Landing on Hokkaido in mid-winter is a highly provisional business. As our plane descends from blue to white above the coldest and emptiest of Japan’s main islands, the pilot says he might yet have to divert as far south as Tokyo. When he somehow finds the runway at New Chitose Airport, it looks and feels like touching down inside a snow cloud.
The same whiteness fills the windows of the train into Sapporo, whose citizens appear to live underground in a complex of heated passageways, malls and subterranean transit systems.
At street level, the foothpaths and roads form a grid of ice embedded in a snowfield, which illustrates the way this city was made to order. Designated a new northern administrative outpost by the restored Meiji Empire in 1868, it had been a settlement of fewer than 10 people only a decade earlier. The city’s population has grown to more than 1.9 million, with thousands of tourists blowing in for the annual Sapporo Snow Festival in February, making a virtue of the fact the city receives more snow than any other metropolis on Earth – more than six metres every year.
During the festival, the Susukino entertainment district becomes an outdoor gallery of ice sculptures. Popular cartoon characters, dinosaurs and mythological creatures line the main thoroughfares, teeth and claws sharpened to glistening points. Odori Park, meanwhile, becomes an avenue of vast architectural models – Korean temples, German cathedrals, detailed large-scale replicas of world-famous monuments – all shaped and carved from solid blocks of snow by soldiers of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces, for whom this event has been a training exercise since the 1950s. Training for what, we wonder, as they touch up the corners with chainsaws, civil engineering in the next Ice Age?
Read the rest of the story: Ice castles and ale.