See the World’s Best Snow Sculptures in Japan

Humans are naturally creative. They can do wonders with what they find in their environment; whether they craft something useful out of what they see, or try to produce something that mimics life, thus coming up with pieces of art. The human species has been at it for a long time, with thousands of evidence being dug up by archaeologists.

The Dawn of Sculpting

There are many ways to try to imitate life. Some of the earliest kinds were hole markings on different surfaces (usually rocks or cave walls) that would have no specific pattern, or sometimes form decorative designs from a collection of its pressed imprints. These were called “cupules”. Not long after that came cave paintings or parietal art, and various ivory carvings of animals from 33,000 BCE, and realistic relief sculptures dating back to as far as 15,000 BCE.

It was plain to see that humans would make the most out of whatever was in their environment. However, creations would not last as long. A statue made from snow would especially be prone to a very short lifespan unless they are kept in an environment with the right weather elements to keep them from melting. 

Snow Sculptures Vs. Ice Sculptures: The Difference

It is a common mistake to interchange these two ideas, as they both use a similar frozen material (flakes of ice vs. shards of ice) but ice sculptures are very different from snow sculptures and must be labeled accordingly to avoid confusion.

Snow Sculptures

A snow sculpture is something that is made out of the snow; flakes of ice that are densely packed together. Imagine how a sand castle is made. Snow is used in the same essence. People use shovels to lift and pack the snow together into blocks, and then chip away slowly at the flakes form the sculpture they want to end up with. The snow collected for this can be either be naturally-occurring and picked up off the ground, or artificially produced.

Ice Sculptures

As for ice sculptures, artists use an entire block of solidly frozen ice as their base. Almost anything can be carved out of ice, and if done so properly in the right weather, can stay sturdy and useful for long periods of time. Creations don’t have to adhere to artistic purposes only; ice sculptures can be useful too. Glasses, tables, chairs, and even beds can be carved out of ice, as well as entire miniature ice castles that stand as temporary establishments.

Artists have most of the creative freedom to create anything they desire. Because a block of ice has a higher density than packed snow, ice sculptures give more room for a hyper-realistic finish. 

The History of Snow Sculptures

Because of its difficulty to document it (there weren’t exactly any tools for photography hundreds of years ago) sculpting snow is a relatively modern form of both arts and performance art. It rose to popularity around the 1970’s in Breckenridge, Colorado, where many say snow sculpting began. 

There are two reasons why Snow sculpting evolved into a performance art. One is because chilly temperatures outside (if the weather agrees) are the cheapest and most convenient way to keep the sculpture from melting, as compared to purchasing high-powered air conditioners to keep them cool. Because it’s done in public, it then attracts the public. 

The second reason is due to the fact that it’s such a wonder to see someone create something so life-like out of something as simple as snow, so many spectators tend to gather around the snow sculptor during the sculpting process, in awe of the skills of the sculptor.

The History of Ice Carving and Ice Sculptures

Ice carving has a deeper history than snow sculpting, with ties to history as way back as 4,000 years ago, when the Inuits used ice to build their houses, which we call igloos today. In 600 BC, an ancient Chinese document detailing sets of stories called Book of Songs, or “Shih Cheng”, stated that Chinese warrior farmers would purposely let water flood their fields, just so that they could carve off blocks of ice when they would freeze over. The ice would be used to keep their fish fresh for a longer period of time.

It was also in China, in the province of Heilongjiang, where simple ice lanterns were made and used during the 17th century. They would use bucket-shaped frozen formations as a base that they would prepare by adding water to the buckets beforehand. A hole would be carved into that bucket, where a candle would be placed. It was such a hit of an invention that it would be used in celebrations and festivals as adornments. 

Cold Weather Makes for the Better

Russia is also where many the hobby of ice sculpting became big, mainly because their weather tends to stay cold for long periods of time. Russia occupied parts of the same area of Heilongjiang; particularly Harbin town, which was dedicated to fishing. Because there was so much action going on around that area between the Chinese and Russians, Harbin developed quickly, becoming one of the most progressive towns in the area. It also hosted many Ice and Snow Sculpture festivals and still does to this day.

Today, ice sculpture competitions can be held anywhere in the world, with the discovery of technology that can both produce tons of ice blocks, and keep them from melting. It is still a more prominent event in countries or parts of countries that sit on the northern hemisphere. Japan is a special example. While its mid and lower regions experience hot summers, its northern regions – thereabouts of Hokkaido – keep quite cold all year long. It is in this area that one of Japan’s biggest snow festivals occur. 

The Best Snow Festivals Around Japan

If you’ve learned enough about Japan, you’ll know that they love celebrating festivals, or “matsuri”. From cherry blossoms to Shinto blessings, there’s a festival for all kinds of different things. Winter calls for making the most out of the icy snow – and not just for the northern regions. 

Snow festivals pop up around different prefectures during this season, most of them happen during February. Some of them are large events that draw hundreds of people, while other snow sculpture festivals are more intimate.

The Yokote Kamakura Festival which occurs in the Akita Prefecture from February 15 to 16 (specifically 6 PM to 9 PM only) is a festival that has been going on for the past 450 or so years, and is famous for its snow huts or “Kamakura”, and dozens of lit snow lanterns. The point of the Yakote Kamakura Festival is to offer a moment for everyone to worship and bless a water god.

The address of the Yokote Kamakura Festival is in Doro Koen Park. This is across the Yokote City Hall, Buke-Yashiki-dori, or Yokote East Nigiwai Square, which is facing the Yokote Station. 

Next, the Zao Snow Monster Festival is unlike all the other Snow-themed festivals (which usually display carved ice structures), as it highlights a very special phenomenon that happens only in this part of Japan. Around this mountain are trees that get covered with snow from top to bottom, but more than your average tree. This is because of the extra ice crystals are blown that direction from the nearby lake. The intense snow coverage the trees possess make them look like ghastly creatures, thus labeling them snow monsters.

Yamagata Zao Onsen Ski Resort lights these trees up at night for the Zao Snow Monster Festival from February 2 to 4 this 2018. To see them it’s best that you reserve a space, as there are only 47 spaces that are up for reservation.

Lastly, the Hirosaki Castle Snow Lantern Festival around the Aomori area is fun for both kids and adults, as snow sculptures and snow dioramas keep the older ones entertained, while the youngsters can enjoy the large slide that is made of ice… Okay, the adults can join in on the fun too. There will also be public performances held in this area. The Hiroki Castle Lantern Festival will happen from February 9 to February 12, 2018. Entrance is free.

Hokkaido; The Perfect Winter Wonderland in Japan Suited For Snow Festivals and Sculptures

The most famous snow festival is the Sapporo Snow Festival, or “Sapporo Yuki Matsuri” in Hokkaido. This festival started as early as 1950. It all began when students who would frequent Odori park started to create snow statues, which became an attraction and turned into a tradition. This festival is divided between different sites for crowd control. The places are namely: 

  • Odori, located in Odori Koen Park: 1-chome through 12-chome, Odori-nishi, Chuo-ku, Sapporo-shi, Hokkaido). Here, you can enjoy looking at the many displays of varying, exquisite ice and snow sculptures. There are also food stalls that let you try warm local food and drinks from Hokkaido; adding to the festive spirits.
  • Tsudome, located in Sapporo Community Dome -- 885-1, Sakae-machi, Higashi-ku, Sapporo-shi, Hokkaido. This is the site where you can participate in more active fun, which includes snow rafting, and slipping down icy slides. 
  • Susukino (Susuki Ice World 2016: In close proximity to Susukino Station; Nishi yon chome line; Nishi Shijo dori t Nishi Nanajo-dori, Chuo-ku, Sapporo-shi, Hokkaido). This site is where the ice sculpture contest takes place. It’s the smallest compared to the two other sites but still gets to hold 100 ice sculptures.

Sapporo Snow Festival begins on February 5th and ends on the 12th as of 2018. Because of its worldwide acclaim, around 2 million people visit this site just on this week alone to marvel at the beautiful and intricately designed snow and ice sculptures. The best part is, there’s no entrance fee. 

Is It Worth to Fly to Sapporo From Tokyo For the Sapporo Snow Festival?

The answer is yes. Even if it’s a bit far away and not as easily accessible by bus or train, the Sapporo Snow Festival doesn’t draw 2 million people for no reason. Thousands of tourists and locals flock to Sapporo just for this festival, exactly because it is among the best in the world. It ranks up there with the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, Ice Alaska’s BP World Ice Art Championships, etcetera.

It’s best that when you travel there, you make time to see all three sites to really make the most out of the festival. The sizes of these sculptures can range from 15 meters to 25 meters tall, and make for great memories and photos to take home.

When Did the Snow Festival Start in Sapporo in 2017?

The Sapporo Snow Festival celebrated its 68th Snow Festival this 2017 on February 6 to February 12. Take note that the dates change every year, so book your hotel and flights accordingly. 

Flying to Sapporo

So far, there are four airlines that can take you to Sapporo, if you’re coming from Tokyo. These airlines are Vanilla Air, Jetstar Japan, Spring Japan, and Skymark Airlines. Each of these airlines cost differently from each other. Vanilla air comes in at the least expensive, with a one-way ticket costing around 5,061 yen, or 46 dollars. Jetstar Japan follows, at a price estimate of 5,291 yen, or 48 dollars. Spring Japan costs 6,355 yen or 57 dollars. Lastly, Skymark Airlines will take you there at the premium price of about 7,834 yen, or 70 dollars.

Is There Any Snow Festival That Happens in January?

Most often, Snow Festivals happen during February. However, January does have a lot of preparations that happen for the incoming festivals, so if you happen to live around the areas where the Snow Festival is about to happen, you may chance upon blocks of ice and snow being delivered, or an artist in the process of carving (or forming) his or her icy creation in person.

Find Star Wars Snow Sculptures in Snow Festivals Around Japan

In 2015, the Japanese Army created a humungous Star Wars themed snow sculpture, featuring predominantly featuring Darth Vader and three Stormtroopers. It took 3,500 tons of snow just to complete this one-of-a-kind, 15-meter masterpiece, which was featured in the 66th Sapporo Snow Festival. The inspiration to create this enormous sculpture came from the excitement over the premiere of The Force Awakens, which so happened to show in theaters during Christmas season.

Snow festivals are a great experience to have, whether you’re with family or friends. It’s worth taking a little time off to enjoy the wonders that humans can make from the natural resources around them.