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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sapporo Snow Festival 2010

If there's one thing that strikes you about Japan, it's the national doctrine of politeness. No matter whether you've spent 100yen or 10,000yen, you will be addressed with deference and given a small bow or nod of appreciation.

Everybody takes their job seriously, and there's always a sense of pride by anyone lucky enough to wear a uniform. Buttons are polished, ironed creases are flawlessly crisp and everyone seems to pull their shoulders back and hold their heads high.

On the shinkansen bullet trains--sleek, quiet, roomy and punctual to the advertised minute--the staff always issue a neat and precise bow or nod whenever they enter and exit each carriage. The refreshments cart, usually pushed by women in pink aprons, will pause, turn around, and bow as she trundles her way out. The ticket inspectors will announce their arrival with solemnity, issue a respectful call for tickets, and then bow and thank each passenger with a musical "arigatoo gozaimasu" once they've checked and stamped each ticket.

Obento stall at Osaka station

The other highlight of our trips on shinkansen is the opportunity to purchase obento lunch boxes for the journey ahead. Food is everywhere in Japan, and none more so than at train stations. There are shops in the underground passageways, within the JR stations, on the shinkansen concourse and on the platforms themselves. Obento stalls are always found at shinkansen areas, pre-prepared meals that are sold and served cold but still delicious.

Omuraisu plastic replica 750yen (about AU$9.40)

Plastic food models of every obento variant on offer make decisions a pictorial breeze. Obento is always about little morsels of delight, allocated to segmented boxes or coloured patty pans, that create a sense of gastronomic adventure as you explore each compartment. The boxes are often quite beautiful too, but close inspection will show them as plastic imitations of wood or laquer, a disposal artwork that comes with a free side-order of environmental guilt.

Omuraisu omelette rice

The similarity between the plastic food models and the meal before you is always uncannily accurate. Breakfast on day three of our trip is omuraisu, a mound of rice huddled beneath an omelette eiderdown patterned with peas.

Inside the omelette rice parcel

A sachet of brown sauce offers a tangy sweetness and there are other treats to explore: a patty of beef (super soft and spongy with fat chunks of onion), prawn cutlet, cold potato wedges, carrot, broccoli and a spoonful of mayonnaise-smothered sweetcorn.

It's an early start. We've left our hotel at 5.30am to get the shinkansen from Osaka to Tokyo (zipping past a mostly slate-gray landscape that is blanketed by increasing amounts of snow), the monorail to Haneda Airport (a monorail that serves a functional purpose!) and then a 90 minute flight north to Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido.

Stools with clock faces

It's snowing when we exit the airport transfer train at Sapporo. As the snowflakes dance and swirl around us, we delight in the movie-magic scene just like a wide-eyed kid in a Christmas TV movie special. It's only when we head forth that we notice the banks of dirty grey snow built up on the footpath, the slippery patches of ice on the road and the squelch of puddles underfoot.

It's 2.30pm by the time we've checked into our hotel and we traipse into the nearest ramen house we can find for a late and ravenous lunch.

Aji No Tokeidai

It's not until much later that I realise we'd inadvertently visited Aji No Tokeidai, Sapporo's most famous ramen noodle restaurant that now has franchises across the country. It's well-noted by being patronaged by celebrities and, most notably, former Japanese prime minister Tomiichi Murayama.

Gyoza pan-fried dumplings 280yen for five

Butter corn ramen in miso soup 1000 yen

The ramen menu here comes with three soup options: soy, miso or salt. I go for the local specialty: butter corn ramen. Hokkaido is famed for both its dairy products and its corn and this dish is a celebration of both, the corn sweet and juicy, and the cube of butter is pale and creamy. It melts slowly into the soup, a slick of gold that adds a rich silkiness.

Slotted spoon

I'm also quite taken by the slotted spoon that allows you to dredge the soup for hidden corn kernels.

Chashu ramen in miso soup 1050yen

Tonkotsu ramen 700yen

We've deliberately mapped our itinerary to coincide with the annual Sapporo Yuku-Matsuri, or Sapporo Snow Festival, a celebration of ice sculptures and ice carvings that brings in an estimated two million tourists each year from all over the world. I hadn't quite known what to expect, but as we made our way to Odori Park, it soon became clear that this is a spectacle like no other.

Snow sculpture near Odori Park

Odori Park runs for thirteen blocks and incredibly, almost every one of them boasts snow sculptures during the Sapporo Snow Festival. The festival is said to have started in 1950 when local high students built six snow statues in Odori Park. In 1955, the Japanese Self-Defense Force joined in with a massive sculpture of its own, and since then the event has grown to now boast an outdoor winter gallery of 300 exhibits with one section specifically set aside for sculptures made by local Sapporo residents.

The event is entirely free, with roads shut down and traffic police are on-hand to help direct the teeming flow of pedestrian traffic. It's a family-friendly event and there's a childlike sense of joy as everyone marvels at the artworks, particularly those built to an impressive scale and incredible level of detail.

Snow sculpture of Wartburg Castle, Germany

Chibi Maruko-chan snow sculpture,
the cast of a popular animated childrens show
which airs on Fuji Television Network

Snow sculpture of the Royal Palace of Baekje, Korea

Snow sculpture of a crocodile wrestler

Snow sculpture of Kita no Dobutsuen or Northern Zoos,
endangered animals that live at

Sapporo Maruyama Zoo and Asahiyama Zoo

The major centrepiece of this year's festival was the tribute to endangered animals that live at Sapporo Maruyama Zoo and Asahiyama Zoo. It was breathtaking in its enormity.

Penguins and a gorilla

Twin polar bears playing with their mother
beneath a Steller's sea eagle

Everybody's in for a photo

Howling wolves

Steller's sea eagle and snow leopard

Snow leopard up-close

Darkness falling

It's not a festival without food, and despite the crowds, there was plenty of seating and shelter at the designated food areas.

Hokkaido Winter Food Park

Chocolate-dipped bananas 300yen

Jumbo frankfurts 350yen

Barbecued corn 300yen

Makimaki sausage 400yen
Lamb steak 400yen

Rugged up for the cold

Did I mention the temperature? It must've been about -4C, a call for multiple layers of clothing and the perfect excuse for hot food.

Giant scallops

Giant scallop 150yen

We couldn't resist the offer of grilled giant scallops, fat offerings on the shell that came with the roe still attached.

Grilled squid

Grilled squid is tender, basted in a thick, sweet and salty sauce.

Hokkaido fried pumpkin in cheese 300yen

And I'm quite partial to my skewer of Hokkaido fried pumpkin in cheese, two balls of fried pumpkin dough that hold a molten lava of runny brie.

Mitarashi dango grilled rice cakes

By chance we all happened upon a group of sculptors. It was fascinating to watch, and a reminder of the effort involved in creating and maintaing these fleeting works of art.

The 61st Sapporo Snow Festival ran from 5-11 February 2010. This annual event is held for seven days in February.

Aji No Tokeidai (in Japanese)
Kita 1, Nishi 3, Chuo-ku
(opposite the Clocktower)
Sapporo-shi, Hokkaido
Tel: +81 (011) 242 6668

Chisun Hotel Sapporo
2-9, Kita Nijo-nishi, Chuo-ku
Sapporo-shi, Hokkaido, 060-0002
Tel: +81 (011) 222 6611

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25 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 3/11/2010 02:03:00 am


  • At 3/11/2010 2:38 am, Anonymous chocolatesuze said…

    fried pumpkin and cheese! deepfried! and on a stick!? my jealousy has reached the crazy eye stage

  • At 3/11/2010 5:06 am, Blogger Hannah said…

    Sure, those ice sculptures are amazing, but straight cubes of butter plonked down in soup? I love Japan. Pure brilliance. And I loved those train bentos - made the trips so much more fun.

    Why won't air travel follow the bento box lead? Why?

  • At 3/11/2010 7:23 am, Blogger Peter G | Souvlaki For The Soul said…

    Your post brought back so many memories Helen! I still insist that Sapporo makes the best ramen in Japan. Again, your post is spot on covering all the food...oh! and the ice sculptures are so brilliant!

  • At 3/11/2010 9:08 am, Blogger Simon Leong said…

    OH WOAH! amazing! one place i'd love to visit :-)

  • At 3/11/2010 9:20 am, Anonymous Minh said…

    Giant Scallops!! Be still my heart... Oh the jealousy Helen, I must put Sapporo on my to go to list.

  • At 3/11/2010 10:09 am, Blogger OohLookBel said…

    What a gorgeous place (as is Japan in general!). Love the picture of the train ticket collector in his shiny uniform.

  • At 3/11/2010 10:12 am, Anonymous YW said…

    so much fun!! Impressive ice scultures! Lots of yummy food too! The grilled seafood, the pumpkin and cheese, the rice cakes... Haven't been to Japan before, definitely make a trip there soon!!

  • At 3/11/2010 10:36 am, Anonymous Rilsta said…

    Wow, the level of detail in the ice sculptures is amazing! And the ramen looks so good!

  • At 3/11/2010 10:52 am, Anonymous Tina said…

    The Snow Festival looks like awesome fun...! And sausage lollipop!!!

  • At 3/11/2010 11:15 am, Anonymous sam said…

    love these pictures (and food)!!!
    thanks for bringing back sooo many memories of the snow festival and Sapporo! man i miss that place!! :)

    Sapporo IS the best place for ramen - glad you got to try it! :)

  • At 3/11/2010 11:19 am, Blogger Just Desserts said…

    Wow, great blog entry. Wonderful food & ice sculptures with interesting commentry and spectacular photo's!!! Thank you

  • At 3/11/2010 12:50 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Thattsss iittt... I have to go japan again and to Sapporo!! Reading this before lunch is quite le painful

  • At 3/11/2010 5:09 pm, Anonymous Jacq said…

    ooh that fried pumpkin in cheese looks so good! and I love the slotted spoon for the corn - it would save me so much time because I like to hunt for the rest of my corn that's sunk in my ramen, which takes forever! yay for penguins in the ice sculpture hehe

  • At 3/11/2010 7:11 pm, Blogger missklicious said…

    Amazing photos Helen!

    Looks like Feb is the month to venture to Hokkaido then.

    The pumpkin and cheese looks SOOO good!

  • At 3/11/2010 7:17 pm, Blogger Craig & Caroline Hind said…

    I'm a big fan of Japanese food, but those frankfurters on a stick look so appealing, and sliced with such precision!

    Of course the snow sculptures are absolutely amazing!

  • At 3/11/2010 8:14 pm, Anonymous Veruca Salt said…

    I was worried that the scollops would be grilled within an inch of their life. Very surprised to find them still so juicy.

    Great photos of the snow sculptures. So glad I took a swipe of your photos.

  • At 3/11/2010 10:24 pm, Anonymous Trissa said…

    Helen, I wasn't sure whether I would drool more over the food or the gorgeous pictures - in the end the food won! Wonderful post.

  • At 3/11/2010 10:54 pm, Anonymous Mark @ Cafe Campana said…

    Great post. I really like the Snow sculptures. You seem to have gone ramen crazy. I particularly liked the look of the Butter corn ramen in miso soup. I sure it was delectable.

  • At 3/12/2010 7:50 am, Blogger Angie Lives to Eat (and Cook)! said…

    Such yummy photos!

  • At 3/12/2010 7:04 pm, Anonymous Tresna @ Duty Free Living said…

    That's some hardcore ice sculpting! I love the bento boxes....is that nutrition information I spy?

  • At 3/12/2010 8:54 pm, Blogger foodwink said…

    Sigh, I just adore Japan. Love the ice sculptures and food porn.

    Looking forward to the next installment!

  • At 3/13/2010 10:15 am, Anonymous divemummy said…

    gorgeous food and snow sculptures - will have to wait until kiddies are old enough to dress themselves for minus 4C weather

    too bad I couldn't enjoy those deep-fried pumpkin and cheese balls on a stick from my desk while I admired your photos.

  • At 3/13/2010 8:56 pm, Anonymous Amy @ cookbookmaniac said…

    Those chocolate dipped bananas look magical! Your post has brought back so many memories. I have been to Japan twice and I am still craving for more. Thank you for sharing.

  • At 3/14/2010 11:18 pm, Blogger nomnomnibblies said…

    wow all the snow scupltures look amazing! i love the gorilla hehe :P and the chocolate dipped bananas look so pretty with the sprinkles <3!

  • At 3/15/2010 1:59 am, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi chocolatesuze - Oh yes, the fried pumpkin and cheese was oh so very good. You must visit Japan, and soon!

    Hi Hannah - There are a few places in Sydney that offer butter ramen but I've found they tend to overwhelm with too much butter, unless it's the beauty of creamy Hokkaido butter that makes all the difference?

    Bento is too much fun. When we flew Jetstar three years ago, they used to offer bento as an airline meal but no longer, alas. It still ranks as one of the best airplane meals I've ever had!

    Hi Peter G - Oh it was great fun exploring the different types of ramen around Japan. I wonder if the cold temperatures make everything take better! lol. The ice sculptures were amazing - so incredibly detailed.

    Hi Simon Food Favourites - You'll have to start saving up. It's worth every cent!

    Hi Minh - Oh yes, giant scallops. They were great. It's a bit of trek to Sapporo but it was totally worth it!

    Hi Belle - The train ticket inspectors always looked so pristine and neat. Japan is, quite simply, awesome.

    Hi YW - Japan is such a mindblowing place to visit. The ice sculptures were jaw-droppingly impressive and yes, so much good food.

    Hi Rilsta - The ice sculptures were amazing. I couldn't stop staring at the whiskers on the snow leopard until I finally wored out they were snow-covered wires.

    Hi Tina - Sausage lollipop! I think every kid wants one of those :)

    Hi Sam - Glad you enjoyed the post and it brought back so many great memories. More Sapporo posts coming soon!

    Hi Just Desserts - You're welcome. Always good to hear that people appreciate and enjoy each post!

    Hi FFichiban - Yes you must. And I think reading any food blog before lunch is painful. lol

    Hi Jacq - The slotted spoon is such a good idea isn't it? And yes, the penguin ice sculptures were very cute - just for you, I'm sure! :)

    Hi missklicious - It's rather cold but the Winter Festival in Hokkaido more than makes up for it. The pumpkin and cheese was fantastic, especially given how cold I was at the time!

    Hi Craig - It's funny how a few carvings in a frankfurter can turn a sausage into something special! The snow sculptures were spectacular. Such a shame they all have to melt.

    Hi Veruca Salt - I was worried the scallops might be overcooked too but oh, they were great. I should have had more. Next time, perhaps? lol

    Hi Trissa - Hurrah for food victories. lol. They're usually my winner too :)

    Hi Mark - It's hard not to eat ramen in Japan as it seems to be the staple everywhere. The butter corn ramen was quite delicious :)

    Hi angielivestoeat - Japan is always delicious!

    Hi Tresna - The ice sculptures certainly put most people's snowmen to shame. And well-spotted. We actually found a lot of foods had nutritional information panels on the back. We only tended to read them after they'd been purchased though. lol

    Hi foodwink - Japan is always an amazing destination, and yes, expect plenty more posts soon.

    Hi divemummy - There was no shortage of gorgeous kids rugged up in tiny snow suits with matching hats and scarves. The pumpkin and cheese balls were all kinds of delicious but I'm sure they tasted even better because it was -4C at the time!

    Hi Amy - I think we definitely need more chocolate-dipped bananas in our lives. Glad you enjoyed the post, and I agree, even after my 3rd visit, I'd still happily return again!

    Hi nomnomnibblies - The ice sculptures were in a league of their own. The chocolate-dipped bananas are such a great idea for adults and kids alike!


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