Well I wanted snow, and boy oh boy did I get it. One day and four trains later, we emerged on the top island, Hokkaido, to a white wash. The trees were all sprinkled with a bright white powder, the houses looked squashed under big puffy piles of white, and the large expansive lakes were frozen still.
We were met at Sapporo Station by an icy cool wind, and streets piled high with snow. Caught up in the excitement of it all, and chasing to keep up with Hannah while also taking pictures and dragging my suitcase, I got my first real hands on taste of snow. Face first on the ground. After laughing it off as a very kind and concerned man helped me up, I decided to just focus on walking until we got to our accommodation. Had I not been laughing so much at my own misfortune, Hannah may not have even realised I’d fallen, as she was already colder than she’d planned to be and as a result on a mission to get inside. At least I gave her a reason to smile in what she believed to be the beginning of her idea of a nightmare!
Expecting the worst, we were very pleased with our APA Hotel experience, and passed the time until dark unpacking, defrosting and dancing around in the yukatas (a casual kimono) they’d provided us. Once the time had come to brace the cold again, we cracked open the heat packs Hiroko had told us about and shoved them in our pockets. As we walked down the street, me still slipping and sliding all over the place, we were surprised to find that the heat packs, which had cost us ¥100 (roughly AUD$1) for a pack of nine did in fact work as advertised! They heat to 40 degrees Celsius and stay hot for 16 hours. By the end of our time in Hokkaido I would have surely lost a finger had I not had them.
The Sapporo Snow Festival was very close to our hotel, an easy walk apart from all the slippery ice on the footpath. Nonetheless we persevered and were rewarded with the stunning massive ice sculptures that were lit up with brightly coloured lights and music. Although a subzero temperature, the crowds flocked to see the incredible statues and huddled around the food stores that scattered the park (easy to spot from the steam bellowing out of their tents). My favourite of all the sculptures was the Star Wars installation, whereas Hannah’s architectural eye drew her more towards the castles.
Not lasting for long in the freezing cold we headed off to find some food. Being warned off the highly alluring Ramen Street by some of our new friends we made this trip, we instead opted for a little doorway that had heaps of locals lining up outside and a tripadvisor sticker in the window – two very good signs. And I think we hit the jackpot on this one. Once it was our turn, we were given a booth that we shared with three other couples, all sitting across a huge open fire pit. Unsure of whether it was designed for cooking or heating, we attempted to defrost our hands while perusing the menu, much to the entertainment of the couple sitting across from us. We ended up ordering a huge grilled salmon and miso salad and a few chicken skewers to share, and spent most of the night staring obviously at the couple across from us as they cooked their seafood banquet on the open grill. So much so that after a while the man offered us a piece of his grilled squid. Oops!
The next morning I slept in a bit while Hannah got up to do some uni work. I was only just beginning to feel my fall from the day before. Once we were sure the sun was out as much as it was going to be, we headed back to the Snow Festival and saw a whole heap of sculptures we had missed the night before, as well as slides, and a huge jump with professional skiers doing flips off to the sound of some pretty hardcore heavy metal. I love how the Japanese are so innocent to some western music; often we’ve come across supermarkets playing explicit hip hop or heavy metal songs and no one seems to flinch at some of the harsher content.
After doing the whole circuit of Odori Park, while having to run across the road and stand in a heated convenience store every five-seven minutes so that Hannah could defrost, we managed to see all the sculptures. I much preferred them during the day with the blue sky as a backdrop. But do not be fooled, the temperature was well into the negatives at this point. As an added bonus, we managed to spot some pretty interesting people as well as ice sculptures, including a pram with skies on its wheels and a mother dragging her kids around in a taboggine. Clearly the most efficient way of travel in the snow. Those kids have it sorted. The best thing we could do to keep going was to constantly drink coffee, and I tried something called an almond chocolate latte? When in Rome…?
For lunch we stumbled across a popular looking place that served what we think was soup curry or curry soup? A meal that we were told by our new friends Pat and Vince that we “MUST TRY” because it would “CHANGE OUR LIVES”. Not convinced but up for trying something new we ordered one to share. It came with a bowl of rice, some shredded cabbage, and a bowl that was cooked in front of us which included a meatball, pumpkin, broccoli, potato, bacon and curry sauce. While we pretty much finished it, we both couldn’t really get our heads around it and agreed it is not something we’d order again. Sorry boys.
With a new fire in our belly, we walked back to the hotel to grab our bags. By this stage I had just about mastered walking on ice. But not completely. Sliding to the station we hoped on a train bound for Otaru, a more remote town that which made Sapporo out to be a summer holiday. Wearing every layer we owned, and shoving twenty heat packs in every pocked we had, we trudged through ankle-deep snow to see the Otaru Snow Lights Festival. The lanterns, made of ice, that lined the streets and canal were magical though. Some were arranged around snowmen, or in the shape of owls and flowers. Even some stores along the main street had joined in the festivities.
While we were only able to manage the cold for a short time, we headed back to find some food but we kept getting distracted by every magical little installation we ofound around each corner. Finally though Hannah started displaying early symptoms of hyperthermia so we found a quiet little ramen shop and dug into a bowl about the size of my head. YUM.
The next morning was D-Day. We had planned to make it from Sapporo to Osaka in one day; essentially from one side of the country to the other. We had booked tickets for five trains to get us there, but managed to miss the second one due to a severe snow storm that delayed the trains. But I can now confirm we made it to Osaka in one piece and before midnight. Though throughout the day we both had serious doubts we would manage it. I think we deserve a medal though for our achievement. Needless to say a fair few high fives were shared that day.
Though we found very little comfort in Osaka. By the time we were in bed we had to get up again two hours later to race to the airport headed to Seoul, South Korea. A tight call, but I can now say from the safety of my bed that we made it to Seoul. In one piece. There is a great vibe here and I’m so excited for the next few days.
How’s the weather where you are? Remind me what the sun feels like.