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Sapporo Snow Festival 2012

I awoke early on Sunday, February 12th because my friend was picking me up at 7:30 and then we were driving to Sapporo. Natsumi, an elementary school teacher in Shakotan, had gotten two tickets to the Toyota Big Air snowboard jump competition at the Sapporo Dome and invited me to come along. We hit the road early so that we’d have time to see some of Sapporo’s world famous Yuki Matsuri (雪祭り – Snow Festival).

The Sapporo Snow Festival was simply magnificent. I expected to see some giant snow sculptures, but my concept of “giant” was far too diminutive. Natsumi and I first checked out an array of intricate ice carvings, lined up on one of Susukino’s thoroughfares, right in the middle of the road. (Apparently, starting from 10:30am, the street became pedestrian traffic only.) The ice carvings, partially crystal clear, partially cloudy translucent, were beautiful in the morning sun. I can only assume that when lit up at night, they would be even more breathtaking. The sizes varied from your antique vase-sized smaller sculptures, to the more common 2 – 3 meter tall masterpieces. There was also a whiskey bar made completely of ice and apparently actually fully functional. The sculptures were all so impressive that I barely noticed how bitterly cold it felt outside, especially in the shade.

Then we made our way into Odori Park for the Snow Festival proper. And WOW, it was even bigger than I had imagined. I had known that there would be snow sculptures carved out of large (probably 3x3m) cubes, but I didn’t realize that they would be the smaller pieces on display. To my surprise, there were several massive snow sculptures the size of houses. Sure, the snow Taj Mahal and snow Osaka Castle weren’t made to actual size, but they were pretty large-scale models, still bigger my apartment building.

Rice-stuffed squid on a stick. This is the life.

Odori Park was busier than I had ever seen it, and it wasn’t even noon yet. Clearly the festival had brought in lots of tourists, because there were many, many foreign faces in the crowd. Signs posted around the park sought to guide foot traffic in a counterclockwise path through the festival’s myriad of displays and vendors. It was crazy cold out, but no one seemed to care too much as this was a spectacle that could not be missed. Plus, there was hot tea, hot coco, hot coffee, hot amazake, and lots of hot festival food around every corner.

The first monumental snow sculpture we saw was a massive, impressively detailed, aquatic life scene. The huge piece had dolphins, seals, a sea turtle, and a walrus, all made in a larger-than-life-size scale. At the high horizon point in the background, a whale was breaking out of the surface of the water. Plenty of fish and coral and such livened up the background and the amount of detail was staggering. The artists had even used clear rubber tubing to form the walrus’s whiskers. (While this was the only part of any of the pieces I saw that wasn’t made of snow, it was actually a pretty nice touch.) Speakers pumped out an instrumental version of The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea”, repeating forever on an endless loop. At night, custom-made lighting of undulating blues and greens made the underwater impression even more palpable.

Most of the other monumental snow sculptures were scale models of world-famous buildings, but there were a couple character pieces, like the giant Fantasia version of Mickey Mouse. This Disney-themed sculpture seemed to be commemorating the 10 year anniversary of a Japanese Disney Resort. Near the end of the park there was a giant anime-themed sculpture, a combination of Toriko and uber popular One Piece. It was fairly plain in comparison with the other pieces, as it simply featured each anime’s lead character (the titular Toriko and One Piece captain Monkey D. Luffy) along with one animal character from each show. Fans of either series were sure to be thrilled with it and the cuteness of a three-meter tall Tony Chopper was difficult to top.

Just past the anime sculpture was a collection of pieces by foreign artists, and these were some of the most interesting works of all. Starting with a 3x3m cube of snow, each artist had carved an original sculpture, usually something representative of where they hailed from. There was a sculpture representing India, Thailand, Hawaii, and even one for Portland, Sapporo’s sister city in the States. Most of these were either impossibly detailed, conceptually very cool, or both. As stunning as the monumental sculptures were, these particular pieces were the highlight of the show for me.

We took the subway down to its last stop and arrived at the Sapporo Dome around noon. Unlike my previous visits to the Dome, it was not warm inside. In fact, it was probably about the same temperature inside the dome as was outside, although the simple lack of wind made it feel a lot more comfortable. The show goers who came to see the Tokyo Big Air contest were all dressed in snowboarding apparel, as if they had been headed to the slopes but ended up here on accident. This turned out to be the most appropriate dress, as it was both warm enough for the chill and stylish enough to keep one looking good.

Instead of a baseball field or soccer pitch, a large snow-covered slope had been erected in the center of the dome. It was very steep coming down from the top, leveling off about halfway down. A ramp at the midpoint plateau would be used for jumping. After that, there was another slope for landings, eventually evening out on to flat ground at the base. An impressive construction of scaffolding, its skeleton resembled a huge Erector Set. The rest of the dome’s floor space was taken up with reserve seating and several cars on display, like the event was part auto show. The main sponsor of the event was Toyota, after all.

Starting a 1pm, and going until at least 9, the Toyota Big Air competition was pretty much an all day event. That didn’t mean that snowboarders dazzled the audience with big air tricks for eight hours straight, however. The event had multiple musical acts; including a popular Japanese rock band, called “One OK Rock”. (For the uninitiated, stemming from Japanese R-L confusion, the band’s name is supposed to be pronounced like “one o’clock”. Seriously.) In addition to the bands, local TV personalities provided plenty of nonsensical filler “entertainment” and giant projector screens flanking the slope on each side played advertisements during any and all down time. While it had its dull moments, when the international collection of professional snowboarders did actually tackle the jumps, it was quite entertaining.

I was genuinely surprised to recognize one of the competitors, Eero Ettala of Finland. Just a couple weeks prior, when I had been invited to Yoshimura-sensei’s house for dinner, we had ended up watching a couple episodes of this Eero fellow’s TV show. Apparently he had actually won the Big Air competition the previous year (as well as in 2005), so his participation wasn’t too surprising to anyone who followed this stuff, but I don’t. There were also two American snowboarders, two Canadians, one from Iceland, another from Slovenia, and at the onset, at least 12 Japanese competitors.

For some reason, no one wore helmets at the beginning of the competition. Even by the end of it, only a handful of competitors opted to wear a helmet, and only once or twice. The youthful Mark McMorris of Canada abstained from protecting his skull and instead wore just a baseball cap, which in hindsight seemed ill-advised, since he ended up smashing his head into the snow fairly hard. Public Health says no.

A little bit after 7pm, Natsumi and I decided to slip out and head home. The competition was still going on – now down to its final four riders – but with a two-hour drive ahead of us, it wasn’t worth battling the crowd at the exit after the show was over. On our way back to the car, we took a quick look at the Snow Festival at night. With its impressive colorful lighting, it was even more beautiful in the dark. However, thanks to a heavy snowfall in progress and high winds picking up, the frigid weather had gone from uncomfortable to a full on blizzard. We looked around for about 10 minutes before calling it a day and trudging back to the car park.

All in all, the Sapporo Snow Festival really was amazing, just as majestic as advertised. It was definitely cold – bitterly cold – but it’s called a “snow festival” after all, so that was probably to be expected. Like Japan’s famous sakura (桜 – cherry blossoms) in the springtime, Odori Park’s snow sculptures are another example of impermanent beauty, their allure increased by their short lifespan. While stunning in their scope, the frosty masterpieces are only destined to stand for one week. After this, they are bulldozed into oblivion. Catching a glance of their artistry was well worth enduring urban Hokkaido’s winter wrath at its most vicious.

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Rusutsu Resort

If there is one thing that brings people to Hokkaido, it’s the snowboarding. Hokkaido’s frontier of unspoiled nature makes for some great outdoor activities, and the heavy snow makes winter sports almost compulsory. So throw a mountain into the mix—which isn’t hard to find anywhere in Japan—and you have the makings of the perfect ski resort. So when I received an invitation to join some fellow international interlopers for a weekend of early season slope shredding, I went for it.

Andres, my friend and fellow ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), was turning 30. Being Aussies, both Andres and his fiancée Sarah were culturally obligated to be enthusiastic skier/snowboarders, so a birthday party at a ski resort was fitting. He drew up an invitation over Facebook and 12 of his luckiest friends (including me) signed on to spend the weekend in Rusutsu (留寿都). I had heard the name before, but I really didn’t know what to expect from the place.

On Saturday December 3rd, everyone met in Sapporo, near the town’s epicenter, Sapporo Station. The plan was to board a bus at 8am that would take us to the resort. Andres and Sarah had arrangements well planned out, with transportation, lodging, and lift tickets all covered by one flat—and rather inexpensive—rate. Once the bus got moving, everyone became acquainted with everyone else, which was good, since I only knew three people beforehand. Throughout the two hour drive, fog and falling snow made it hard to observe the natural beauty of Hokkaido, but it was still a pleasant ride.

Rusutsu Resort (ルスツリゾート) is huge complex, and apparently a major destination for skiers and snowboarders. The resort is more than a huge hotel next to the slopes. There are three mountains for skiing, and in addition to the hotel, there are log cabins and cottages for rent. The complex contains several specialty shops, and an assortment of restaurants and eateries. There’s an onsen (温泉), a game center, an indoor wave pool, animatronic robot animal musicians (no seriously), a fountain with its own music-coordinated light show, and a free carousel for the kids. There’s even a whole amusement park that operates in the summer months. Basically, Rusutsu Resort is like a self-contained city. Walking around the resort feels a bit strange, like being in Disney Land or aboard the starship Enterprise. Something about it feels artificial, contrived, but probably with the best intentions.

At least, I think that’s how Rusutsu Resort would normally be. At the time of our arrival, the skiing season had literally just begun, and Rusutsu, just reopened, was still very empty. There were some staff working and a few other snowboarders around, so the place didn’t feel completely abandoned. Still, not everything was operating yet, and a whole wing was basically shutdown. There was a strange vibe in the air, a lot like the Stanley Kubrick movie “The Shining”. Every new theme park-like side attraction we discovered increased my impression that we were in the perfect setting for a horror movie.

When our group first arrived at the resort, the giant carousel caught my eye. Honestly, it was hard to miss. White and red, and crowned with lights, the merry-go-round had two levels of seats. It also featured fantastic creatures to ride; the usual galloping horses, plus a giraffe, camel, pig, and something that was either a dragon or seahorse, I wasn’t sure. Walking up to the oddly placed circus attraction, I discovered that the hallway containing it was even more extraordinary.

The hall housed two stories of store fronts with elaborate facades, exuding the atmosphere of a street in a European village. Since we were still indoors, the outdoor scene greatly lent an amusement park air to the experience. As I explored further down the hallway, I was amused to find that while the European street stretched on for a ways, its architectural theme wasn’t wholly consistent to one country. One part of the street looked very much like Germany, while another bit looked more Italian. It was essentially a “Little Europe”. Speakers pumped out Christmas chorals to add to the winter wonderland aesthetic. These particular versions of the songs were purely instrumental and sounded like they were played on only chimes; the harmonic result sounding like a cuckoo clock striking 12, or being stuck in an elevator at Santa’s workshop. Still, it was very festive.

We gathered in a cluster near the front entrance and waited while Sarah and Andres sorted some business with the resort staff.  Right there we found another odd touch, an animatronic tree and animal scene that performed a song at the touch of button. The tree’s big round eyes opened realistically, as it was waking up, and then it opened its mouth and began to sing. That was probably the exact moment that the near empty resort became creepy.

We were headed for the slopes straight away, as daylight is precious in early December. A few people in our group opted not to snowboard at all; they were just going to relax in the resort. I wanted to snowboard, but first I need to rent all my gear. Jack, another ALT from England who’s quite fluent in Japanese, went out of his way to help me with the rental process. I was extremely grateful for this, for I would have had an impossibly hard time on my own. Since we were renting a cabin, I got a bit of a discount on a two-day rental of a snowboard, jacket, snow pants, gloves, hat, and goggles; although it still wasn’t cheap.

On the bus ride to the open mountain, Leon already began to show his expertise as an outdoorsman. Originally from New Zealand, Leon runs a hiking, camping, and English-speaking tour service based in Sapporo where he leads folks on all manner of cool outdoor adventures. A stocky, powerful-looking fellow, Leon sported a big beard to properly frame his wide smile. He and Andres discussed the various winter sports equipment and apparel, and he offered what sounded like expert advice. In fact, when he heard that I was renting gear, Leon said that he had an extra snowboard just taking up space in his shed. Had he known, he would have been happy to lend it to me.

While everyone else that day had snowboards, Leon was skiing. He wore a large backpack that looked potentially awkward, but handled it like a pro. From the pack, he produced a liquid-containing plastic bag and passed it around, giving everyone the chance to have a drink. It turns out the bag was filled with sake. While it was around 11am, I figured a couple of gulps of alcohol wouldn’t hurt, so I took a swig. To be honest, it really hit the spot.

The actual snowboarding was fantastic. Since it was early in the season, the snow wasn’t as good as it should have been for Hokkaido, but it still made for a smooth ride.  The group of us did a pretty good job of sticking together too, although effort was hardly necessary since there were really only two runs and a single lift open. At the top of the mountain, an epic wind was blowing. While I was waiting for us to start down the mountain, I outstretched by arms, and I swear that the wind actually moved me uphill! The lodge at the base had some delicious lunch options like potato wedges and curry rice, as well as beer vending machines.

After hours of boarding, the bus took us back to the resort and we were shown to the cottage where we’d be staying. The short walk from the main building to our cottage was surprisingly beautiful, and—like much of the rest of the resort—somewhat otherworldly. An idyllic winter scene, the path was a snowy trail of log cabins adorned with pine trees and elaborate, Christmassy illumination displays. The cottage itself was the quintessential log cabin, sporting a woodsy aesthetic complete with a functional fireplace and mounted buck head. There were at least four bedrooms on the ground level and two more on the second floor, with enough bunk beds to accommodate a small army. All the girls were sleeping upstairs, while the guys spread out mostly in the downstairs rooms. We enjoy a few beers as everyone got settled. Our non-skiing friends had started the party early and were clearly several drinks ahead of the rest of us.

Next, the group visited the resort’s onsen (温泉 – hot spring, spa) for a relaxing, post-boarding soak. After a day of physical exertion, lounging in the bathhouse is an excellent way to unwind. Some of the guys were doing a kind of hot/cold circuit, first roasting in the sauna for several minutes, and then dipping into the cold bath for an extreme thermal contrast. While I was curious about the appeal of such a trial, I’m not a big fan of saunas, so I delayed giving it a try. Eventually, I decided to go from the hottest bath to the coldest bath, and discovered that the cold tub was really, really, shockingly cold. Oddly refreshing, though… Only when we were leaving did I realize that Leon had sat in the icy cold bath for at least 15 minutes straight. Total badass.

After the onsen, we went looking for dinner. The resort advertised several restaurants—a German pub, a France restaurant, an Italian place, and so on—so we thought we’d have our pick. However, since the season was just getting started and the resort wasn’t yet fully operational, it came down to only two choices: super expensive Italian restaurant, or slightly less expensive Japanese izakaya. Despite the fact that the birthday boy didn’t particularly feel like Japanese food, we ended up at the izakaya. The food was fairly delicious, the drinks were plentiful, and the times were good.

There was one odd occurrence at the resort’s izakaya. As our mostly-gaijin party ate, drank, snapped photos, and generally caroused loudly, the restaurant proprietors began quietly setting a camera a couple tables away. This was a massive video camera, the kind that you might see a TV news cameraman use, but due to its unwieldy bulk, no private citizen would ever lug around. Since the only other patrons in our section of restaurant had just left, it became clear that they intended to film us. This made several folks in our party uncomfortable, as they hadn’t so much as asked if we would mind being recorded. Being a bit of an attention whore, I wasn’t really bothered, but I completely understood the feeling of privacy invasion and exploitation. If they wanted to use us for some sort of advertising, they could at least offer us some compensation, but they didn’t even do that. Jack acted quickly and approached the unsubtle film crew. Using his legendary Japanese language skills he got them to immediately pack up and go away. While he claimed that he just asked what they were doing and then told them that we didn’t want to be recorded, I’m pretty sure that he must have also slipped in a threat of severe beatings, dismemberment, or other bodily harm.

After dinner, the group returned to the cabin for more partying. There was an assortment of snack foods, lots more drinks (of course), a playlist of awesome music compiled by Andres himself, and lively conversation. There may have also been dancing at one point. When it got really late, people started crashing for the night, but for the hardcore, the party kept on rolling until at least 3am. It was genuinely wonderful to get to know everyone.

 

Breakfast the next morning was included in our accommodations, and some of us got up early to make the first bus out to the slopes. As it turned out, breakfast was being served at the German restaurant that had not been open for dinner the night before. The amusement park atmosphere of Rutsusu’s European hallway extended into the interior of the restaurant, which had a Bavarian forest flavor to its décor. The breakfast buffet was breathtaking in its breadth of bites and boredom-bombarding brand of barbecued beef, bread, and bacon. But the spectacle of the decorations again attracted most of my attention. For instance, there was yet another band of animatronic musician bears inside the restaurant, this time wearing Bravaian clothing and playing instruments like the tuba and accordion. It was so weird, it was kind of cool.

The bus ride out to the mountain was filled with anticipation. Fresh snow had fallen overnight and the landscape looked primed for slope shredding. The trees provided the best indication of what kind of dusting the area had received, as snow had accumulated on every individual bow and branch, about four centimeters high. The white scene was naturally quite beautiful, and on its own, was already worth the trip.

Being the first ones there in the morning, along with the fresh snowfall, made us fairly optimistic that we were in for an amazing ride. But to our dismay, the two trails had already been groomed. Even though a layer of powder had just fallen, the snow had been flattened and compacted. Andres, Sarah, and Leon were so disappointed in the surface quality that they turned back after just a couple runs. Luckily the trail maintenance folks had neglected to groom about two meters on each side of the trail, so there was still untouched powder on the edges. That’s precisely where I spent all my time riding, putting down first tracks.

Since I quickly found myself boarding on my own, I lost the sense of pace and rhythm that the group had provided. I began rocketing down the powdery edge of the trail, trying to capture the sensation of flying through clouds. This was pretty magical, and even when I would bail, I’d end up barreling through the marshmallow softness of the powder, taking no real knocks. Eventually my over acceleration caught up with me, and I wobbly lost control precisely at the line separating powder and the compacted snow of the main trail. While I had gained all of my speed inside the safety zone of soft powder, the trajectory of my fall sent my body hurling onto the hard, unforgiving groomed section. My shoulder impacted first, with my lower half following over the top, and I did a couple spiraling somersaults before finally sliding to a stop on my back. It was a good hard crash that managed to knock my goggles off—which I had to crawl about ten feet uphill to retrieve—but all things considered, it wasn’t all that bad. Despite the spectacle of it, I wasn’t injured. Still, it made me think about Marissa, as well as Jackie in Seattle, who would be shaking their heads in disapproval of me not wearing a helmet.

When the day wrapped up, we hopped on the evening bus back to Sapporo. Everyone was pretty wiped out from two days of boarding, so there was plenty of dozing on the road. Leon again reminded me that he had an extra snowboard at home and he even offered to lend it to me for the season. It was a very generous offer that I just couldn’t pass up.

The bus dropped us off near Sapporo Station and I made the walk back to the Fukui family’s house, where I had left my car for the weekend. My snowboarding friends had shared a lot of stories about the dangers of snow falling from rooftops, and during the conversation, I had realized that I had probably left my car in a bad spot. Just behind the house there was an open space that wasn’t being used for anything, and that was where I had parked my car. The problem was, due to the house’s slanted rooftop, this spot was precisely where snow would avalanche to the ground. Arriving at Chez Fukui, I took a quick look around back, just to confirm that my car’s roof hadn’t been caved in, and then went inside the warm house to spend time with the family for the evening.

It wasn’t until I set out for Shakotan that I noticed the snow had actually done a bit of damage. While it hadn’t flattened my car or shattered the windshield, the crashing snow had broken off my side mirror, which now dangled from its wiring on the driver’s side—that’s the left in Japan—of the vehicle. While this was a bit of an inconvenience, I was really pleased things hadn’t been worse.

A couple weekends later, on the evening of Sunday December 18th, I ventured out into northern Sapporo by car, hoping to find Leon’s house so that I could borrow his spare snowboard. He had given me directions and I checked out the address on Google Maps, but I still was certain that I would get lost somewhere along the way. And sure enough, I took a few wrong turns and ended up needing to backtrack a bit. Unlike most cities in Japan, Sapporo is laid out in a straightforward grid, so you would think that navigation would be fairly easy. Still, it seems that they number the city blocks instead of streets, and this difference complicates the simple task of tracking down an address to the proper building. I’m sure I could adjust given enough time and experience, but finding a location by its address is still difficult for me.

Eventually I found myself in what I assumed was the right neighborhood, but I couldn’t find the right block. My instincts told me that I was close, but my brain told me that without more information, I would be wandering the area in hours, so I pulled up to a Spar convenience store to ask directions. I walked right up to the woman behind the counter and politely asked what direction my destination address was in, using my awkward Japanese. To my surprise, the woman responded to me in perfect English.

“Oh, are you looking for Leon?” she said. “I’m his wife.” She then proceeded to give directions, even drawing a little picture to help me. As it turned out, I was only two blocks away. I thanked her for the help and proceeded on to their house.

When I got there, Leon asked if I had had any trouble finding the place. I relayed the story of asking for directions and inadvertently meeting his wife, which made him laughed heartily. Apparently many foreigners have ended up getting directions to Leon’s house from that store, so it’s just extra convenient that his wife works there.

As a compensatory offering for the generous equipment rental, I gave Leon a case of beer. Always friendly and gracious, he even invited me to come back to his house for Christmas. “If you find that you don’t have any other plans, feel free to drop by and spend the evening here. You don’t need to confirm or anything. If you want, you can just show up. No pressure.” I’ve met some genuinely kind people in Japan, but even among such company, Leon is one hell of a nice guy.

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