires and is extremely clean and quiet. At the Tsudome site, you can play on massive snow slides, explore a snow maze, and enjoy a much less frenetic atmosphere.
Event dates:February 5 (Friday) to February 18 (Thursday), 2016 Venue:Sapporo Sports Facility "Tsudome" (Sakaemachi 885-1, Higashi-ku, Sapporo) Hours:9:00 to 17:00 (no night hours) No parking available for cars. You can take a shuttle bus running between the "Odori Site" and "Tsudome Site" (paid).
I have two absolute must do's whenever I visit Sapporo for the Snow Festival. One is eating jingiskan, the unofficial "official" yakiniku of Hokkaido. The other is visiting a traditional onsen (hot spring) for nice warm up.