February 16, 2000
Last weekend I saw one of the coolest things I have ever seen. Everyone, at some point in their lives, should go to the Snow Festival held annually in Sapporo, on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido. Yes, it's cold. Yes, it's hard to get to. Yes, there's lots of snow (which is the point). Go anyway.
When we first set out last Thursday, things didn't seem to be so peachy, however. I went to Sapporo with 23 other ALT's (English teachers) from Gunma and one parent, and the first thing that happened was that 17 out of 25 people missed our flight from Tokyo. Not exactly an auspicious start to the festivities.
We all had to take buses from Gunma to Tokyo to catch our flights. Because there were so many people going, we had to take two flights, and thus two different buses. The first group, consisting of seven lucky people, had no problems. Their bus and plane were both on time, and they arrived in Sapporo (about 90 minutes away from Tokyo by plane) as scheduled. While they were in the air, however, the adventure began for the rest of us.
Our bus was supposed to arrive 50 minutes before the flight, and since the precision of buses in Japan nearly matches that of the trains, we figured we would have no problem. However, the bus was 40 minutes late, and when we arrived at the check-in counter ten minutes before our scheduled flight time, we learned that all 17 seats had been given to standby passengers. Great. So, we had to buy standby tickets for later flights (all of which were booked, of course), which cost us an extra $150 EACH. It was actually much more complicated than that, but the story is too ridiculous to relate in its entirety. We all managed to make it to Sapporo on the next three flights, in small groups, the last of us arriving about six hours after our scheduled arrival time. But at least we all made it, right?
The rest of the weekend was a blast. The snow sculptures really must be seen to be believed. There was a replica of a palace in Portugal that was twenty meters (60+ feet) tall and thirty-five meters (105+ feet) wide, not to mention twenty-two meters deep. It was all built of snow -- several hundred tons of snow, all carted in from the surrounding mountains by the Japan's SDF (Self-Defense Force). I guess they have nothing better to do with their time. Along with a dozen or so huge pieces, there were literally hundreds of smaller sculptures, between five and twenty feet tall. If you can call a fifteen foot statue of Snoopy "small." These figures were mostly animals, cartoon characters, movie characters (including R2D2), and the like. Some were abstract designs that were really quite beautiful. Many countries from around the world sent in designs, and it was interesting to see all the different ideas. The one from the US was of football players, of course. I liked the one from Denmark: it was a large chair entitled "Relax." All of the sculptures were made entirely of snow, except for the ones made of ice, which were even more beautiful.
Normally when water is put in the freezer, air bubbles are trapped and the ice turns opaque (like ice cubes). However, if the water is boiled first and then quickly frozen, the result is air-free, transparent ice. This was carved into the most stunning sculptures, and in two cases buildings. One such building, a replica of a concert hall, was thirteen meters (39+ feet) tall and eighteen meters (54+ feet) wide. Absolutely amazing. The ice sculptures were especially beautiful at night, when several of them had colored lights shown through them.
Interestingly, the "mascot" of this year's festival was a cute little smiling snowman, posters of whom plastered the city (and now my room). All of the pathways were lit at night with large lamps in the shape of this snowman. This was quite ironic, really -- everything was made of snow except these plastic snowmen.
The cold you can imagine. The snow you can imagine. Even the size, I think you can imagine. What you have to see to believe is the astounding attention to detail. My favorite piece was a 15m tall X 24m wide work entitled "The Dream Continent 2000" which included a huge whale, many penguins, and a dog-sled, all set in remarkable rock formations. Upon approaching it, the first thing that you see is an enormous whale suspended 5 meters above the ground, mouth slightly open as if in the act of collecting a mouthful of plankton. Yum. The dozen or so penguins beneath and to the left of the whale are surprisingly life like, one even looking up at the whale, seemingly in awe (a feeling that I shared). The best part, however, was the team of four dogs on the right, caught in a moment of pure action, straining against their harnesses and bounding forward with wonderful energy and furious determination, tongues hanging out and icicles dangling from thick, life-like fur. The person on the sled, almost an afterthought, has the expression of one simply holding on for dear life.
This piece, along with all the others, was ceremoniously
destroyed on Monday. Get your tickets for next year now --
only 350+ shopping days left!
Even without the snow festival, Sapporo is a great city. Built on a plot of land that only one hundred years ago held little more than the huts of the native Ainu villagers (ethnically different from Japanese people), Sapporo is now a vibrant city of 1.5 million people that gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "underground culture." Since it is so cold during the winter, the city is built on two levels -- below street level is a huge shopping and eating area which runs almost the entire length and breadth of the city. If you plan carefully, there is no reason to step outside or use the streets for more than a few minutes at a time. Also, in Hokkaido they have actually discovered central heating and insulation, twin revolutions in environmental control technology that have not yet reached Gunma. Thus, even though the temperatures would seem to dictate otherwise, I was warmer in Sapporo than I have been in Gunma for the past two months.
It's a good thing that one doesn't have to use the streets much in Sapporo, because although they have figured out how to heat buildings, they have not yet discovered the secret of snow removal. Snow is often left on the ground to be constantly driven over and turned into ice. The result is a layer of ice on many streets and sidewalks fully six inches (15+ cm) thick. This makes walking challenging, to say the least, and I can't imagine driving on it. This does not, however, stop people from driving on it. I can't even imagine how many traffic accidents there must be, although miraculously I did not see any. I took taxis three times, and each time I entered the taxi the thought crossed my mind that I still have not written a last will and testament. I found the easiest way to survive the ride with all of my hair still attached was to close my eyes and try to sleep; an exercise in futility, I assure you.
One place in Sapporo that you do have to go outside to get to is the "Ramen Yokocho," which literally means "ramen side street." Sapporo is famous for ramen (Japan's version of Chinese food -- basically noodles in different kinds of broth like soy-based, miso-based, or salt-based), and Ramen Yokocho is the most famous place in Sapporo for ramen. This "street" is actually a corridor about five feet wide lined on both sides with dozens of ramen shops and always so packed that it is nearly impossible to walk through. However, it is definitely the best ramen I have ever eaten.
Another restaurant that we sampled was the Sapporo
Bier Garten (when will those Germans learn how to spell?). The Sapporo
Brewery is the oldest in Japan, and next to the factory is a huge, cavernous
restaurant serving beer and food, mostly the all-you-can-eat "Ghengis Khan
Barbecue." So there we were, a group of Americans, Canadians, Brits,
and Aussies in a Japanese restaurant with a German name eating a dish named
after a Mongolian. How's that for cultural exchange? The best
part about it was that we were in a section of the restaurant reserved
for large groups, but we were the only foreigners there. Needless
to say, we garnered a lot of stares. Once everyone in our group showed
up, we did a very loud group "Kampai," or "Cheers". Several other
tables full of drunk Japanese people immediately rose and did the kampai
with us, and soon even more joined. I would estimate that over 200
people in all were involved, which was very cool. Once some of the other
guests got drunk enough, they started making forays to our table to get
us to drink with them. It was a very friendly atmosphere, and I kept
on having beer mugs thrust into my hand with shouts of "ikki ikki," which
means "slam it!!" Of course, I didn't want to disappoint . . .
So, that's all I have for the Sapporo part, but here's an amusing aside: today in school I was busy typing all of the above when a group of students came over to see what I was doing. In Japan, students are welcome in the teachers' room. I let them type whatever they wanted, and the unedited result is below.
*** What my students had to say about life***
I want to go to Sapporo.
I will die. good bye.
When will you die?
In 90000555 years.
My name is Yuuichi Shiraishi.
My name is white stone.*
I like horse racing.
I am Shingo Koike.
I am the devil.
He likes horse racing too.
He likes Endo.
Endo likes yuuichi.
Yuichi likes Shingo very much.
I often go to Tokyo to see horses.
My father likes me.
Oshimi likes natto very much.
He is the sun.
By kyouhei yamamori**
*** the end of the students' musings***
* The last name "Shiraishi" actually does
mean "white stone."
** Not all of it was by Kyouhei, but whatever.