I’ll admit I was a bit nervous to embark on a 3 day trip with just Will and I. I know I shouldn’t have been as we do a lot of long day trips. I’d planned this inaugural adventure well and was hopefully setting myself up for success. We were staying in Japan where my comfort level is high. The flight was short, just slightly over an hour. However, I was worried about exhaustion with action–packed days and Will’s excitement about hotel rooms making sleep difficult. Then there’s the fact that he loves to run off. I placed a safety ID bracelet with my phone number on his wrist and a superman cape on his bright green snowsuit as it makes him easier to identify. I’ve committed to two more Mommy and Will trips in the upcoming months so I had a lot riding on this going well. I also wanted to see how easily and inexpensively Will and I can travel together which opens up future possibilities.
We arrived in Sapporo mid-afternoon but couldn’t check into our hotel until four. Will was extremely disappointed. He “loves hotels!” All he wanted to do was see was our room. I explained it wasn’t going to be exciting. The upside to traveling alone with Will was I was able to book us a cheap single hotel room (~$65/ night) within walking distance of two festival sites (I did make the reservation in July). To get him out of the lobby, I did what any good mother does and bribed him with Mister Donut which was across the street. Will accepting food bribes is only successful about 50 percent of the time. Donuts are a rare treat so this worked theoretically. He picked out his donut, ate two bites, declared it delicious then offered the rest to me. This would not be the first time I ate junk food I didn’t want since my child stops eating the minute a bite or two he fills his desire for food. It also would not be the last junk food I polished off on this trip. Eating well and traveling with Will are two things that do not go together.
The Susukino site of the Snow Festival began about a block from our hotel. This is the smallest of the three Sapporo festival sites so was great for a short and easy outing. We browsed the ice sculptures and enjoyed watching a few men with chainsaws and picks work on a boat ice sculpture. There were also things he could climb on such as the Cinderella light castle as well at a tractor and train carved from ice. The ice slide sculpture was definitely the biggest hit and quite impressive as even the stairs were ice. An ice slide is fast too. Will came barreling down in a blur. It took me a minute to realize his lip was bleeding. He also didn’t realize he hurt himself and couldn’t tell me if he bit it when coming down. Later I wondered if he put his mouth on the sculpture while waiting his turn, got stuck and ripped some of his skin off pulling himself free. Regardless the blood (which took a long time to clot), did not deter him from many trips down the slide. This was more than enough to keep him entertained until we could check into our room for his next activity: playing under and jumping on the bed.
Still questioning if I had the stamina for this trip, I decided to ease into it with a relaxing night. At 5:30 the wine bar/ pizzeria next to the hotel was empty so I asked if Will was allowed. We ate yummy wood-fired pizza, and I had a couple of glasses of wine. It was the one and only meal I ate sitting down, so in hindsight this was a fantastic decision. We then walked back over to the Susukino site to see the ice sculptures illuminations. They had finished the boat and we were allowed to sit on it. Will had to go down the slide again and again. I lost count of the number of times, Will slid down. I hoped it was enough times to make him tired, but sometimes it seems it is impossible to wear him out. It began snowing in the evening and was growing heavier after we reached the hotel room. He couldn’t stop looking out the window and telling me Santa was coming tomorrow. So getting him to sleep was difficult and multiple times I got kicked throughout the night. My child moves almost as much in his sleep as he does during the day. Maybe it truly is painful for him to stay still.
The next morning we took the train to the outskirts of Sapporo to TsuDome also known as the Sapporo Community Dome. From the Sakaemachi station, it was about a 10 minute walk to the fabulous winter playground. Even Will was initially overwhelmed with all the choices: a snow maze, snowman building, an igloo, snow play with toys plus slides, sledding, tubes. Will’s favorite activity of the day (and of the trip) was riding the Strider balance bike on skis downhill. He revisited this many times throughout the day for 20-30 minutes at a time. The ice slide also got a lot of repeat and lengthy visits. At one point, I looked around at the amenities and the staff realizing the entire Snow Festival was free. There were two “boat race” sled rides (one large and one medium-sized where the sled looked like a boat). There was an ice play house complete with ice furniture and even a toilet. Staff dug out holes that then you could bury each other in. The staff monitoring the slides remained cheerful and good-natured with all the children helping to put back on gloves that fell off and tightening loose helmets. I tried to guess the ticket price for this event in the states. I did pay ¥1000 ($9) for both of us to ride in a river raft behind a snowmobile which was very fun (and the only outdoor activity I encountered at any of the sites that had a fee). We took a break from the very cold day and ate lunch inside. Inside the dome was a food court, exhibit booths and several large inflatables, a train, bumper cars etc that all cost between ¥300-600. I spent a total of ¥1400 throughout the day on ramen, French fries, a hot dog and hot chocolate (they didn’t gauge us on food either). I also let Will pick one indoor activity. He chose a pirate theme inflatable with slides and climbing. (7 min/¥400). He wanted to do more of the cool indoor things like the giant Pikachu bounce house, but I urged him back outside to the snow activities we had traveled to see.
We began the afternoon with tubing. Will liked the smaller tube but did chicken out at the top of the big tube shoot (in fairness he was supposed to be four to do it). I went first then had to go rescue him back at the top. He had a pretty good wipeout on the boat race sled. He let go of the handle (I’m grateful they provided helmets), but went back for a few more turns. I’d been told you could spend all day there but wasn’t sure we could last in the cold. However, we did spend the entire day at the Dome. Will picked the small tube as his last activity. It was probably the only line we waited in all day that took more than 10 minutes. He was exhausted, and it was the only time he complained about being cold. The sun was sinking and every time the wind blew it dropped the temperature 10 degrees. It was freezing; I was amazed we spent the whole day out in it. In fact, Will told me several times in the afternoon, “I want to stay here forever.”
We discovered a shuttle bus on the other side of the Dome that gave us a lift to the train station for ¥100. Will took a 30 minute nap on the train ride and we got off at Odori, the main site for the Snow Festival. The Odori site is huge, running for 12 blocks through Odori Park in the heart of Sapporo. This is where the famous giant snow sculptures are located. I wanted to experience it both at night and during the day. This site was much more crowded than Suskino or TsuDome. It was definitely a festive atmosphere with tons of yummy food both, drink booths, and happy faces. I had a hot Ginger Mojito, and Will tried warm milk. We watched a downhill ski jump competition. Will and I both wowed by the flips, and Will declaring a future goal to compete himself. Various performances were being held on stages in front of the largest sculptures which were all illuminated. Some of the most grandiose statues were replicas of famous buildings: the Taipei Guest House, Arc de Triomphe and Nara’s Kofuku-ji Temple. We watched the Star Wars light show three times (this was Will’s favorite thing he saw with his eyes). We didn’t make it through the whole thing before Will asked to go back to the hotel. With all the days’ activity, I expected he’d pass out as soon as his head hit the pillow but he was so overtired that getting him to sleep proved difficult. It was almost 10 before he finally gave up the fight.
I hoped the kid would sleep in, but he woke up before 6. He was at least content to play blocks and cars and watch a show so I could be a bit lazy. We then bundled up and took the street car back to Odori beginning at the opposite end from the previous night. Thursday was a bright sunny day and felt so much warmer. We browsed the Citizen Square, where local artists had contributed statues. My favorite was a girl taking a photo and Will’s was a ‘super cool” dragon. The International Snow Sculpture contest took up the next block. I was most impressed with The Thai Boxing and Latvia’s “Wooden Dreams”. Will liked Indonesia’s “Mother’s Love” which I thought was sweet until I realized he liked it because the little boy had a snow penis. We’d missed it at night but next to Star Wars was the Cup of Noodle Sculpture and sledding. This was also adjacent to a stand selling grilled crab on a stick. I managed to munch on this deliciousness while monitoring Will from the bottom of the slope as he went for multiple rides.
After many rides, we wandered through more blocks of all sized sculptures. Will was delighted to discover Piccachu, and I was disgusted to see Donald Trump with an Apple pen (which was attracting a lot of attention). An intricate temple was my favorite of the smaller statues. We passed more performances on the stages. Mike will be pleased to know Will covered his ears at a girls group J-POP performance. At the 11th block Will asked to go on my back and proceeded to pass out. On the final block, I walked by the Moët and Chandon Ice Lounge. They told me I was welcome inside with the sleeping child. I had a glass of champagne and chatted with an Australian bartender who has been living in Sapporo for 7 years. I asked him if he knew who paid for everything. He said it began by handful of locals then the military got involved. It now has mostly sponsors and has become more standardized (especially the large sculptures) in its 68th year. Will stayed asleep until about five minutes after I left the lounge. We wandered some more before walking back to the hotel to chill out before the evening’s outing to Otaru.
Otaru is a small city northwest from Sapporo on the Hokkaido coast. I ensured we timed our departure to get on an express train. The tracks often hugged the coast offering great views of the distant snow-capped mountains across the bay. We arrived at Otaru at 4:45 and found the Temiyasen Kaijo area just as they were finishing lighting the candles. Candle holders were carved on top of and into the snow banks lining the path. There were also more intricate carvings as well as flowers and leaves pressed into the ice. The effect was breath-taking. It was so simple yet ethereal. Something about it made me feel like I’d stepped back in time. I absolutely loved it. A large snow bank had been converted into a tube slide lined with candles. Will and I did a ride together. We flew down before shooting up another embankment, spiraling around to the bottom. I thought this was the best sledding we experienced. The path ended with an intricate and beautiful snow maze. My child thought it was a wonderful place to play hide and seek despite the darkness and slippery path. Even with a panicked moment, this was my favorite part of the trip.
The main Otaru attraction was the candles and lights around the town’s canal. It was lovely but pardon my pun it didn’t hold a candle to the Temiyasen Kaijo section. Will and I did buy a candle in a cup for ¥100 that we got to decorate. We chose to write Mommy “hearts” Will with scribble decoration. Will wanted to find a place to let it float into the ocean not quite understanding that if we dropped it in the canal, the candle would be extinguished. I finally got him to leave at the last overlook of the canal. We finished exploring and had time to pick up dinner at the combini and hop on the last express train back to Sapporo. Will, as always, made friends, snuggling up to a Japanese mama and laughing with her little boy as they made funny faces. A hot bath helped him relax and fall asleep easily even if it was still way later than his normal bedtime.
My plan for Friday was to just chill out a little bit and then head to the New Chitose airport early as I had both heard and read that there’s a lot to do there. I also decided to take the airport limousine bus to the airport. It was a slightly longer trip but I knew it was easier than the train transfer through Sapporo station with Will and luggage and stairs. A direct limo stopped about fifty feet from our hotel so I figured I’d be easy to get on. When it pulled up it was already mostly full so it must have fewer stops but was not truly direct. We were unable to get on that bus but were able to get on the next one only a short wait later. However, we arrived at the airport slightly later. I also didn’t account that this was the busiest time of the year in Sapporo so the check in line was also longer than expected. I wanted to try some shrimp Ramen in noodle alley that my friend Annaliesse says is the best ramen she had ever had. However, when I saw the line I knew there was no way Will was going to last through that. So instead we headed to Freshness Burger where he could get a requested hotdog and french fries. Actually it’s probably the first time I’ve ever gotten a burger out in Japan, and I have to say it was pretty tasty and fresh. Although there were several places to play in the airport, Will wanted to play with the children in pa added play area in the food court. I wanted to see some of the cool playscapes I’d read about. However, Will was happy and if he didn’t know what he was missing out on so I guess I shouldn’t be disappointed. Plus he got enough wiggles out that he slept the whole flight home.
All in all, the trip was very successful. I’m very tired as I expected to be. I also had to forgo the culinary experiences which I also anticipated. However, I’d rather feed my eyes and my soul then stay at home and eat well.
More info and photos below…
Note: We didn’t make it out to the Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival which is another area event. It was recommended to travel by personal car or on a tour. I’d read that that buses were very limited especially during the week. I was on the fence about adding this to the itinerary since we’d be locked into a certain time. Also the tours I found were booked when I did look more seriously at adding it on—book early if you want to do a tour. The pictures I’ve seen were amazing…
- New Chitose Airport with Kids:
- Otaru Snow Light Path Festival: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e6706.html
- Sapporo Snow Festival Info: http://www.snowfes.com/english/