The temple towers above me. Glistening white, it beams a brilliantly marked contrast against the bright blue sky. This full-size, intricate and oh-so-beautiful temple is made entirely of snow and ice. However, it’s cold; somewhere around -5C, and the wind chill factor makes it feel twice that, plus there’s nowhere to shelter. So, while trying to appreciate the temple, I’m stamping my feet on the icy pavement. Welcome to Hokkaido in winter.
I’m staring up at the Great Lecture Hall of Yakushiji Temple — or rather a snow sculpture version of it — one of the dozens of enormous snow and ice creations at Sapporo Snow Festival. The real Yakushiji Temple, one of the country’s most famous imperial and ancient Buddhist temples, is thousands of miles away in Nara, central Japan. But here in Sapporo, the main city on the snowy island of Hokkaido is an icy replica — measuring around 135ft wide and 55ft high — crafted by nearly 4,000 people over the space of a month. The result is nothing short of staggering — made all the more remarkable by the fact that it’s not alone. On this mile-long site (the festival is spread over three sites), there are five enormous snow sculptures, each as impressive as the next.
The Sapporo Snow Festival runs for a week every February, and next year marks its 70th anniversary. It started in 1950 when a group of friends from high school crafted a simple snow sculpture here in Odori Park, a space designed as a firebreak among the high-rise buildings of downtown Sapporo. These days, the sculptures are built by community groups, with the help of members of Japan’s Self-Defence Force who first assisted the students back in 1955. It’s an incredible feat, with several hundred tonnes of snow and ice used each year.
There are five huge snow sculptures at the festival — of which Yakushiji Temple is one — and 120 smaller sculptures. Along with the towering snow temple, there’s a birthday cake (2018 is the 150th year since the island of Hokkaido was named, and so an ice cake is fitting), an ‘Arctic Armageddon’ sculpture from Japan’s famous Final Fantasy video game series and even a replica of Stockholm Cathedral, celebrating 150 years of diplomatic relations between Japan and Sweden.
The afternoon shadows grow longer as I make my way around the Odori Park and Susukino festival sites. I stop to warm up with a steaming hot cup of green tea in one of the many food courts. Food is almost as much of a draw as the ice sculptures. Sapporo locals come here after work to enjoy Japanese street food at its best: ramen, yakitori (skewered chicken), sweet steamed buns filled with pork or bean paste, wooden skewers heavy under the weight of fat, fresh scallops, potatoes and corn toasted on charcoal grills, and juice stands. It’s the perfect fodder to keep you warm while wandering around; the cold really is biting.
The festival draws up to two million visitors from around the world. As night falls I meet a group of skiers from British Columbia, Canada, who spent the weekend in Sapporo with the specific aim of visiting the festival before heading north to ski Hokkaido’s famous powder. Their consensus: “Absolutely incredible.”