Robbie Collin, The Daily Telegraph, February 24, 2012
It was never my intention to play charades naked on a hotel roof, with an equally naked Japanese pensioner, in the middle of a gale-force blizzard. That's just how things turned out.
I was travelling to Sapporo to see the city's Snow Festival, an annual event in which residents and a handful of foreigners build elaborate snow and ice sculptures in the streets and parks, before eating their own body weight in barbecued meat and washing down the lot with several enormous glasses of beer.
Building the sculptures sounded like a cold, miserable business, but the rest was rather appealing, so, rail pass in hand, I worked my way northwards from Tokyo to Hokkaido, the second-largest island of the 6,800 or so that make up Japan and the country's sweeping, frontier-like wild north.
After a five-hour trip via the 33-mile Seikan Tunnel, which connects Hokkaido to the mainland, our train finally chugged into the bustling fishing port of Hakodate. I checked into my hotel and went straight upstairs to use its rotenburo, a rooftop bath filled with mineral-rich water drawn from an underground hot spring, with a view to wallowing away the rest of the afternoon in sybaritic bliss.
Hakodate is built on a low-lying isthmus that stretches out to the slopes of an extinct volcano, and is flanked on each side by the ash-grey waters of the Tsugaru Straits. While this means it looks rather pretty from above (locals claim the view from Mount Hakodate at night, with the city spread out beneath like a sequinned sleeping bag, is the equal of Hong Kong and Naples), it also means a new weather system blows through every 30 seconds or so, and in the time it had taken me to reach the top floor, the hotel had become engulfed by a snowstorm.
A sign on the changing-room door gave warning that "in the event of inclement weather, the outdoor bath will be closed", but it wasn't, even though the gales of sleet were blowing so hard that the windows bulged inwards. I shed my clothes and scrubbed myself scrupulously at a wash station (there are two inviolable rules of Japanese bathing: you can't wear a swimming costume, and you have to be clean before getting in). Clutching a facecloth-sized modesty towel for protection, I manfully gritted my teeth and slid open the door.
In the middle of the 19th century, as Japan engaged with the outside world after 200 years of isolation, Hakodate was one of the first three ports to open itself to foreign trade. It was on a May morning in 1854 that Commodore Perry's fleet first sailed into the bay, buffeted by a fearsome sea wind, and it was with a profound awareness of its historical significance that, 157 years and nine months later, I felt that same sea wind shearing off the top layer of my skin. I minced across the rooftop in agony, my modesty towel flapping in soggy surrender, and plopped into the steaming water with a groan. The blizzard was so ferocious I could barely see the roof's edge.
An elderly gentleman, who must have been steeping there for some time, said something in Japanese. I grimaced my lack of comprehension, so he pointed into the storm and drew an isosceles triangle in the air. This was followed by a cross, and a frown of mock disgruntlement, as if to say, "Where's the mountain?"
I smiled and shrugged theatrically. The old man looked delighted, and instantly sketched out an oblong with an upwards spike at one end, before pointing back into the maelstrom. I thought back to my guidebook and wondered if he was pointing to the city's Orthodox Church, founded by Russian emissaries in 1859 on the flanks of the mountain.
Tentatively, I put my hands together in prayer, and looked to my new friend for affirmation. I was right! He went on to mime an entire tour of Hakodate's finest attractions: the star-shaped fort of Goryokaku, the fish market, and the steep streets of the Motomachi district, where the wooden houses are a curious hotchpotch of 19th-century Western and Eastern architecture (this detail was from the guidebook; nobody's that good at miming). For each, he pointed out the direction in which it could not be seen, and, screwing my eyes and staring into the squall, I nodded my appreciation.
Later that evening, when the weather had cleared and I began taking in these sights first-hand, my mind kept flashing back to that naked old man, and Hakodate's legacy of welcoming foreigners unabashed. It almost felt as though what had happened made sense. Almost.
The following morning I caught the train to Sapporo, after stopping by the market for a breakfast bowl of warm rice topped with freshly caught seafood: in this case, velvety sea urchin, sweet steamed crab legs and tangy salmon roe. The journey took three hours – there's no Shinkansen bullet train at these latitudes, yet – and as the train described a lazy circle around Uchiura Bay before crossing back inland towards the city, I stared contentedly out of the window, utterly stuffed.
When I arrived in Sapporo the Snow Festival was in full swing, so I dumped my suitcase at the hotel and made for Odori Park, a plaza in the middle of the city's orderly grid of tree-lined boulevards, where the most spectacular creations can be found. Here, in 1950, a group of high school pupils built six snow sculptures, making a good enough job of it to establish an annual event. Five years later, the military chipped in, bringing extra supplies of snow to the park from around the city, and the size of the sculptures increased.
The festival came to international prominence in 1972 when Sapporo staged the Winter Olympic Games, and it expanded to two further sites: Susukino, the nightlife district, and the grounds of the Tsudome exhibition centre. It now attracts around two million visitors a year, including teams of sculptors from as far afield as India and Hawaii.
The park was teeming with tourists, mostly Japanese but with a sprinkling of American and Canadian families, and all were wandering around, staring up at the sculptures, half-dazed by their size and detail. A scale model of Tsuruga Castle towered almost 50ft above the crowd, just across the road from an icy-white Taj Mahal, its minarets glistening in the blue evening light.
Cartoon characters rubbed sub-zero shoulders with humans, robots and animals, even the smallest of which dwarfed my 6ft 6in frame. Two blocks from the city's television tower, lit up like a 500ft Christmas tree, was a ski jump from which snowboarders soared, while a crowd watched entranced, wisps of steam rising from the cups of hot chocolate and warm sake that were clasped between grateful hands.
Nearby, butter-drenched shellfish crackled on an open barbecue, while a fat, grinning man shouted "Scallops, scallops, scallops!", vigorously clapping his hands to keep warm, or drum up business, or both. A phalanx of mobile kitchens was serving Hokkaido specialities such as grilled sweetcorn doused in soy sauce, curry soup, steamed sweet potato dumplings and a kind of deconstructed lamb kebab called Genghis Khan, which came to Japan from Mongolia, unlike its namesake.
Old men and young women alike supped from plastic tankards of foaming golden beer. (The city's famous draught can be sampled further at the Sapporo Beer Museum, a venerable former 19th-century brewery with a cavernous beer hall attached.) Across the road, on a vast stage backed with pillars of ice, a pretty pop star in a thick coat and miniskirt performed with a man dressed as a walrus.
The atmosphere was as warm and genial as a hot spring bath, and I soaked it all in as I walked south to Susukino in search of more food. Here, I ducked between the ice sculptures into Ramen Alley, a cluster of tiny restaurants all dedicated to that hearty noodle dish. It's said that all of the establishments here are roughly on a par, but it's hard to believe that any could be better than the one right underneath the large neon "Sapporo Raumen Yokocho" sign, where I slurped down a huge bowl of noodles in rich, scalding miso broth, topped with seaweed, spring onions and char siu pork. They also serve as many hard-boiled eggs as you can eat, which, following a bowl of ramen, is approximately one.
Outside, the sun sank beneath the mountains, the streets rang with happy voices, and the ice sculptures shone with reflected neon. The thermometer on the noodle shop wall read six degrees below freezing, and I felt as warm as I ever have.
Next year's festival
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) flies five times a week from London Heathrow to Tokyo's stylish and recently expanded Haneda airport (from £842 return). It's friendlier and more convenient than drab, out-of-the-way Narita, and the views of Tokyo and Mount Fuji on take-off and landing are spectacular. Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airlines operate onward flights to Sapporo's Chitose airport, but it's more fun to get there by train.
Before leaving Britain, buy a Japan Rail Pass, which entitles you to unlimited travel on all lines operated by the Japan Railways Group. This costs about £225 but isn't available in Japan; details at japanrailpass.net .
Inside Japan Tours (0117 370 9751; insidejapantours.com ) offers a 14-day Winter Highlights tour (max 14 people) that includes three days at the Sapporo Snow Festival, from £3,250 per person (excluding international flights). Next departure: Feb 4 2013. Sixteen-night self-guided tours of Hokkaido and Tokyo: from £2,830 pp.
In Sapporo, the Cross Hotel ( crosshotel.com/eng_sapporo ) has doubles from about £125, but fills up quickly during the Snow Festival, so book well ahead.
In Hakodate, the La Vista Hakodate Bay has doubles from about £130, which includes breakfast and use of the rooftop bath.
Bookings can be made through a number of independent travel websites.