The white stuff

It’s a short flight from Tokyo to Sapporo, on the island of Hokkaido. Sapporo is the home of the annual snow festival, an event son had insisted he wanted to see during our trip to Japan, and which ends this weekend, hence the crazily organised itinerary – one night’s sleep on Japanese soil following an 11-hour flight, then up at a silly hour to catch the plane north. (Silly hour was about 8 o’clock. In any other circumstance this wouldn’t be silly at all. But as you’ll know from my last post, thanks to newly experienced jet lag, any hour at which I had to wake was going to be abhorrent.)

A short train journey from Sapporo airport to the city. The view from the windows at this point was unpromising – industrial landscape you can get ten a penny in the UK. So far so unimpressive. BUT – and this is a big but, warranting capital letters – there was snow! The children went squeaky with delight.

And the snow… When we surfaced from the subway and walked the short distance to our hotel, we were confronted by piled high mounds of the stuff, scraped from the roads and pavements. But it was barely blackened by dirt and tar. Are the Japanese so damn clean they can keep even their snow white? Too tempting to avoid touching, we all poked our fingers in the mounds, and then planted our hands full on it.

And this was the softest, most woolly snow I have ever encountered.

Back in the UK, I had been on a train into Edinburgh with a friend, and was telling her about our crazy plans to go to Japan. She was gratifyingly jealous.

“Oh man,” she said, “the powder there is supposed to be amazing.”

I looked round nervously to make sure no-one else on the train had heard this. I mean, my mate does work in PR, but she’s a mum – I was surprised to hear her talking so openly about the joys of cocaine.

Yeah, it did soon dawn on me what she meant. As well as working in PR she’s an avid skier, but having no interest in snow sports myself her excitement about the “powder” meant very little to me. Until now.

Frankly I don’t know how one could ski on this amazingly soft stuff. When husband stood in a drift of it to attempt to build a snowman, he fell through it up to his knees. It’s like candy floss without the stickiness, cotton wool without the substance. A snowman was impossible to build, as no amount of rolling could get the snow to stick to itself.

Which is why the Sapporo snow festival is all the more incredible – how the hell did they manage to construct 40ft sculptures of the Arc de Triomphe, a Japanese temple, and R2-D2 just from snow? Yes, I said R2-D2. The pièce de résistance for me and my son, avid sci-fi fans, was a massive rendition of the Star Wars drones. At night this was brought to life by a spectacular light and sound show.

Arc de Triomphe in snow

These incredible structures were the centrepiece down a Sapporo avenue – another road was lined by smaller, though just as beautiful, just as intricately carved, ice sculptures. I have no idea what else Sapporo has going for it – a two-night stay has not really been enough to explore any more of its cultural heritage but it is worth visiting if only to experience the gentle buzz of the city, as tourists and visitors are guided politely but firmly in a one-way circle around the frozen edifices.

Sapporo’s ice sculptures

Oh, and then of course there’s Snow World, which is pretty much the only way I’m ever going to enjoy the white stuff. I think I said I’m not a skier? My favourite pastime at Snow World, a sort of snow-based adventure park on the outskirts of the city, was the inflatable raft ride, which involved sitting in an inflatable boat and being pulled round an ice track by a Skidoo. That was awesome. That’s how I’ll get my adrenaline, thank you very much. That and throwing myself down a gentle slope while sitting in an inflatable ring. That was fun.

Faced with all this snow, sheets of it, flat, bright, untainted, almost edible, there was one area designated for building snowmen. Fenced off, organised mounds of snow that were designated to each child. Buckets and spades provided. Play here, children. Not out there, in the wilderness of tantalising fields of snow. This country is nothing if not organised.

The best way to travel down a snowy slope is in a rubber ring

Just one thing I could have done with, and maybe the organisers could think of this next year, for its 69th festival (this old a festival and they haven’t thought of it yet…) – perhaps they could put heaters in the massive food hall. Trying to eat using chopsticks when you can no longer feel your fingers is not funny.

Eigo wa hanase imasuka?
You know when a woman of the more elderly persuasion is trying to chat to someone who clearly has little to no English? And the lovely old lady will be chatting away, nodding and smiling, repeating herself in the deluded belief that eventually the bemused and embarrassed foreign person will suddenly understand what she’s going on about?

“Are you going to the pictures?” Little old lady nods and smiles. “What film are you going to see?” Nods and smiles. “Frozen? The Lion King? Pinocchio?” She’s still not getting any response further than a fixed smile from the foreigner, but she persists. “Don’t buy the snacks in the cinema, if that’s what you were planning. They’re terribly expensive. Is it like that where you come from?” Nods and smiles. Still no answer. “If I were you, I’d get some sweets from Co-op and sneak them in. There’s a Co-op just round the corner from the cinema.”

Bless these ladies and their desire to communicate. Anyway, it happened to me on the train, except I was the foreigner, not the little old lady. Husband was looking at a leaflet about Sapporo, and the little old lady next to me, whose seat I had freed in a crowded train by plonking daughter on my lap, then handed me her leaflet. I shook my head and smiled, pointing at the hiragana and kanji. “Nihongo,” I shook my head sadly. Japanese. She pointed at the words “Snow World”. “Hai. Eigo,” I said. Yes. English. Then, pointing again at the hiragana and shaking my head sadly, “Nihongo.”

She looked at me quizzically. “Watashi wa Sukottorando-jin desu,” I explained. I am Scottish.*

Unfortunately, this admission brought forth a torrent of Japanese from my fellow passenger, the only part of which I could gather was “whisky”. With the help of husband, it seemed she was telling us that Sapporo was the home of Nikka whiskey. Thank god for husband. I was stupidly blank. But our obvious idiocy didn’t stop the lady chattering and giggling. Eventually my clueless smile slowed down her stream of friendliness, and the journey continued with us looking in opposite directions out the window.

Thinking about it now, maybe she wasn’t trying to give me the leaflet at all. Maybe she was just asking if we were going to Snow World. A simple nod from me would have sufficed – it was my unprompted declaration of my nationality that obliged her to be friendly.

It turns out international relations are not my strong point.

* Born and raised in England. Scottish by design.



  1. Elspeth Lamb says:

    Brilliant Isla, I can just see your wee face in that situation. How are the ears coping with all those flights? X


    1. No problems at all. Starting to get quite blasé…


  2. Leisha Wemyss says:

    I’m just loving your blogs, Isla. I can picture myself there, your descriptions are so well written!! Keep them coming xx


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