is for yuki matsuri, or the Japanese word for snow festival. Of all the trips I’ve made to Japan, my seven-day-stint in Hokkaido has got to be the most memorable. I talked briefly about it in my F is for 冬 post earlier this month, but today I’m going to share a few snippets of the journal I kept that week. I hope you enjoy it, even though it’s a bit long!
Today we visited the main attraction in Sapporo – the Yuki Matsuri!
We got up early and headed downtown to see the sculptures. I have been looking forward to this for months, so I was really excited to get to see them at long last. They certainly didn’t disappoint.
We were stopped a million times over by young children from the Chuo Elementary School for a English questionnaire…. it was cute the first three times, but then it started to become a game of avoiding the children, running when they started heading in our direction and struggling not to make eye contact.
There was a snowboarding event that we also crowded in for- the snowboarders themselves weren’t all that great but I think I got some good shots.
It started snowing pretty bad at this point, but we would not be deterred. Erin had the bright idea to buy umbrellas to keep the snow from piling up on us, so at least we didn’t get too wet as we moved on to go see the ice sculptures at another site in Susukino. The sculptures there were really cool. I particularly liked the angelfish (because it looked like the ice was going to break at any moment) and the wedded dragon and phoenix (for all of the detail).
At this point, we were getting pretty hungry so decided to head on over to the famous Ramen Alley (Ramen-yoncho) in Sapporo for some late lunch. Erin in particular had been looking forward to this, so we walked the whole alley before choosing our restaurant. We found this awesome place with autographs hanging all over the wall and a sweet couple who acted as the entire staff. The main food I really wanted to try in Hokkaido was their crab, as they’re famous for it, but it is ridiculously expensive usually. As it turned out, there was crab ramen at this store, for only $12! I ordered it immediately.
It was so delicious! I’ve never had crab that was so naturally buttery and sweet. Even Nicky loved it, and she doesn’t like shellfish! I really hope another opportunity to eat Hokkaido crab comes up, because even now I can taste it – and I want more!
The illuminations that night were gorgeous- I wasn’t able to get great photos due to the blizzard, so I will try to go see them again at night before the festival is over. This truly is something you have to be here to understand- the light shows, the detail of the sculpture- those are things that photography and movies simply can’t capture fully.
The path to Hokkaido Jingu was layered with fresh snow, the silence broken only by the cries of scavenging ravens swooping in to try and steal their meals off the shrine’s patrons.
We had been talking since yesterday about sharing a coffee with our ryokan’s landlords, as they have been offering us food regularly, as well as handfuls of candy, but we have never accepted because we were worried about extra costs. We are staying in this inn for the lowest fare, which doesn’t include food, and since we are used to the western standard of “nothing is free” we had continually been denying the meals…. well, we decided that today, even if it wasn’t free, we ought to share at least one meal with them, since the two women and the husband have been acting as sweet (and worrisome) as surrogate parents, so when they asked if we would like a coffee, we all happily accepted.
They had asked us a few times if we didn’t like onigiri, (which is not the case!) and finally I asked her how much it would be if we got one… she looked at me in shock, before explaining quickly that the food wouldn’t have cost us anything at all- it was free! She kept saying “sah-bee-su” (service). We all had a good laugh over it, and then we explained that all of the food had looked delicious, we just hadn’t known it was free. Immediately, the landlords started showering us with things and stories- including this amazing Hokkaido honey harvested by a family member of the husband. They put it in some coffee for me, and even though I hate coffee, this coffee was so delicious I was able to finish the whole cup without a wince! We talked with them for about thirty minutes before hailing a cab and heading to Hokkaido Jingu, as today commemorates the founding of Japan! Of course, the landlords wouldn’t let us leave until they made us three fresh, hot salmon onigiri to take with us.
After a fifteen minute ride with a very chatty taxi driver (I’m getting plenty of Japanese practice!) we arrived at the shrine, which is different from other shrines I have visited so far as the tori gate in front, which is usually wood, was made entirely out of iron! The path to the shrine was completely covered in snow. It was so, so beautiful. The shrine itself was made in the old shinto style, and enshrines three gods related to fertilizing the land, as well as Emperor Meiji, who was enshrined there in the 1970s. We all got fortunes and charms before heading back down the path to check out the Maruyama zoo, since we figured it would be awesome to see all of the animals in the snow.
On our way down the slope towards the zoo, we ate our onigiri (delicious!!!), though Nicky’s was almost stolen by a raven, and we almost got lost as the snow was filling in all of the pathways. As it turned out, it was the perfect day to go, since today was an admission free day- Score!
The best exhibits at the zoo were the red panda, the tiger and the wolves. It was much smaller than Tama Zoo, and we skipped a lot of the bird and monkey attractions (they get old), and sort of rushed through the exotic animals exhibit. Because it was snowing, they had stuck ALL of the African animals inside a building with no ventilation, so the smell of ammonia was intense. Even the animals were unhappy. The wolves were really awesome though, and the red pandas seemed very well taken care of.
After that, we took the bus back to central Sapporo for the Sapporo Beer Garden! At this point, the battery on my main camera was running low, so I had to switch to my handheld… I didn’t pack the USB cable for it with me, so I won’t be able to load those photos until I get back to Kyoto. In any case, the beer garden was awesome. It was in a beautiful brick house, with several floors dedicated to the history of the company. Downstairs there was a great den where they served the beer. Nicky, Erin and I got a sampler tray of their three best beers, one of which can only be found in Hokkaido, as well as some Hokkaido onion cheese and omiyage for everyone back in Kyoto. (Also, some omiyage for our landlords, as we were feeling super guilty about rejecting their food). I really enjoyed the Black Label beer, though their classic was nice too. Oh, we also bought some beer-flavored ice cream! Yummy!
After we were done at the beer garden, we hailed a cab and headed towards Sen no Yu, a large onsen hidden inside a huge arcade mall. It reminded me of Oedo Onsen in Odaiba, and it was sorely needed after three days of heaving walking. My shoulder in particular was thankful for it. They had a great variety of baths- mineral baths, baths you could sleep in, jet baths, individual tubs, outdoor and indoor baths and a steam room and sauna. I loved the steam room. It’s hard for me to handle saunas, due to the air feeling so dry, but I could have sat in that steam room forever.
Sufficiently relaxed after an hour and a half in a dozen different types of baths, we showered, got dressed, and headed back to the ryokan, where we presented our landlords with their omiyage. I think they were very happy to have received something, but a little embarrassed too. It was very cute!
The Otaru Canal at night was quite gorgeous with the snow, icicles and candles strung out over the water- the one downfall is zero privacy as thousands of people gathered.
Today started, once again, with breakfast downstairs with the landlords. We were surprised with a full breakfast of miso soup with mushrooms, kelp onigiri and a greens and egg salad. They made us all coffee again as well. It was so delicious, and while we sat there, we talked with Keiko-san, the 82-year-old grandmother of the owner, though she looks like she is only 60. The owner’s name is Hiroko-san, and she runs it with her husband. Her sister is Naomi… we talked about actors, singers, and the differences in what is considered beautiful in the West and East. When we tried to explain to them that Japanese women are considered extremely attractive by the average western man, they kept saying ‘goma suri’, which means “grinding the goma” or… “You flatter!!” It was hilarious.
When I asked Keiko-san where she was born, she insisted that she had been born a French woman, but as she traveled down the Silk Road of China, her nose got knocked off, and so now she looks Japanese. She kept looking at her daughter and asking us why we thought her daughter hadn’t been born Western-looking. It was a riot!
We were able to have a relaxing day, as we had no plans for anything until the evening. We went to Otaru, a thirty minute train ride from Sapporo, under a suggestion from my student. Otaru is an old fishing town that had a fishing boom in the Taisho era, but has since seen a drop in their industry. It used to be called “Otarunai” in Ainu, which means “River of Sands,” but was later changer to Otaru, which means Little Barrel. Otaru is famous for its glass and shellfish. The train ride there is gorgeous, as the tracks run alongside the sea by only a few yards or so- it was quite moving, actually, and perhaps my favorite part of the entire day.
The main reason we decided to go to Otaru, however, is for the illumination of its canal at night. We arrived a little after 3pm, so briefly stopped into a restaurant known as La Campanella- a specialty fried food shop. We each ordered Hokkaido milk, and I got a sampler of fried fish cakes, which were absolutely delicious and kept me full the rest of the day. After our late lunch, we headed to the canal, and walked along it as the light faded. Prior to nightfall, there were crates of candles in glass buoys along the edges of the canal, and people were preparing the snow for extra illumination. The port feel of the city really reminded me of Mendocino, and I started feeling nostalgic.
On the way back, the sun had already set, so we took the main road and window shopped along the way. There was a really awesome woodcraft store where I looked around for some traditional woodcraft- Nicky and I just bought a pair of red foxes hugging, linked together only by their legs. We were lucky enough to chance by K’s Blowing, a glass workshop, right before it closed, so we were able to watch a glass bottle being made. It was really cool.
Afterwards, it was time for the canal! As expected, it was truly a beautiful sight. Unfortunately, it was not quite “romantic” as the thousands of people gathered pushed and shoved and set up tripods, used flash photography, and every other manner of annoyance that comes with a tourist spot like this. I was able to get a few good shots, but in the end, I simply took Nicky down the unlit area of the canal, so that we could have some time to be alone and quiet together in the otherwise peaceful area.
While heading back to the train station, Erin surprised us and bought us a white glass egg as a memento, so now we have something a little larger from Otaru as memorabilia. The train ride home was rather uneventful, but, when we reached the ryokan, we were greeted yet again by the landlords (I will be sad to say goodbye to them on Tuesday) and a surprise dinner!! This time is was boiled cabbage in a meat broth with a Japanese style meatball. It was good!!!
Nicky wanted to literally kiss the cook, so we went back downstairs, thanked them, and showed them our photos from the day. We ended up talking with them again, and when we noticed a show on Christian weddings in Thailand on TV, we noted how Japanese weddings are so much prettier- this prompted Hiroko-san to run to the back and pull out all of her old wedding photos… she was so beautiful!! She also showed us the rest of her family photos, so I in turn showed Keiko-san and her pictures of my family. They said I resembled my dad. 😁
At the Hokkaido Historical Museum, there was a special exhibit on the Ainu going on. I was really happy to find an exhibit dedicated solely to the Sending of the Bears ceremony, as my dad has written a song about it.
Today it was Nicky and I one our own, as Erin doesn’t really like museums, and Nicky and I requested a bit of time to be together. We decided to go to Shinrikoen, a small suburb of Sapporo about twenty minutes away, since they offer two different, and equally famous museums in their district. The first place we went was the Hokkaido Historical Museum, situated on top of a mountain of snow, and the Hokkaido Historical Village, which is pretty much a museum of old buildings in the open air.
Shinrikoen is a small town, with literally no buildings over four stories- blanketed in snow, and exceptionally quiet. Nicky and I felt like we were the only people in the whole world. It was gorgeous, and quite peaceful. The walk up the slope towards the museums could be described as nothing less than stunning, as the nude trees were buried to their branches in snow, and the roads were so full of ice that they ceased to be asphalt and more of a long, winding stream. The sidewalks had their fare share of ice as well- walking across them and hearing the ice crack was surreal, like I was about to fall into a pond of frigid water.
After about thirty minutes of walking, we finally reached the museum, which was preceded by a gigantic spire of a tower. The tower was apparently a commemoration statue of sorts. After about thirty minutes of walking from the station, we finally arrived at the Historical Museum of Hokkaido. I really liked this museum, as there was only one pathway through it, starting at prehistoric times, with mastodons and old trees, and ending in the “future” of Hokkaido. There were several exhibits in particular that I enjoyed, most notably the Jomon exhibit, where they had the actual clay dolls, and the Ainu exhibit, which also had a special addition of about one hundred Ainu robes this month.
After the museum, we headed back down the slope for about ten minutes to make our way to the Sapporo Historical Village, which was mostly deserted, I think because today was the last day of the snow festival, and also because the road conditions were not very favorable. The village was beautiful though. Nicky and I rented a horse-drawn carriage to take us through the village. It was really romantic, even though other people were in the cart, because of all of the snow and the lovely setting. The village pretty much looked like a settler’s village, with an old farm, cabin, police station and train station. There was also a suspension bridge, but it was unfortunately closed due to the heavy snow (the snow was actually higher than the bridge itself). We stayed until the park closed, and then ran to catch the last bus, as it was starting to get dark and the snow had started up again. It was probably the scariest bus ride I’ve ever been on, as the driver was going quite fast down an icy slope, but we got to the station safely, and then headed back to the ryokan.
When we got back, we were stopped at the door by Keiko-san, and Nicky complimented her on looking pretty- at this point, Keiko-san laughed, and started to strip naked! Nicky and I stood frozen in the doorway as this little old woman started pulling her pants down and her sweater up, all while singing “Nude-o Nude-o!” It was quite hilarious, though we were saved by Naomi-san (her daughter), who made her stop.
This morning followed the last day of the festival. We got up early to go see them tear the sculptures down, but before they did, the entire sculpture was doused in sake, and then the artists bowed to it in thanks.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Today started at 7:30am, when we got up early enough to go see the tear down of the snow sculptures. I think we really confused Hiroko-san, because we got up so much earlier today than we have any other day so far. We rushed down to Odori Square, and not a moment too soon, as they were already preparing the tractors. We decided to watch the tear down of the Japanese Self Defense Forces sculpture, as it was the most beautiful. The troops opened up several bottles of sake, and gave some to the fox, owl and temple parts of the sculpture, before they lined up in a row and bowed to it. Afterwards, the dozers set to work- it was pretty amusing to watch, as the guy in the red tractor was clearly on the war path, while the yellow driver was taking his time to make sure it was done safely.
We decided to make our way back to Sen no Yu, and spent a good couple of hours there after going into a local Seiyu to put together an onsen-basket (towels, scrubbies and body wash). It was great because there weren’t many people, and Nicky and I were able to spend some time alone together in many of the baths.
This photo is already a treasure for me. From the left, it is Hiroko-san, me, Nicky, Erin, Keiko-san and Nattchan. I will always remember my experience at Fuyokan, and if Nicky and I ever go back to Hokkaido, we will definitely go back there.
Well, today was our last day in Hokkaido. We spent all of our money, and there is little else but work and bills waiting for us when we get back, but…. I am so happy that we came. What started as a simple stay at a beautiful ryokan turned into a fantastic and precious building of friendships, and for all of the adventures we were able to have in Hokkaido, I am truly grateful.
This morning, Hiroko-san surprised us with one final gift- light up snowmen from the Yuki Matsuri; small souvenirs that meant a great deal to us. We lingered at the ryokan for a couple of hours, talking with them, hearing more about the history of their family and the inn, before we finally had to say goodbye. Everyone got a hug, and there were a few tears, before Hiroko-san offered to drive us to the station. To top it all off, when we went to pay for our stay, Nattchan gave us a 30% discount on the entire stay. I was truly speechless. As we got in the car, Nattchan and Naomi-san waved goodbye on the street, and when we got to the station, we said our farewells to Hiroko-san as well.
The emotions from the morning stayed with me through the rest of the day, and even now I continue to think about them.
I love Hokkaido.