Sans Skis in Japan’s Snow Kingdom
I’m about to fly out to Sapporo, capital of Hokkaido, the country’s northernmost island. It’s mid-February, and Hokkaido is engulfed by the coldest air mass the region has ever recorded. In some spots temperatures have plunged to minus 30 degrees Celsius. “Please take steps to protect yourself,” the email advises gravely. “Activities might be cancelled due to snowstorms”.
Things are so bad they’ve made international news. TV footage shows the streets of Sapporo, a usually bustling city of two million, completely deserted. Air, road and rail services shutdown. I begin genuinely worrying about my survival. I’m not sure I even like snow? I try to imagine what minus 30 could possibly feel like, but it seems extreme beyond all comprehension.
Just hours before I board my flight from Tokyo to Sapporo, some welcome news comes. The cold snap has ended. Temperatures have settled to a more usual low of minus 10. It’s back to business as usual - and it hasn’t put off the tourists.
Blessed with bountiful snowfall from December through to late May, the region has gained a reputation for possessing some of the most perfect powder ski slopes on the planet. Three hours south of Sapporo, is Niseko, a world-renowned winter sports mecca. This time though, I’ve left the skis at home.
From Wild Frontier to Idyllic Winter Wonderland
A mini-van has been arranged to take me around town. The city streets are buried beneath several inches of snow and I’m sceptical about whether it’ll be up to the task. The driver assures me my anxiety is unfounded. The soft snow in Hokkaido has far more grip than the icy slush that forms in most other places. Here, the air temperature is so consistently frigid, the snow never gets a chance to melt into perilously slippery ice.
We make our way through the suburban outskirts of Sapporo, sheer white curtains of snow falling around us. Every few minutes, a small fleet of trucks trundles past, each vehicle hauling a 10 ton heap of freshly ploughed snow.
In Hokkaido snow removal team works around the clock, saving the city day after day from coming to a grinding halt. While at first, the operation strikes me as comically futile, I soon realise that without these winter warriors, suburban streets would turn to cross-country skiing trails, roofs would regularly collapse over families at the dinner table, and residents would open their front doors only to be greeted by an impenetrable wall of ice.
How an Art Project Turned the White City Green
Despite its harsh weather and relative isolation, today’s Sapporo is a surprisingly cosmopolitan and creative city, but it wasn’t always so appealing.
Sapporo started out as a tiny fishing village, but the search for resources like coal and oil turned it into a small city by the 1900s. It wasn’t until after the war that heavy industry really ramped up and Sapporo experienced a development boom. Today, like many cities advancing out from their industrial past, Sapporo has made a decisive switch towards technology, tourism and environmental restoration.
What kickstarted this movement, changing the city forever in the process, was a park.
Walking in Moerenuma Park in winter is a novel, if slow-going activity. We frequently lose sight of the footpaths, and our feet sink effortlessly into knee-deep powder, so soft even our footsteps leave no sound. In fact, the snow in Moerenuma is so good that a huge hill in the middle of the park has become a miniature downhill ski-slope and toboggan run – totally free for everyone, provided they can make the steep, 15 minute climb to the summit.
The 400-acre Moerenuma Park is the centrepiece of Sapporo’s ongoing urban greenbelt project. A former landfill site, Moernuma’s dramatic transformation began in 1982 under the direction of celebrated Japanese-American landscape designer, Isamu Noguchi.
Turning a toxic waste dump into what would become one of Japan’s most visually stunning urban playgrounds would prove to the most ambitious undertaking of Noguchi’s career.
A brilliant example of design-led urban renewal, Moerenuma is a fusion of the futuristic and the traditional, drawing inspiration from Zen Buddhist architecture to create man-made environments in harmony with the natural world.
Among the dozens of Noguchi pieces scattered around the park is a geometric modern art installation that doubles as a children’s playground. The playground features a spiral slide, which Noguchi hoped would awaken in kids both an appreciation for sculpture and the laws of physics.
What I’m most keen to see though, is the park’s fabled pyramid. Eventually, I glimpse eyes on the massive, triangular summit of the monument. All mathematically-calculated angles and hard surfaces, it’s a cutting contrast against a downy landscape of smooth valleys and pillowy peaks. The 32-metre high pyramid’s glass panels perfectly reflect the blue sky in summer and the dazzling white backdrop of winter. In the warmer months, it becomes a unique performance space, playing host to concerts and art exhibitions.
Before it was buried by the city’s waste, this place was a lush, ancient wetland, encircled by a natural water course that is now once again pristine. In the language of Hokkaido’s indigenous Ainu, Moerenuma means ‘slow flowing river’.
Noguchi died in 1988 before he could see through the completion of his work. So meticulous, and so grand in scale was his vision, that the park wasn’t officially opened until 2005.
Its success marked a turning point in Sapporo’s 30 year effort to transform its image from obscure industrial outpost to a year-round magnet for visitors.
In summer, it is alive with joggers, cyclists and families picnicking beneath late-flowering Hokkaido cherry blossom trees. But today it is shrouded in deep, penetrating silence.
Spectator Sports at Sapporo Wholesale Market
For some reason, I’d agreed to be dropped off the next morning at the Sapporo Wholesale Market at 5:30am. It’s pitch black, and bitterly cold.
I’m met by a fresh-faced employee, who preps me on what I’m about to see when we reach the main trade floor. I’m half asleep, but the market has been thronging with activity for hours. There are inspectors in lab coats assessing the morning’s goods with scientific precision, while pickers and packers zip across the market floor in the market’s iconic barrel-shaped, flatbed turret trucks.
I’m taken to an observation deck on the second floor of the hanger-sized fisheries building. A large group of people make their way towards a series of wooden tables, where several colossal fish carcasses are on display. Eight blue fin tuna, the most prized fish of all, will be auctioned off, bringing fortune to some, and dashing the hopes of others.
Only staff and buyers are allowed on the auction floor, but the observatory deck has an uninterrupted view of the entire ground floor sales operation. Crowds are non-existent, giving you the best chance of witnessing the legendary hybrid of business, gambling and performance that is a Japanese tuna auction.
There’s a sudden commotion as a group of about a dozen people start to converge beside the tuna table. Sapporo Wholesale Market runs like a well-oiled machine, but when there’s tuna on the line, orderliness flies out the window.
Tuna auctions are a kind of ultra-high stakes game of charades, in which buyers employ hand signals to place rapid fire bids, until a loud yelp from the auctioneer announces the end of the bidding war.
Registered buyers in colour-coded baseball caps form a scrum around the auctioneer, who announces the proceedings through a highly animated language of whooping and yelling.
A high pitched yowl echoes through the market. All 12 tuna brokers are hot out of the gate. They frantically punch air to assert their offer, with only a split second before they must make their next move. The auctioneer rattles off bidding prices in a rhythmic sing-song call that spurs on the buyers. The action appears to be speeding up. I see several hands go down and stay down, and more than one dejected face. The whole affair is loud, frantic and for me at least, almost impossible to follow. It looks like about half the competitors are still in the race. Suddenly, the auctioneer gives out a loud bark and the crowd immediately disperses. About 60 seconds have past. I’m not sure who’s won. I scan the faces of the buyers for a smile of satisfaction, but I can’t get a reading. I figure these guys must be the real pros.
By the time a buyer is considered experienced enough to compete on the auction floor, he is an expert in both seafood and business, and a steely-nerved gambler to boot. The tuna business is a big-time hustle (earlier this year, a 277 kilogram tuna at Tokyo's Toyosu Fish Market went for a record-breaking US$3 million plus). In a few hours’ time, they’ll be on-selling the morning’s spoils to upscale retailers and fancy restaurants.
Toasting Japan's Birthplace of Beer
If Sapporo has one worldwide claim to fame, it’s undoubtedly the locally brewed beer that bares the city’s namesake.
Sapporo is the oldest beer brand in Japan, and its longest-operating brewery. A handsome, European-style redbrick building dating to 1890, it’s visible from streets away by the chimney stack baring the brand’s trademark red polar star.
While brewing operations have since been shifted elsewhere in Hokkaido, the historic factory is still the spiritual home of the much-loved lager. Since being reinvented as the Sapporo Beer Museum in 1987, it’s become a place of pilgrimage for beer enthusiasts the world over.
Dominating the museum’s interior is the massive copper brewing kettle standing several stories high. Guided tours are available to walk you through the brewing process and the history of beer-making in Japan. There’s also a collection of vintage Sapporo ads, including some rather disturbing examples from the early 1900s which appear to be marketed towards mothers and babies.
Learning about beer would be much less fun if you didn’t get to drink it afterwards. Luckily there’s a giant German-style beer hall onsite where steins of Sapporo find the ultimate match in copious servings of smoky, fatty, barbecue grilled meet.
The restaurant serves a speciality, the ‘Genghis Khan’. A similar concept to a typical Japanese or Korean barbecue restaurant, the meat is brought out raw and cooked at the table communal style on dome-shaped metal hot plates. I can’t resist ordering a pinto of the Sapporo Five Star, a more full-bodied lager than the regular stuff, available exclusively at the Beer Museum.
After the all-you-can-eat meat extravaganza, I do my best to walk things off a little with a stroll through the city’s downtown. Along a main street, I spot several excavators rolling down the footpath. They’re busily demolishing what on closer inspection appears to be the remains of near life-sized replica of a medieval castle, carved out of translucent blocks of ice.
Sapporo's Snow Festival (and why you shouldn't miss it)
Every year in early February, Sapporo hosts its largest and most spectacular event, the Sapporo Snow Festival. Sapporo in winter has an undeniable air of magic, which the festival aims to celebrate by illuminating the city streets, setting the evenings aglow with millions of multi-coloured LEDs and kaleidoscopic light projections.
The highlight of the festival is the snow sculpting competition where highly skilled teams from around the globe carve extraordinarily complex and detailed sculptures out of ice and snow. Past entries have included a 10-metre high T-Rex, an astonishingly intricate Taj Mahal, and a life-sized reproduction of the Grand Central Hall of Nara, one of Japan’s most magnificent temples.
Multiple sculptures standing several stories high have transformed this square into a gaudily enchanting, artificial-lit fairy land. After being painstakingly created over several weeks, they’ve been bulldozed into rubble in a matter of hours.
Even without the snow festival, Sapporo has worked its winter charms on me. Until now, I had never seen a city completely blanketed in powder so thick, so soft and so dazzlingly white. I had never seen snow that glowed crystal blue under the pooled light of city streetlamps or formed glittering incandescent icicles beneath window eaves and clustered along the branches of pines. These were scenes I’d only ever seen in the picture books and TV special Christmas movies I fantasised about as a kid.
It’s my last night in Hokkaido. I shake off the feathery dusting of snowflakes settling on my shoulders, breathe warm vapour into my hands and let it all sink in.
Here I am, a self-professed cold weather wimp in the second snowiest city on earth (only another Japanese city, Aomori, cops even heavier falls). My take: winter isn’t beautiful everywhere, but it is here.
Until recently, the only practical way to get to Sapporo was by air.
There are multiple flights a day from Tokyo (1.5 hours) and Osaka (2 hours) to New Chitose Airport, about 50 minutes from Sapporo’s city centre.
In March 2016, Japan Rail opened the Tokyo to Hokkaido shinkansen (bullet train line). As of March 2019, the train line only goes as far as Hakodate in Hokkaido’s far south and takes just over 4 hours. Until the Sapporo extension is complete, you’ll have to take a regular train up to Sapporo, which takes about 3 and half hours.
Sapporo is a big city with plenty of accommodation for all budgets, although business-oriented hotels are by far the most common.
The Sapporo Excel Hotel Tokyu is super-close to Sapporo’s dining and nightlife districts and has good-sized modern rooms starting at about US$70.
The JR Tower Nikko is a monolith of modern luxury with amazing high-floor views. Rooms range from between US$168 and US$351 a night.
Words Fiona Davies
Photos Fiona Davies