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Saturday, February 10

Ice, Ice Baby

Now that we are home and all snug back in our warm and big bed, I can say that I appreciated the snow and ice that fell on us during the 58th Sapporo Snow Festival. The day that we arrived, it was a constant mix of icy rain and wet snow. It didn’t stop us from taking in a single thing.

The first stop on our tour of the northern most island of Japan, called Hokkaido, was the city Otaru. Otaru is home of blown glass and music boxes. In the section we toured, the city exuded the antiquity of Japan. We watched glass blowers at work and couldn’t resist the most perfect wine glasses we had ever seen in one of the glass shops that lined the slushy streets. Chocolate is also a big thing in the north and they can certainly deliver. Just one tiny sample sent KH and I rushing for our own box to take home. It never made it home as we finished it off the next night but it was the thought that counts.

The north is known for seafood. You would not believe the size of these sea creatures either. I seriously hid behind KH at several places where live crabs, larger than six of our Maryland crabs strung together, threatened to grab and eat me.

After Otaru, our tour guide brought us to Sapporo to check in to our hotel. We had been warned about the size of the rooms but seriously? Only one person could stand at a time. There were two twin beds and a TV that only played Japanese shows or really, really old black and white American movies. We would turn it on only for background noise. I hear that this was even a good sized room. If we ever get one of those smaller rooms, I think we will have to forego bringing any luggage.

We were only in the room long enough to change clothes and head to the Kirin Beer Garden. This was a wonderful place filled with plates of all you can eat beef, lamb, squid, scallops, shrimp and salmon. Oh, and not to be forgotten, the all you can drink chuhi and beer. We did our job on all accounts. Even doing it so well that our table neighbors continued to up the ante with their own drunken calls for more drinks before we could finish even half of those in front of us. After being almost forced from our seats and onto the streets, we missed making it back to the bus and headed for Susukino instead where the bars and the nightlife were aplenty.

Waking on day two was easier than we had anticipated after our night of fun, much to our happiness. The hotel had a buffet style breakfast which we eagerly headed for only to find that it was not quite what we were expecting. There was also a Japanese style breakfast on another floor which is why we were so thrown off by the buffet. They had scrambled eggs but they were only half cooked. They had bacon but it was just shy of being totally raw. They had bread for toast but it was made with green tea. They had fruit and yogurt but the yogurt will never pass these lips again. They had oatmeal but they mixed it with rice and forgot that sugar existed. For the two days we were there, we pretty much opted for the salad bar that had lettuce, corn, shredded carrots and some tomatoes. We tried some of the other Japanese hot dishes but I just cannot get adventurous when it comes to breakfast foods. We just ate early lunches to counter our grumbling stomachs.

Heading out on day two, we had the whole day free to explore Sapporo and the 58th Snow Festival. What a great and perfect day it was. The snow would fall intermittently on us, sticking to the snow sculptures and making them even more a thing of beauty. We wandered aimlessly for hours taking in the snowy play land that Sapporo had created. We stopped to get some of the crab in a shell at one of the booths and it reminded me of the crabs from back home. Most of the snow sculptures are focused in an area called Odori Park. Twelve blocks of park we strolled to see everything there was to offer. Once we had covered this area, we headed to the second site in Susukino. There we found all of the ice sculptures, some even still in the construction stage. We stopped to warm up and dry off in a Japanese beer hall and filled up on tonkatsu and ramen. Ramen is the choice meal on a cold day. And it totally isn’t your Instant Ramen variety pack that you can buy at Costco back home for three bucks.

At the point that we left our late lunch, I was honestly still frozen solid. I could not get warm no matter how much tea and miso soup I had at lunch. The snow was coming down harder at this point, even falling sideways in the icy cold winds. KH finally broke down and found me a taxi to haul us back to the hotel. Hot cocoa from the tea shop downstairs and a nice catnap finally unfroze my fingers and toes.

Before we had left, a friend at home had put us in touch with a friend she knew in Sapporo. She kindly offered to have dinner with us that night and take us to a good spot back in Susukino. The place was truly amazing, both food and atmosphere. Our new friend made sure to order all of the best things on the menu so we could have a taste of everything. Most of it was pretty straightforward but there was one thing she suggested that KH visibly blanched from… horse. I, of course, do not have any sort of strange commitment to the animal as KH seemed to so I told her to please order it. When it arrived with the plate of raw meat meant to be cooked in the boiling pot on the table, I thought it was to be cooked in there. I asked first and I was so glad I did because it is meant to be eaten raw. Most would have turned away at this point, I think, but not one to shy away from a challenge, I took my first bite. I am not sorry to admit that horse is darn good. Melt in your mouth good even! I’d order it again, but only if KH was not sitting next to me with that look of horror on his face. That was completely spoiling the moment for me.

Filled on a variety of dishes, we headed back out onto the streets to see the ice sculptures at night in all their lit glory. When we started out towards the icy carved street, the snow was coming down on us in pretty little flakes. By the time we reached the end of the street, striding along with our new friend, flakes the size of snow balls were falling from the sky. She even had a special name for this snowball sized snow flakes although I can’t recall it now. I would have my arm up to take pictures and within thirty seconds, I would be covered like someone had rolled me up all snowman like. While beautiful, the cold wet layers that were accumulating on us, quickly wore thin our spirits. Managing to complete the walk down the street, we found the first cab we could at the end and crawled in to melt inside the poor stranger’s cab. Looking back now, I recall there were multiple ice buildings that served alcoholic beverages. I have no idea why it didn’t occur to us then to head there. Perhaps we were drying out from the night before. Nonetheless, our second day ended with beautiful luxurious blankets of snow covering the city outside our hotel window.

Our last day in Sapporo, after another lovely Japanese buffet breakfast (read: more salad for us), we headed to a second site of the Snow Festival called Sato Land. The place is meant for kids but considering I am just a bigger version, it was a definite for us to visit. We actually considered not going for a few moments when the conditions outside began reaching blizzard levels. But hoping for the best, we chanced it and had the best day of it.

Sato Land is all about playing in the snow and ice. There are giant ice slides, snow rafting and a snow maze. Our time was short there so we opted first for the snow maze. Towering walls of ice and snow and plenty of different corners were available to explore. It was just high enough that you couldn’t hear or see anything outside of the maze. The end led you to the top of a snow fortress so you could view all of Sato Land. From there, we did the snow rafting. Totally not safe but a blast. They attach an air raft to a snow mobile and pull you at high speed around an icy track. There is nothing to hold you in to the raft but yourself. Fortunately, our raft didn’t include any kids so the driver was eager to please and gave us some rather hairy turns and spins.

The icy wind on the ride had frozen our cheeks so we went in search of ramen for lunch. Always the best option to warm you up on a cold Japanese day! We were a hit at our table being some of the few gaijin around and even had people asked to take their picture with us. That will never cease to be amusing to me.

All warmed up, we headed back out doors to build our snowman. There is a contest going on and they are trying to make a new record for the number of snowmen in one place. We felt honored to do our part. Of course, this snowman making was unlike anything we have done before. They gave us four bowls of two sizes. What no rolling snow into obtuse shaped balls? One of the staff actually had to teach us how to us the bowls to make a nice, tight little snow man. We made a little sign for him and took him over to join his hundreds of other little friends. It made me cry to say goodbye to our first child that we had made together, leaving him behind in the blustery wind.

Of course, it only took a chocolate and whipped cream covered banana to ease my guilt.

Sadly, there was little left to our trip in Hokkaido. The next steps were only the bus ride to the airport and then the plane ride home. Of course, the snow had kicked again, delaying our flight as a result of the runways being closed. It felt right that it should happen though. A little extra time gazing at the only snow we saw this year definitely didn’t hurt. And neither of us were looking forward to rushing back into reality anyway. We will, however, both admit that returning home to our own big, warm bed to sleep away our wind burnt and chaffed face woes definitely had its pluses.

** There are a few pictures included with the post but most I accidentally deleted before blogging them. Just wasn’t thinking there. However, they are uploaded into the Flickr link of the sidebar. Hundreds of them! Have at it over there.


Mike S said...

I figured you'd love it when I told you to go, KH or no KH. Sapporo is not to be missed if at all possible to go. I toured Hokaido for a week one summer with my son on my Harley. Super nice time:)

Heather Meadows said...

I've been to Otaru :) You can really see the Russian influences in the architecture. I didn't know they made music boxes there, but I did know about the blown glass. All I really did there was walk around and eat at a restaurant, though.

And of course I've been to Sapporo too--but it was in the summer, so no ice festival. (It was cold enough for long sleeves and hot foods and drinks in the vending machines though!) We toured Hokkaido University and ate at restaurants, and used Sapporo as our base of operations to tour Otaru and the Ainu village.

I also went to Hakodate on that trip, which I definitely recommend, if only for the view you get from the mountain. The city is bordered on two sides by water. It's quite the sight, especially at dusk. (Here are some poorly-taken pictures...)

Your trip sounds amazing! My husband will probably never agree to go--he's skinny and from the South, so he hates weather below 70 degrees--but I would love to go myself someday. I also want to try an outdoor hot spring in the snow. I hear you get out when you're getting a little too toasty, pack your body with snow to cool down, and then get back in.

Anonymous said...

Horse?? Yikes! I am an adventurous eater and shy away from almost nothing but I have to admit - I could NEVER eat horse.
The trip sounds incredible!!