Travel Japan: Yuki Matsuri

It’s about that time, eh folks! Feb 6th to 12th is Sapporo’s Snow Festival or Yuki Matsuri! We’ve all heard about it: amazing snow sculptures that tower over the crowds as the snow falls all around… it’s pretty impressive and a little magical. I hear what you are saying… “It’s such a long way to go!”. Well, yes it is, so why not add on a side trip of skiing or boarding at the (in)famous Niseko? The powder is world-class, and the nightlife is pretty unique! If you go for the package option, things can get quite expensive, so, here are some tips to get you there without breaking the bank!

I know that I’ve said it like a million times, but for us here in beautiful Hyogo, SKYMARK is our friend. If you’re on the ball, you should be able to snag some cheap tickets. Just remember you must be online at 9:30am on the same date 2 months before you wish to fly.

The best of the Sapporo Festival’s snow sculptures can be found in Odori Park. Massive works of art carved of glittering snow, you’ll find many of your fave Anime characters (at least 5 of ‘Chopper’), and others with a more international flavour. Whilst along the streets of Odori Park to check out the main event, you may even witness the ski jump competition. Most of the Ice Sculptures can be seen in the ‘entertainment district’ of Susukino, which when lit at night are very beautiful, while Tsudome has snow slides and mazes to race around.  For more details on this year’s events (and how they make these amazing structures) head to http://www.snowfes.com/english/index.html.

Something that should not be missed whilst in Sapporo is the Sapporo Beer Factory Restaurant’s Genghis Khan all you can eat and drink. Seasoned with the marinade provided or just with salt and pepper… Lamb heaven! This will set you back 3770 yen for a 100 minute feast.  Oh, and the beer! The stout is just what you need to warm those cold bones. And if you’re looking for chocolate, I recommend Royce’s Almond Chocolate bar… bliss!

While the cheapest option by far is to stay with a friend, some other cheap options include Tiara Hotel Susukino from 2250 yen per person, twin share; my favourite (purely for the name) Swanky Hotel also from 2250 yen per person, twin share; and the slightly more expensive end of the scale Susukino Green Hotel II for 6,800 yen per person, twin share (they also have triple, and Japanese style rooms).  I think it’s a pretty safe assumption to make that you’ll want to stay in Susukino, as all the restaurants, shops, nightlife, and one of the main arenas for the Snow festival are right here at your doorstep.

So, seen all the sights in Sapporo? It’s now time to head out for the powder! The easiest way to make it to Niseko from Sapporo is the ‘White Liner’. Cheap, comfortable, and no need to worry about pesky train transfers, The White Liner allows you the luxury of laying back and falling asleep, or taking in the sights and snow, which sparkles in the sun. Their definition of ‘return ticket’ is fairly loose. I went from the airport to Niseko to Sapporo JR station with no troubles at all. Book on the internet 3 days prior to departure and you’ll only pay 3,680yen return (Niseko Service), 2070 yen one way. They also have services to Hiroro, Furano, and Tomamu so take a peek! http://www.goodsports.co.jp/white_eng/ski-bus/

Niseko itself is very easy to get around as the streets are arranged in a grid system. The roadsides are piled high with piles and piles of snow, and roads themselves can be icy; pedestrians beware. For skiers and boarders, a free shuttle service runs around the town every 15-20 minutes. There is a stop just a 30 minute walk from a quaint little ‘pension’ called Niseko Yubokumin (Niseko Nomad). It is run by a lovely Japanese couple, who went out of their way to make my trip a success. They have a range of ski gear available for higher at ridiculously cheap rates; another great reason to stay here. Book Kuni’s son for a ski lesson at only 2000yen per hour (Japanese only), and for lower end gear I hired boots, skis and stocks for 1000 yen per day. You can also take advantage of the Japanese dinner and breakfast served in the common room for a small fee.  The rooms themselves are very simple, with futons, blankets and homemade bunks, but comfortable enough for the purpose of sleep. They have stopped using Jalan for bookings, but the base rate is 3500 yen per bed, so check out their website and send through an email! http://www.niseko-web.com/yubokumin/frame.htm

Lift passes are pretty expensive, I’m not going to lie, but I think it’s well worth the expense here. Niseko has high quality powder with frequent snow fall, so you’re in for a treat! Being a very low level skier myself, I chose the ‘Hirafu Mountain Pass’, this will give you access to the Niseko Grand Hirafu and Niseko Hanazono lifts. The price this season is 8,600 yen. The ‘All Mountain Pass’ will give you access to, as one would expect, all the lifts on the Mountain, so you can go all the way to the top and down the Annipuri and Niseko Village runs, but be careful not to miss the last lift back over the mountain. A 2 day pass will set you back 10,700 yen this season.

There are many food choices around the town. On the lower end of the scale, Niseko Pizza has all your greasy needs covered, but if you want something a little more posh, I’d recommend trying the Salmon & Nori Roulades at The Vale Bar & Grill. After dinner,  head out to the ‘Ice Bar’. When I visited last year, the creator, builder and artist had just finished the entrance and exit to a new chamber, which was yet to be connected to the main room. Another unique bar is the ‘Fridge’.  The door is literally a fridge door, but inside is a spacious bar with a great atmosphere.

There is nothing better to finish off a day in the ski fields than a nice Onsen. My picks are Popolo with its amazing view of Mt Yotei from both the inside and outside baths; it also has the best price on massage I had seen around the town. And Niseko Alpen Hotel, although it does not have the amazing view that Popolo has, does have a beautiful small wooden outdoor bath that faced away from the wind, overlooking, but obscured from the family run, and a real jet bath (fantastic for those poor overworked muscles!).

So, I urge all of you who have been thinking about it to grab some friends and take a peek. It’s really something special, especially for those of us who don’t have regular (or any) snowfall back home. The only challenge is taking photos that do it justice.

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