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Winter in Hokkaido Part 1 – Arrival, Suage+ Soup Curry & Sapporo Winter Festival

(This post is part of an ongoing travelogue. To start at the very beginning, click here.)

So off we go on the itinerary! We boarded our AirAsia flight Friday night, and arrived on Saturday morning. When I booked my flight 12 months earlier, the date of the 69th Sapporo Winter Festival was not fixed yet (they are usually announced in August), so we actually took a risk in booking. But I had estimated that I would arrive on the last 2 days of the festival, at its busiest weekend. And it was also the peak tourist season for the entire year.

I didn’t sleep a wink throughout the 8 hour flight, so it was going be a tiring day today.

But nothing is going to take away from my excitement of coming back to Japan! And seeing snow for the first time (yes, I’m a real kampung boy). We touched down in Shin-Chitose Airport earlier than expected, and this time we were quite prepared to clear the airport speedily. Here’s a tip that bears repeating – if you’re entering Japan, have the FULL address and contact of your hotel on hand. You need to write the full details in your disembarkation card, or the immigration officer will not let you through. This applies even if you are staying in Airbnb.


(sun rising over the Land of the Rising Sun)

When we were nearing landing strip, you can’t really see the snow, I had thought but it hadn’t snowed in Chitose. But once you are on ground level, you can see the snow everywhere, piled up high to make the runway clear. Upon landing the pilot announced that the tempoerature was -14 degrees. -14! I was expecting something like -1.

We cleared immigration pretty fast. First order of business, stop by the JR Office. We bought Kitaca cards, and the train tickets from Airport to Sapporo. We wanted to buy the special train tickets for Asahiyama Zoo, but the special Lilac No.5 train was sold out. More on the special train in our later post. So we just bought the regular train ticket bundled together with the bus transfer and zoo entry ticket. After concluding our business with JR, I went to the Donan bus counter at the other side of the airport to buy bus tickets for Chitose-Noboribetsu on Day 4, but they only allowed tickets to be bought on the same day. So that’s a risk there, cos there were only 2 buses per day.

From the Airport, we boarded a Limited Express (LEX) Rapid Airport Service train to Sapporo. Limited Express trains are faster than normal trains as they don’t stop at every station. Since the airport was the last station, the train was quite empty and we got seats on the train. On the train, we got to see the Hokkaido countryside – wide open spaces interspersed by small towns made up of prefabricated houses. All covered in thick snow. We didn’t snap any photos because we were too tired.


(Aboard the LEX train)

The train ride takes 37 minutes (JPY 1,070) and you disembark at Sapporo Station, a mega-station that has hotels and 4 shopping malls joined to it. From Sapporo Station we took the subway to Susukino two stations away. Upon exiting Susukino station, lo and behold, snow! We couldn’t helping touching and playing with the snow (the locals must be wondering why we’re touching old snow right next to the walkway…). But before stepping out of the station, we had to spend 5 minutes putting on our gloves, face masks, beanies, etc.


(Snow!)

From there, it was 4 blocks to our hotel. We stayed at APA Hotel Sapporo Susukino Ekinishi. Yes, I know, it’s quite a mouthful to say, but it turned out to be an excellent choice. APA is an established chain in Japan, and within this area of Sapporo, they have at least 4 hotels with almost similar names. It was too early to check in the hotel, but they allowed us to store our bags (as with every hotel I’ve stayed in Japan) while we went out. Meanwhile, we spent some time repacking some luggage, putting on heatpads and using their toilet.

First order of business – lunch. We hadn’t had a meal since dinner the night before. There were many dishes that we wanted to try in Hokkaido, but the first on the list was Soup Curry. This popular dish is native to Hokkaido, and is basically vegetable curry with lamb, chicken or pork, served with rice (topped with cheese if you want). The restaurant I chose was Suage+ as it was recommended to be one of the best, and it was very near my hotel.

This was the line we saw when we got there.


(standing out in the snow for curry…)

What the heck, so we stood in line. For 10 minutes, the line didn’t move. And suddenly it moved quickly! Later we found out everyone was lining up before the shop opened. We were there 10 minutes before the 11.30am opening time. Aaaah. That explained a lot.

This was how our soup curry looked like. We ordered the pork belly and the chicken. You can choose the soup base (regular or squid ink), level of spiciness, and side orders. They have English menus and English speaking staff.

Overall, we really loved the dish. The soup is very tasty and sweet, and rich with vegetables. The meat was also very succulent, and this was one of the best meals we had in Sapporo. The restaurant is quite small, and when we left, the queue was still snaking down one flight of stairs to the outside. There is also another branch 2 doors down from here if the queue is too long.

From there its another few blocks of walking before we reach Odori Park. Odori Park is a narrow strip of green about 1.5 km consisting of 13 blocks stretching from Sapporo TV Tower to the Archive Museum. In February this park is one of 3 sites for the Winter Festival, the other two being Susukino Ice Festival and Tsudome. In the two days, we managed to visit all three sites.

The park is REALLY long and there is A LOT of stuff to see. There are a lot of snow and ice sculptures, food stall, seating areas, a giant ski ramp, a skating rink, etc.

There are a few centrepiece sculptures this year – one was for Final Fantasy XIV (geez, I stopped playing at FF XIII…), a tribute to legendary animator Osamu Tezuka, a large palace (I think) and one of some medallion-looking thing.


(really, the picture doesn’t do justice to this sculpture)


(I like this one. Astro Boy!)


(A Japanese rock band performing in front of the palace sculpture. Honestly, they’re not very good)


(This one is a little out of place, since it is made with ice, not snow. The girl was dressed like Elsa and singing the Japanese version of ‘Do you want to build a snowman’.)

They also build a giant ski ramp using scaffolding, and there was a ski jump contest going on, with young Japanese participants trying to impress the crowds with their skills. It’s hard to tell whether the crowd was appreciative or not, you can’t hear people clapping with their gloves and mittens on. But everyone did cheer when a 40-year old uncle succeeded in his somersault jump.

The park was packed with people, and they direct human traffic to go only one direction (anti clockwise around the park). Many people also brought their dogs, here are two incredibly cute Shiba Inu dogs on a bike.

Being our first time out in the snow, it got a little too cold for us. But there were few cabins scattered around where you can go in to escape the cold and get a hot drink. This one was sponsored by Coca-Cola.

Throughout the day, there are lots of performances to entertain the crowds. This was two popstars singing J-pop hits.

As you walk further down the park, there many more smaller sculptures, mostly consolation prize winners and also by international teams.


(Luke, I am your father…)

After awhile, we got really tired (from our long flight earlier), so at around 3pm, we trudged back in the snow to our hotel…

Next – Dinner and Susukino Ice Festival

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