Sapporo - Japan - a guideIt was cold, very cold. Small flurries of snow were whipping around me, my teeth began to chatter ominously. I was standing on a deserted street in Sapporo late one winter night. "Welcome to Sapporo, one of Japan's most pleasant and lively cities!" exclaimed my frozen tourist information map. I had left a relatively warm Tokyo just a few hours ago, and although I knew it was snowing I didn't expect it to be so cold. Located in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of the Japanese archipelago, Sapporo is not only the prefectural capital but also the centre of administration, economy and culture in northern Japan. It is also one of my favourite cities in Japan, and seems to move at its own funky pace free from the constant need to look good and make money which plagues the habitants of Tokyo. Even on this cold winter night the streets were lined with mini skirted buskers who oblivious to the cold belted out renditions of the latest Lennon-McCartney numbers to numb onlookers. Sapporo, which is Japan's third largest city in area and fifth largest in population after Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, and Nagoya is the centre of political and economic life of the island of Hokkaido. It is a young and enterprising city. It was founded less than 130 years ago when the Meiji government set about developing the island as a new agricultural and strategic region. According to the local tourist information office, foreign experts invited by the government, made great contributions in the earliest stages of city planning which may partly account for the unique, cosmopolitan atmosphere of the city. An alternative view is that the long winter is so hard that the people understand the need to have fun when ever its possible. As I searched for my hotel amongst the numerous buskers and entertainers that night it certainly did seem that life in Sapporo was a cabaret. The city's striking landscapes and excellent facilities have often attracted international sportsman and have hosted numerous major sporting events, including the 1972 Winter Olympics and the 1991 Winter Universiade. The city is now preparing as one of the host cities for the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Annual Snow Festival It is, perhaps, better known for its annual snow festival. For 7 days in mid February every year, hundreds of snow statues and ice sculptures line the streets of Sapporo City. Varying from replicas of famous Japanese and foreign architectural pieces to depictions of imaginary worlds, hundreds of sculptures made with white snow and ice create a fantasy atmosphere. The festival began in 1950 when local high school students made six snow statues in Odori Park along the city's main street. It attracted an unexpected number of spectators and, through the following years, the festival gradually became a part of life in Sapporo. Today the festival has grown to Hokkaido's biggest winter event and attracts more than 2 million visitors annually. The whole town participates in making large snow statues and as many as 150 citizens' groups display unique, and somewhat surreal, statues. In 1972, the Snow Festival was held during the 11th Winter Olympic Games in Sapporo, making the festival known internationally. As a result, the International Snow Statue Competition began in 1974, and in the 24th competition in 1997, 21 teams from 19 countries participated. Among them were teams from Hawaii and Southeast Asian countries where it never snows; member of those teams were chefs who usually make ice sculptures as table decorations. Hotsprings Also this snow and ice had left me longing for a soak in a traditional Japanese onsen (hotspring) and so I headed off to Noboribetsu which is a small village at the coast near Muroran. It is above all famous for its hot spa resort, Noboribetsu Onsen. Noboribetsu is a name from the Ainu language meaning "a cloudy river tinged with white", referring to the many sulphur deposits in this area. The onsen is in fact a one-street village with hotels along both sides, becoming more luxurious when you come closer to the smouldering sulphur lakes of Hell Valley. This bubbling and churning crater is the most interesting spot of the spa. Columns of steam are incessantly raised from the numerous fissures in the rocks, and hot sulphurous water bubbles out at many places. The large mountains of sulphur deposits makes the landscape very unique, and jets of yellowish steam against the freshly fallen snow gave a sober reminder of the transient nature of the Japanese land and the difficulty of life in Japan's most Northern island. From Hell Valley, I trudged through the snow to the small Onuma lake. This lake is filled with hot boiling water (80°C at the surface, but above 100° at the bottom), and produces large steam clouds at regular intervals. I stood bathed in sulphurous rushes of steam whilst my numb fingers and toes thawed out before heading back to the town centre and a long soak in the fantastic Onsen at one of the large international hotels. Countless weary travellers have enjoyed the soothing and medicinal waters at Noboribetsu, and not being one to take my responsibilities as a tourist lightly I set off at a brisk pace, the thought of a long hot bath gave my frozen limbs some extra vigour. When you pass through the frosty doors of the sumptuous Dai-Ichi Takimoto Hotel into the actual bath area, you enter an enclosed realm the size of a large hockey stadium, devoted entirely to bathing! Vast and sumptuous seem pitiful words to describe the Noboribetsu baths, which stretches off in all directions. There are 11 types of baths on each side, one side for men and one side for women. There are hot baths, cold baths, warm ones, big ones, small ones, electric ones and even bubbling and swirling mineral baths. There are saunas and steam rooms, a shallow stream you can walk down, and one place where five thick streams of cold and hot water drop down from twenty feet to pound my neck and shoulders. There are pavilions, stairways, pillars, fountains, statues, murals, chairs, even ordinary places to actually wash. I sat in the outdoor hot bath, sipping cold beers watching the snow fall in thick bursts around me. I felt the worries and pressures of urban Tokyo recede with each beer, and when I did finally climb out of the bath the snow was thick and crisp around me. I had been so relaxed that time had gone quicker then I realised and it was too late to visit the Sapporo salmon museum, which a friendly local had told me was "simply unmissable". "On the surface there's barely a ripple; everything is calm and reassuring. This is Japan. Underneath, things are brewing, bubbling, getting ready to surface. This is also Japan - the fragile chain of volcanic islands that plays wary host to twenty thousand thermal springs." says Hotta Ishiguro in his guide to Japanese Hot Springs. In Hokkaido it certainly seems true, and springs abound. The "Hotspring Bill" states that water temperature needs to be higher than 25°C and must contain a certain amount of minerals. If the water meets both criteria then that water can be claimed as a hotspring. Types of Hotspring In Japan, there are many different kinds of hotsprings for different uses and different features. The common onsen has less than 1gram of radical carbon, salt and other mineral elements per kg of water. They are said to be good for neuralgia and rheumatism, also it is mild making it perfect for long term rehabilitation. Next comes the carbonated springs. Basically close to the simple spring water but carbonated. Many of these are low temperature and cold water springs. Good for heart disease, blood circulation disorders, neurological disorders and female disorders says my trusty hot spring guide. Springs which contain more than 1gram/liter of mineral elements are known as heavy springs. These are said to be good for rheumatism, neuralgia and chronic skin disorders. The Japanese also claim that they are good for drinking to treat digestive problems and inflammation of the bladder. How true this is I am not so sure as I have never actually been brave enough to try. Next to simple springs in numbers, salt springs have more than 1gram/liter of mineral elements. If the water contains more than 1gram but less than 5grams of salt, it is a weak saltine spring. If less than 10grams, then it is a salt spring and if more than 10grams then it is a strong salt spring. Since the water is highly effective in keeping its temperature it is called "Atsu no yu" (Warm hot water). Most of the springs and onsens in Hokkaido are sulphurous springs. These have the characteristic smell of rotting eggs. According to my trusty guide to onsens these are 'Good for drinking and treating many disorders.' I am not too sure about this myself, but after extensive periods in many onsens I do know how relaxing they are. A perfect way of combating the stresses of modern day Japan. Clock Tower But, a trip to Sapporo, even one as short as mine, should not be spent entirely lounging around in onsens. No Japanese would dream of visiting Sapporo without having their picture taken in front of the famous clock tower. The clock tower was constructed in 1878 and has become something of a Sapporo landmark. It is not especially inspiring, but it does provide a good reference point to the centre of the city, which in blizzard conditions can be quite comforting. Sapporo Brewery Sapporo is also home to the oldest brewery in Japan and today the brewery offers free tours each day. The huge beer garden (which is thankfully located indoors) offers the opportunity for some serious eating and drinking. However, in a city of so many restaurants the more culinary minded may wish to head off in search of the famed Hokkaido hairy crab or the equally famous locally produced Ramen noodles. Ice Floes One of the other main attractions of visiting the Sapporo area is to watch the rare, and poetically poignant iceflows. The east coast of Hokkaido facing the sea of Okhotsk is a prime site for observing huge ice floes and can be easily reached from Sapporo. On the north Russian coast of the Okhotsk Sea, the sea water starts freezing around the end of October. The masses of formed ice, growing thicker and extending their domain, float away to seasonal winds and sea currents, and reach the northeast coast of Hokkaido in January. The white pack on the sea keeps expanding for several months until 80% of the Okhotsk Sea is covered with ice floe by early March. During the season, you can take a close look at the ice on board an icebreaker, or you can take the slowest train in Japan, which travels along the Okhotsk coast at 30 kilometers (20 miles) per hour, giving you plenty of time to enjoy the views of the expanse of sea ice, unless, of course as I did, you chose to take the train in a raging blizzard which reduces visibility to a few inches. However, the single glimpse of the frozen sea I did manage to catch from the heated train was heartbreakingly pretty. The train's terminus is Otaru, a small provincial town with a modest population of 162,200. It is renowned for its quaint European style canal which runs east to west close to the harbour area. Beside the canal is a granite path with gas lamps and a myriad of inexpensive, but tasty, restaurants.
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Published on 8/26/02