All’s been quiet on the blogging front these past few weeks. Blame it on end-of-term craziness, blame it on the three-day junior high English camp that ran me into the ground, blame it on sheer laziness/lethargy, or blame it on the massive head cold that has my nasal cavities producing approximately two gallons of mucus a day…whatever the case, I’ve been slacking immensely in regards to writing posts lately. I’ve still got loads of posts about the latter half of my India/Nepal trip, but before I forge ahead into Nepalese territory, I thought I’d insert a brief interlude about my trip up to the northern island of Hokkaido in early February.
The annual 雪祭り (Yuki Matsuri, snow festival) in Sapporo is without a doubt one of the most famous annual events in all of Japan. When it comes to winter festivals, it undoubtedly takes the top spot. Every year, thousand of visitors, Japanese and foreign alike, flock to Sapporo to marvel at the huge snow sculptures that take over the narrow stretch of Ōdōri Park for a week in early February.
Given the proximity of Aomori to Sapporo, I was determined to make it up to the snow festival at least once while living here. Yet every year when the time came around to book hotel and train tickets, one thing or another would cause me to balk and reason, “I’ll just go next year.” This year, finally, I made it up for the festival and enjoyed two days of beautiful snow sculptures, delicious food, and temperatures so cold that I rocked the “ninja-lite” look the entire weekend.
As I took the night train that runs from Aomori to Sapporo, I arrived in the city before the sun had even risen. As soon as I left the main station building, the bitter cold had hit me like a brick wall and sent me scurrying back inside to wrap my hands around a mug of hot coffee and wait for the sun to rise.
Once I was thoroughly caffeinated and my mittens and boots were stuffed with hand- and foot-warmers, I ventured out to Ōdōri Park (大通公園) to take in the sculptures, “Ōdōri” means “long street” in Japanese, and that’s a perfect name for this park. It’s long and thing, stretches for 1.5 km, and divides the city into northern and southern sections. It’s also the main site of the 雪祭り, where visitors can see the huge snow sculptures from various countries every year.
Some of sculptures are relatively small and range from 1.5 to 2 meters in height. These are usually a bit less complicated and less grandiose than the gargantuan sculptures that take center stage. (That being said, all of the them make the sad little snowmen I used to build as a kid that much more pathetic.)
Every year, countries as varied as Malaysia, Poland, and India send representatives to construct the sculptures in Ōdōri Park. I found it funny to see sculptures from Hawaii, Thailand, and Singapore, since those places aren’t exactly known for their vast annual snowfall. This year, the sculptures from Malaysia and India were the biggest foreign representatives. The number of hours that go into creating these pieces of art – for what else are they? – is staggering. Judging by the adoring crowds, though, it pays off in spades.
As much as I loved seeing all of the sculptures, February in Sapporo was just way too cold for me to be outside for any length of time, even when I had little portable warmers radiating heat into my hands and feet. Basically, my routine for the weekend went like this: see sculptures, get cold hands, go get coffee to warm up…go see more sculptures, get cold feet, go get food to warm up. And repeat. In Japanese, there’s a word that describes me perfectly: 冷え性 (hiesho). Basically, it means that my circulation works about as well as molasses running through cold pipes. (No, really. Once I went to have blood work done, the nurse stuck the needle in my arm…and nothing came out. I had to get wrapped in a blanket, and my mum had had to massage my arms before the nurse could get enough blood to fill her vial. After that, I’d been asked to kindly wear a sweater next time to make it a little easier on the nurses.)
Purple hands, electric blue fingernails, freezing feet, and bloodless lips are things I’ve dealt with since I was a kid, but even if I’m used to it, walking around in below-freezing temperatures for extended periods of times doesn’t exactly make extremities that happiest of campers. That being said, I was all too happy to accommodate them by heading inside to warm up and sample some of Sapporo’s finest fare.
As Aomori is the closest prefecture to Hokkaido, every year a giant flock of our ALTs make a brief migration north. Though we all stay in hotels spread all over the city and break off into our own little groups during the day, it’s only logical that we converge together at least once for a good time. This year, one of the ALTs organized a 焼肉 (yakiniku, Korean barbecue), and about thirty of us barbecued lamb, chicken, and beef (and a few vegetables to convince ourselves that we were being healthy) until we were bursting.
Since moving to Japan, the country’s interpretation of curry has become one of my favorite foods. It may not be as authentic as the Indian or Thai versions, but it’s just as satisfying. Sapporo is particularly famous for its soup curry (exactly like normal curry, except that it’s thinner, so you can eat it like…duh, soup), and I followed a friend’s recommendation to Samurai Soup Curry, a tiny shop just north of Ōdōri.
The lunch I had there was so delicious that I couldn’t stop raving about it my friends…who asked me to take them back the next day for dinner. I was all too happy to oblige. Samurai has the usual rundown of soup curries on its menu, but the 祭り (festival) curry set is where it’s at. For just under 1300円, you get an awesome spread. First, you can customize the actual soup curry itself. You can choose from normal, mild, and coconut bases, and then decide how spicy you want it. I went with a normal base with a spicy rating of 7 for my first curry…which was so hot that I immediately started tearing up and had to order a lassi to cool my mouth. The bowl that I had for dinner the next day had a coconut milk base and was only a 4 on the spicy scale. Equally delicious and much less painful!
After you customize your curry base, then you get to choose three fixings from a list of about two dozen. ゼンギ(zengi, Sapporo-style fried chicken), pumpkin gnocchi, 炙りチャーシュー (aburi char siu, seared pork belly), cheesy mochi (dumplings made with glutinous rice flour), lamb dumplings, fried oysters, broccoli, tomatoes, and potatoes are just a few of the options. I went with fried oysters, pork belly, and lamb dumplings my first time around. The second time, I settled on the pumpkin gnocchi, ゼンギ, and fresh oysters. If that doesn’t sound like a lot of food already, you also get a mountain of standard fixings (like beans, lotus root, carrots, parsnip, and peppers) and a bowl of rice alongside your curry. By the end of both of my Samurai meals, my stomach was groaning happily.
I don’t know if I’ll make the trek north again to the 雪祭り while I still live here, but even if I don’t, I think I definitely got my fill of snow, sculptures, and soup curry to last me for a while.