Japan? Again? That’s what my friends said when they learned that I booked a trip to Sapporo for the annual Snow Festival. Last week’s trip was my fourth to Japan. And I’m sure there’ll be more if I’d still be earning adequately for the next decade or so.
I love going back to places that I love, especially to see how much they’ve changed, and to live through what had endeared them to me again. For Japan, it’s its strangeness. I know I’d never be able to blend there however I try. I can do that in the States, Thailand, Hong Kong or even Europe (just ape their color palette), but not in Japan. I also like the people – their kindness, sense of community, the order, discipline, their obsessive-compulsiveness (place your payment on the tray!). The surroundings and their behavior are just too alien from the Philippines. And it feels good to get lost in a place where everything is beautiful. In our homeland, ugliness seems to be the norm, and we always find ourselves desperately searching for rare snippets of beauty.
I also choose a destination that I’ve been longing to see. Sapporo has always fascinated since the time I saw clips of the Winter Olympics in the 70s. There was way too much snow. When all you saw as a child was sugarcane in the flat geography of Pampanga, snowflakes would matter to an aspiring globetrotter.
Sapporo isn’t easy to go to for us Filipinos. There are no direct flights from Manila to the New Chitose Airport in Sapporo (a charming little airport I must say; think Power Plant Mall with an airport appended). The options are Korean via Incheon, the Japanese carriers from Tokyo, and Cathay from HK. Those are the efficient ones. It’s also a long way to Sapporo. Our trip from Manila to Incheon to Sapporo took all of 12 hours, the layover included.
By the way, if you’re planning to go visit Sapporo during the week-long Snow Festival, which happens in early February, you better do it months in advance. It’s the biggest event in the whole of Hokkaido (one of Japan’s three main islands, and the northernmost), and tickets and hotels are hard to book within a few months ahead of the festival. I booked our hotel (Hotel Clubby Sapporo) as early as May 2014 on agoda.com.
So what must one do right after checking in a Sapporo hotel in winter? First, put on layers and layers of clothing (down not wool, thermals, muffs, gloves, snow boots and anything excessively warm), then head for Odori Park. Odori is the city’s main park, carved right down the center, 13 blocks long, and the main arena for the giant ice sculptures. The sculptures are amazing after dark, but even more breakthtaking during the day. You must spend more time exploring the sculptures during the day because of all the details. Besides, it’s way too colder to stroll in the park at night, in minus-7-degree weather.
The first destination is Ramen Alley in Susukino, off Odori. It’s a thin strip of a dozen or so ramen bars. Anthony Bourdain had been there to sample Miso Ramen, a Hokkaido invention. Bourdain is every foodie’s role model, and we just had to trace his ice-covered tracks.
The bowl of miso was a robust and tangy mix of spicy bean paste, butter corn, leeks, onions, bean sprouts, ground pork, cabbage, sesame seeds, white pepper, and chopped garlic. It was lovely. And heartwarming for a shivering Kapampangan on his first night in Sapporo.