That morning I walked to the station instead of taking my chances on a five minute gap between connections. The reliability of Japanese trains is legendary, but nowhere near perfect. I left home at what I thought was a reasonable enough time, but at ten to seven I was sprinting to the station with my duffle bag bouncing uncomfortably off my hip. I made it, barely, but the run left me physically unwell for train ride to Narita.
Trains, planes, and more trains. When I finally stepped outside Nichichome 11 station the snow was falling in fine powder. After the trip I was eager to stretch my legs, so I dumped my bags and headed out to the Matsuri.
My first discovery was Snow Miku, lit in soft purple and terribly cute. Vocaloid 01 had several shrines dedicated to her and her merchandise, and made a strong showing at this year’s matsuri.
The Yuki Matsuri stretched to Sapporo tower, with the big attractions spaced between smaller sculpture parks. The first was an enormous Chibi-Marikochan, a beloved manga that ran through the eighties. It spawned two animes, the latter on air since 1992. It’s the wholesome, psuedo-autobiographical story of a young girl’s life in 1972. Kind of like “Peanuts” without Snoopy. Not being familiar with her, I lacked the nostalgia for it to make any sort of impression. A lot of sculptures you really needed to be Japanese to appreciate.
The best exibit I stumbled on was Audi’s Quattro, which came to life in scheduled intervals.
And yes, I wanted to slap that guy in front of the picture in the back of his head. Half of the crowd was complaining about him throughout the whole show.
“Jama!” (“You’re in the way”) shouted one unforgiving obasan (grandma.)
He responded with the same indifferent stare old salarymen wear when they ignore whatever they’re doing, kind of looking out and over, like they caught sight of something interesting across the street. Now, I can ignore someone, but to completely retreat into Zenlike apathy takes a refined self-control I do not possess.
It ended and we dispersed. Further down, a gigantic sculpture from the Ise shrine had immense presence. The Yata no Kagami, a magic mirror given to the first emperor, is supposedly enshrined there. If you’re interested in stuff like that–including (possibly) real magic swords–check out 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Naruto. This picture I took the next day though. All my night ones of it turned out bad. This one wasn’t that much better though…
The sculptures culminated in a court of ready vendors at the base of Sapporo Tower, which reminded me I hadn’t eaten anything since the airport. Everywhere in Japan has its famous food, and in Hokkaido, it’s crab and miso Ramen.
If you can speak some Japanese, ask the locals about food. Japan restaurants are more often than not private affairs, and they know the lay of the land better than any brochure.
After dropping hyaku en (100 yen) on some green tea, a convenience store clerk pointed me to “ramen alley,” an underground bunker of tightly packed ramenya (ramen shops.) Only ramenya could cram themselves into less footage than a WWII U-boat and still seat customers. Deciding on one, I was ushered into what was no more than a bar wrapped around an open kitchen, with a few tables squeezed into the corners.
A table opened up as soon as I got in, but there was no wasting a chair. I was seated across from a pleasant older couple from Nagasaki who I struck up a conversation with.
I’m of the firm belief that a good atmosphere makes good food. Good food is better with good company, and the couple sitting across from me certainly were. They’d come from Nagasaki for the Yuki Matsuri, as they do every year, and were really fun. The wife fired off her Japanese a bit too quickly for me to catch all the details, but we managed.
On my way back to the hotel, quite by accident, I ran into another area of the Matsuri, the ice sculptures. There was a ramen eating fox from ramen alley.
An ice bar, which unfortunately wasn’t seating customers.
And yes, those fish are the real deal.
When I finally arrived back at the Roy Ton I nodded off, exhausted, as soon as I hit the pillow.
I went out to the Matsuri early on Saturday and the crowd was blundering along like a long, limbless creature made of goo. I really don’t recommend going on the weekend. It’s far too crowded.
I still got to see a few sculptures I had missed the night before though.
The ski slope had woken up. There was an articficial slope where skiers were doing jumps to an excited announcer and Gangam Style. I hate that song.
Sculptors had come from all over the world, not only to sculpt, but to sell international fair that I wasn’t about to miss. The Matsuri was overipe with vendors selling Kebob from Turkey, curry from India, noodles from Malaysia ,and everything else. All good. It being Hokkaido though, the best was the seafood.
That was lunch. For dinner, I finally got what I came for: Hokkaido crab. That night I found an upscale crab restaurant near the heart of Sapporo. I ordered the hairy crab, known for its sweet flavor, and only halfway through noticed its sad upside down eyes watching me pitifully.
Poor guy. I also had some of his friends.
The crab sushi was a treat, but when the waitress brought my shabu shabu she noticed, and didn’t think I noticed, a nasty piece of something dark and slimy on the plate. She wiped it off with her thumb, ninjalike, under the low Japanese style table. When she politely set it in front of me I politely handed it back, and recommended she improve her jutsu.
Eating crab reminded me of crab picking at my Great Uncle David’s house. He had a fierce, sarcastic sense of humor and stern eyes under thick, dark eyebrows. He lived on the Chesapeake Bay and went crab potting almost every day. Uncle David invited us over, sat us down at his wooden picnic table, then dumped a huge pot of fresh crab in front of us, still steaming.
Hokkaido crabs were expensive, but a meal injected with a heavy dose of nostalgia was worth the price tag.
I miss your crabs, Uncle David.
After that it was time to go back to real life. I always hate doing that. The Matsuri was good, and it was my first time in Northern Japan. I definitely plan to go back, though my next trip is going to be very different. Next time, I’m tackling Hokkaido’s nature.
Question of the Day: Who/what do you think they should make an ice sculpture of next year?