Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?
In the lane, snow is glistening,
A beautiful sight,
We’re happy tonight,
Walking in a winter wonderland.
I know, right? What sort of heartless, sick person would start a blog with the words to a Christmas song in February? We’ve had Christmas, thank you very much, and we’ve heard that particular song in every M&S elevator in the country while we were picking up socks for Grandad and personally swearing to run amok and destroy the whole shop if Cliff Richard came on next.
I happen to have a very good reason for this rather massive faux pas though. That reason is Sapporo; a wonderful, exciting, food-lover’s haven of a city carpeted in fluffy white snow and, at this time of the year, loaded with ice and snow sculptures. It was on a sunny, bright Friday morning that I found myself trotting around the city on my own, humming, whistling and at points, shamelessly belting out “Winter Wonderland” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” whilst I happily took pictures and wished I’d requested the place as my home on the JET application form. Yes, it really is that good.
Sapporo is situated on Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, right about where the little snowflake is above. It is famous for Sapporo beer, excellent sea food, “soup curry”, the best ramen in Japan and the Sapporo Snow Festival held every year in February. You have to use the words “famous for” very carefully in Japan because every single place is “famous for” something. The things I’ve listed above are actually legitimate reasons for somewhere to be famous but, usually, they’ll take a common Japanese dish, do something ever-so-slightly different to it, and then sit back and watch while everyone bangs on about it being the thing you simply have to try while you’re there. Sapporo’s so great that it shouldn’t need a “famous for” to promote its image, but it’s got one anyway; Butter Corn Ramen. “What’s that?” I hear you say. Well it’s ramen, with some corn and a knob of butter thrown in.
We left Shizuoka at 2AM on Thursday morning, got to Haneda Airport, Tokyo at 6ish, then arrived in Sapporo at 8:30. The moment I walked out of Sapporo Central Station I knew I was going to fall in love with the place; big, wide open spaces, tall modern buildings, the hustle and bustle of the big city, lights, noise, excitement. We spent the morning looking around a couple of the sculptures, buying meat on a stick and taking photos, and then checked into the hotel for a nap before venturing out to Ramen Alley to try some of this famous Butter Corn Ramen and coming to the unanimous conclusion that it tasted corny, and buttery, but decidedly average as far as ramen goes. You see, ramen is all about the stock. You can add whatever the hell you like on top, but if you don’t have a delicious, unique, tasty stock then the noodles wont taste as good when you slurp them up, the meat wont taste as good when you give it a little dip and, most importantly, you won’t feel compelled to pick up the bowl at the end and drink it dry; the sign of a good bowl. Shops are famous for ramen, not places, and don’t you ever try to convince me otherwise again, Japan, or I’ll take you to England and say that London is famous for Fish and Chips, but with Cranberry Sauce instead of ketchup or Tartare.
That evening we met up with some of the Usual Shizpects at a tiny, see-through tent in the middle of a street where they were selling some fantastic mulled wine (further enhancing my desire to sing Christmas carols at outrageously high volumes), and entertaining us with impromptu opera singers who seemingly came from nowhere. After that, we went to a cocktail bar with flaring bartenders, Jenga and a NES provided for the patrons’ amusement, before walking home and investigating the park opposite the hotel, dotted with snow sculptures and beautifully lit with soft yellow light.
The next day I was up early for my aforementioned trot around the city blocks and the park near the hotel. T, Sophie and Monica slowly emerged from the hotel and a snowball fight was inevitable. Travis called to announce his impending arrival and differences were put aside as ammunition was stock-piled and a snow-penis was readied for launch. Cue his arrival, and Operation White Death was born as snowball after snowball was launched over a strategically placed hill and the snow-penis narrowly missed an innocent old lady as she walked, nonplussed into nomansland. Travis fought back with vigour, but his puny stockpile of one meant that he had to make ammunition on-the-fly, and he was ultimately defeated.
Commonwealth 1 – America 0.
After a bit of Snow Pigeon Shooting we finally relented and agreed that we should go out and indulge in some of life’s more cultured pursuits, namely looking at hundreds of beautiful snow and ice sculptures and eating more meat-on-a-stick, as well as probably the best Soup Curry in Sapporo. There are three main sites at the Snow Festival; Susukino, containing many of the smaller ice sculptures and the opera tent; Odori, the bad-ass site containing all the 30ft snow sculptures and covering 12 city blocks; Tsudome, the kids’ area with ice slides, yet more sculptures, and snow rafting, amongst other things. We didn’t make it to Tsudome since most of our time was spent gawking at life-size snow temples and Mario brothers.
The finale to all this excitement was a meat & beer-fest known as the Sapporo Bier Garten. We paid 3000 yen (about £22) for as much lamb as we could eat and as much beer as we could drink in two hours. Mayhem ensued. Orders of “14 pints of beer” were not uncommon, there were 2 beer boat races, a beer glass tower, meat babies everywhere, men dropping their pants, and the non-consensual downing of half a pint of beer by an on-duty Japanese staff member. Gaijin Invasion; Gaijin Smash; whatever you want to call it, I’m pretty sure the staff were not quite sure how they were supposed to handle it. A good time was had by all, and it was a beautiful finale to a beautiful getaway. All I could think as we left the next morning, was how all I wanted to do was stay there.