Japan holds a peculiar fascination for most people. The juxtaposition of its hyper-modern, technology-driven culture and deeply rooted traditional way of life, combined with a stunning island setting, make it a country of endless intrigue and beauty.
When most people think about Japan, Tokyo is the first place that springs to mind. A city of frightening modernity, crammed with millions of hard-working and hard-playing inhabitants. Over a quarter of Japanese people live within 50km of the capital, truly making it the heart of the nation as well as the powerhouse of Asia.
While Tokyo is, undeniably, a unique and exciting city, to really get an appreciation for the complexities of Japanese culture, escape from the capital and explore some of the other islands and cities that make up this exotic archipelago.
Hokkaido, Japan’s most northerly island, is about as far from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo as you can get. Famous for its spectacular flower displays in the summer, beautiful autumn foliage, and of course the world-famous springtime cherry blossoms, it is an island of outstanding natural beauty.
But it is in the winter that Hokkaido really stands out from the rest of Japan. With up to 11 metres of snowfall and the temperature barely rising above a chilly -4°C, a wintry Hokkaido gives even the North Pole a run for its money as far as winter wonderlands go. This icy weather has led to the creation of some unique festivals on the island, the most famous of which is the Sapporo Snow Festival. While the rest of the world is busy sending each other heart-shaped chocolates and a dozen red roses, the inhabitants of Sapporo spend February building impressive sculptures out of snow and ice.
The festival was founded in 1950, when a group of students from the local high school built six snow statues in Odori Park. This quickly captured people’s imaginations; the Sapporo Snow Festival now attracts up to two million visitors annually.
In the past, subjects for sculptures have included famous buildings, cartoon characters, the Egyptian pyramids, dinosaurs and celebrities. Many of the sculptures incorporate coloured lights, to ensure that the display is as dazzling at night as it is during the day.
Around the city ice mazes, ice slides and ice bars spring up; even the stages built for visiting performers are carved from snow and ice. If the snowfall is ever inadequate, the Japanese Self –Defence Force is drafted in to bring snow from the surrounding areas.
A snow festival is also held in the nearby city of Otaru. Running concurrently with the Sapporo festival, The Snow Light Path Festival is, as the name suggests, more focused on the illumination of the city. Thousands of lanterns and candles decorate the central districts, particularly alongside the Otaru canal. The snow-covered city and twinkling lights make for a beautiful setting and great atmosphere. Local food stalls run along the side of the canal so you can get a taste for the cuisine of Hokkaido as well as the local culture.
Almost a thousand kilometres to the south of Sapporo is Yudanaka, home of the famous Japanese snow monkeys. No other primates (with the exception of humans) live in more northerly or in colder climates, so these monkeys have had to find an ingenious way of keeping warm as the rest of the country shivers.
In the winter months they take to the natural hot springs, staying nice and toasty while the ground is covered in snow. There are also plenty of monkey-free springs nearby where you can take a dip and warm up after a day of primate watching.
A visit to Japan wouldn’t be complete without a night in a traditional Japanese Inn or ryokan. Less common in big cities, most ryokans can be found in areas of natural beauty, and offer a style of accommodation unchanged for hundreds of years.
Guests are expected to remove their shoes when inside a ryokan, and be punctual for meals to ensure that they are served at the correct temperature. Bathing areas are often communal, separated by gender. A stay in a ryokan, even just for one night, is a wonderful experience and will give you an insight into a peaceful and traditional way of life.
How to do it: Our tour to the Sapporo Snow Festival lasts 13 days (excluding flights) and also takes in the Otaru festival, Tokyo, Kyoto, a one-night stay in a ryokan and the snow monkeys of Nagano. The tour includes internal transfers, accommodation, services of an Explore Tour Leader, 12 breakfasts and 5 dinners.