Wednesday 7 March 2018


The chilly city of Asahikawa was a warm surprise amidst the snowy romance of its winter festival.

The final stop on our two week tour of Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido, Asahikawa - we'll be honest - was not our first choice of destination. It was February and ice festival season in Japan, thousands of tourists were flocking to the major city of Sapporo to see the spectacle of ice carved into miraculous shapes.

The popularity of Sapporo's globally recognised Ice Festival meant that as meagre little travellers we were priced out of the city; most accommodation had been booked and we couldn't stretch to coughing up for a hotel. A bit of research led us to learn that Sapporo's smaller, sweeter sister city Asahikawa was hosting its own annual ice sculpture festival - Asahikawa Winter Festival - and so we decided, Asakhikawa would be were we saw ice sculpted into shapes.

Asahikawa, it turns out, holds the record for Japan's coldest temperature: in 1902 the weather station there recorded -41°C! We arrived at night and it was cold but beautiful; illuminated ice sculptures lined the boulevard running through the centre of the city from the train station to the Ishikari River. We appeared like gangly, misshaped aliens walking through the shopping streets as people admired the sculptures, our rucksacks on back and google maps open to find our hotel. We had booked in to a business hotel and it turned out to be a business hotel in more than one sense - a working girl stood outside the front door, freezing in a short dress and knee high boots. She was picked up by a blacked out car as we entered. The lobby was just a window into an office but the man working behind the desk was friendly and our room was basic but clean. The best part of staying at this hotel would turn out to be the breakfast; two options: 1) Japanese beef curry or 2) a raw egg, rice and natto.

Unaware of how extensive this smaller ice festival might be we went out into the night to find dinner and see the sights. The streets were busy with bustling guests to the city, artists were chipping and carving out finishing touches on the elegant and delicate shapes of the sculptures.

We grabbed some food at a vending machine restaurant called Matsuya. This place was a godsend. Cheap and fresh dishes in a restaurant full of Japanese locals, the kind of everyday eating we liked. We also discovered that they sold draught beer for 150 yen a glass which therefore made it our new favourite place to eat. A portion of katsu curry later we were refuelled and ready to take a walk through the city.

The festival turned out to be a compact version of the one Sapporo puts on, but heartfelt and genuine. Local school children had made small snowmen who sat lining walls from the city centre down to the main site of the festival, each snowman with a different comedic expression or emotion made by the child who created it. We spent longer than two grown adults should cooing over the cuteness and taking pictures. The lines of snowmen ushered through a tunnel of tiny lights and to the entrance of the city park where pathways lit by tiny candles had been carved out thick snow for visitors to wind their way along.

Through the delights of the snowy park, and past a group of locals having a bonfire and a drink in a clearing of the snow, we found the centre of the festival. Ice had been carved in to a viewing platform so we could look at the stage which was also carved out of snow and a snow slide even ran from the top of it. This was place was mad, but then it was a snow festival after all. Music pumped out into the night and snow sculptures were everywhere.

The local ramen, which is a speciality made with a shoyu (soy sauce) broth, was sold in big steaming bowls which we sipped from under a tent in communal canteen whilst children slurped and snacked on their lunches, played around and stared at us. In the light of day the festival was still buzzing and fun. We discovered a snow maze and quickly ran around its thick walls to find the centre. Other activities went on around the festival site with children having a go at a spot of snowboarding and go-karting. On the stage local musicians sung and strummed away to songs we half-knew, cheered on by friends in the crowd. Considering this was meant to be a small festival, it was surprising how much there was to do and how much thought had been put into the details, but then we were in Japan, the country where delicate details and cuteness are key - along with delicious food.

As night fell on the final night of the festival and after we had just one more go at zipping down the really, really fun snow slide, we gathered with all of the other festival-goers on the viewing platform to watch the closing ceremony take place. This was something we thought would just be a bit of singing and maybe a firework or two but it was actually a full on show with multicoloured lights lighting up the snow in patterns, and green lasers streaming up in to the night sky with booming dance music to accompany it. It was epic and so wonderfully Japanese.

We turned our backs on the snow and ice and - with that bittersweet after-event, end-of-night feeling - walked with the crowd through the delicately lit park, where some people were relaxing and having a drink and others were playing with their children in the snow and dug-out igloos. Japan seems like a happy place to be a child, especially in winter, when it becomes a land of magical ice festivals and snowmen with funny expressions.



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