Yosakoi Soran Festival 2017, Sapporo

DSC03495 cropCries of “Yaaaaaaaaaa…Yaren Soooran Soooran…Hoi hoi!!” continued to echo in my ears as my train left the platform at Sapporo Station bound for Tomakomai. I had gone into town over the weekend to catch the annual dance extravaganza in Sapporo that is the Yosakoi Soran Festival.DSC03527Held at Odori Park during early June every year, this dance fest, which drew its name from the original Yosakoi Festival of Kochi Prefecture, attracts Yosakoi dance teams from all over Japan. In its 26th edition this year, the festival boasts some 270 teams and close to 30,000 participants. The festival has indeed come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1992 with only 10 teams and 1,000 dancers.

Weather forecasts prior to the festival had not been promising, with grey skies and rain predicted over Sapporo and in fact, much of Hokkaido. Watching the preliminary performances on TV that morning, it didn’t seem very promising to be honest. Even the event hosts tried valiantly to wear a smile, despite being pelted with rain on their faces.

Needless to say, I was in two minds whether I should make the train ride into the city in the pouring rain. Perhaps, to convince myself that maybe I should sit this one out and watch the performances on the TV, I made one last-ditch attempt to search for an available hotel / hostel on Booking.com. And against all odds, I found one!

A few days ago, all the hotels I scoured were either fully booked or had jacked up their prices by a few times, so to find a place with a reasonable price was nothing short of a miracle! Granted, it was a capsule hotel / hostel, and I have my doubts about capsule hotels in Japan. I was never a fan of confined spaces, especially shared ones. However, the newly opened Grids Sapporo Hotel & Hostel in the heart of the boisterous Tanukikoji Shopping Arcade in downtown Susukino, was a pleasant surprise. It exceeded my expectations of a capsule hotel on all counts.

When I reached Sapporo Station, the first sight that greeted me was dancers in brightly coloured costumes scurrying across the station. I later learnt that this was because in addition to the stage performance in Odori Park, there were also various performance venues scattered along streets in and around Odori Park. So it was a pretty fascinating sight, seeing all these dancers in heavy makeup and psychedelic costumes rushing from place to place, sometimes, with prams and kids in tow, on foot!!DSC03501Over the course of the weekend, I would, too, scurry from place to place, camera in tow, trying to catch as many of these street performances as possible. It’s nearly impossible to catch everything, of course, and because the performances were simultaneous at the different locales, you are bound to miss out on some of them.

Still, I would run the length of Odori Park, from 5-chome to 10-chome, hoping to catch the major attractions – those teams that have been tipped for a run-in for the best dancers. And even though the rain threatened to dampen my spirits, the performances from the yosakoi dancers were like energy boosters. The rain served only to make their cries louder and more defiant.DSC03474When the music starts, the dancers – men, women, students and children – burst into a flurry of movements, gyrating, spinning, fist-pumping, cheering, shouting, and always smiling. Costumes changed colour every few seconds. Flag bearers waved and swiveled gigantic flags with grace and finesse. Some teams even had a humongous dragon head or parts of a ship, in addition to terraced paper lanterns strung on bamboo poles.

DSC03513Adrenalin and emotions poured out from their faces, all the months of sweat and toil distilled into that five minutes in the limelight. They seemed to lap up the energy from the crowds, the applause, the rallying cries from their peers, and hearty waves from friends or family members who had come to support.DSC03571Personally, I enjoyed watching the university teams the most. The energy and drive that these youths displayed were amazing, not to mention the perfectly executed dance routines. One girl was hobbling on crutches at the dancers’ holding area backstage, her right knee heavily strapped. But when it was time for her team to perform on stage, she tossed her crutches to the ground and rushed onstage with her peers for one last hurrah.

I find myself lost for words to describe the emotions that were running through me as I watched team after team of bullish youthful exuberance exploding on the stage.

It was simply, breath-taking!  LS

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Sapporo: A Winter Wonderland

img_20170205_115802-3SNEAK PEEK: SAPPORO SNOW FESTIVAL 2017

A friend was pretty amused when I exploded in exuberant joy that I have just snagged a hotel room in Sapporo this weekend!

What’s the occasion this weekend, she asked. What do you like about Sapporo?

Well, firstly, there’s nothing to dislike about Sapporo. If I could pinpoint something, it is that there’s just too many people in this tiny city.

Secondly, what’s the occasion? It’s the eagerly anticipated Sapporo Snow Festival!!! It’s probably the biggest winter event on the Japanese calendar this side of the archipelago.

I’m not sure how many winter festivals there are in the world, but the Sapporo Snow Festival probably ranks amongst one of the most well-known.

Months before the Festival, almost all the hotels in downtown Sapporo, that is, Odori Park, Susukino and even nearby Nakajima Park, are fully booked, with most hotels charging three to four times above the average room rates. So you could imagine the exhilaration when I managed to snag one myself, one week before the Festival.

What started as a mere adolescent muck-about in Odori Park has become one of the top tourist draws for the city of Sapporo and Japan, with an expected draw of around 2 million people from across Japan and the world, the Japan Times reported.

For its 68th edition, this year’s theme revolves around TPP!!! Nah, not the trade deal that newly elected US President Donald Trump threatened to destroy. Rather, TPP stands for Trump, Pikotaro and Pokemon-Go!!

These feature heavily in many of the sculptures that dot the park, with Pikachu and Pikotaro, proving to be very popular among the sculptors. There are also several renditions of giant apple-pen and pineapple-pen combinations!!!DSC03152.JPGThe Festival is most famous for juggernaut sculptures that turn Odori Park into a whimsical winter wonderland. This year features amongst others, Nara’s 1,300-year-old Kofukuji Temple, Paris’ Arc de Triomphe (perhaps, to improve French-Japanese trade relations?), mascots for the 2017 Sapporo Asian Winter Games (which kicks off from February 19-26 in Sapporo and Obihiro), the Decisive Battle scene from popular video game Final Fantasy and the ever-popular Star Wars.dsc03141dsc03115You can also catch international sculptors from 11 participating countries including the United States,  Australia, Latvia, Finland, Thailand and Singapore in action as they vie for the grand prize.

In addition, there’s also Citizen Square, an area just outside the former Sapporo Court of Appeals that feature a series of smaller sculptures lining both sides of the pathway outside the historical landmark.

Besides Odori Park, two sister sites at Susukino and Tsudome also feature ice sculptures and snow rides for the kids respectively.

For more information, please refer to http://www.snowfes.com/english

The Sapporo Snow Festival starts from 6th February to the 12th February.   LS

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Jazz It Up, Jozankei

Fall is in the air. After two weeks of consecutive pummeling by typhoons, the dipping temperatures and clear blue skies are a much welcome respite. Fall also happens to be my favourite season. It’s the season when leaves turn into brilliant hues of red, orange and yellow – a phenomenon the Japanese term 紅葉 (literally, “red leaves”) or みもじ. And one of the most popular places in Hokkaido to catch the fall colours is the Jozankei Onsen (定山渓温泉) district. Like Noboribetsu, this sprawling valley of monolithic hotels also happens to have some of the best hot spring (onsen) waters flowing through it. The story goes that a monk by the name of Miizumi Jozan discovered the hot springs in 1866, and opened a healing spa. Today, there’s a statue of the monk near a free hot spring footbath to commemorate the reverend’s contribution. So while it’s perhaps too early to witness the area blanketed in a sea of red and yellow, I had made the trip last weekend to enjoy the bubbles.img_20160911_160434_hdrJozankei’s close proximity to Sapporo makes it an ideal day trip, or a weekend getaway. Express direct  (直行便) buses whisk you from the Sapporo Bus Terminal from berths 7 or 8 straight to the onsen area every hour and the 70-minute journey will cost you about 840 yen one way. However, you could also opt for the more frequent “Rapid” (快速) buses (770 yen one way) from the same berths. But these would take a good 15 minutes more, as they stop at every bus stop along the way.

I found myself struggling to decide which onsen I should visit. Most of the hotels in this area have an onsen onsite that are open to day trippers but it’s always good to check in advance. Eventually, I settled on the furthest one, the Hoheikyo Onsen (豊平峡温泉), which is also the final stop on this route.dsc01715For onsen regulars, Hoheikyo Onsen might come across as a little on the expensive end. Its 1,000 yen admission fee notwithstanding, there’s also a 500 yen rental fee for towels (though you do get back 300 yen after your bath). The trick is to bring along your own towels, so you would only have to pay for the admission.

This onsen essentially has only two pools. As far as traditional onsens go, this definitely has some of that rustic feel. Stepping into the shower area adjoining the indoor pool, you can’t help but notice the potholed floor – the result of various stages of erosion by the spring waters. The main attraction, undoubtedly, is the rotemburo (露天風呂) or outdoor pool, with its landscaped gardens complete with a stationary water mill. It almost feels like being part of a Japanese bonsai. Come autumn or winter, when the surrounding hills are draped in red, yellow or white, they would provide a picturesque backdrop to enjoy your soak.137© http://jozankei.jp/

Interestingly, the onsen also has a buzzing restaurant that reportedly sells some of the best Indian curry in Sapporo. Strange combination in my opinion – onsen, curry and naan – but hey, if it rocks your palate, who is to judge? I decided to give it a miss since Indian cuisine is not that much of a novelty where I come from.img_20160911_172344_hdrLeaving the onsen, I took the bus for a couple of stops and alighted at the main Jozankei Onsen area. Here, a half dozen drab giant slabs of concrete and glass line both sides of the valley. One look at the hotels and you can tell that these have been here for ages. However, a check on the Internet may give you a shock! Many of the properties in this area go for upwards of 15,000 yen (or about 147 USD) a night. The smaller boutique hotels would probably charge at least 26,000 yen (or about 255 USD) per night. And we’re not talking about state-of-the-art facilities!

Many of the reviews I came across on various hotel sites such as Booking.com and Expedia pointed to the outdated décor and furnishings. Some complained that the rooms reek of cigarette smoke. It seemed a little exorbitant, to be paying top dollar for at best mediocre accommodation, to be honest. If anything, you are probably just paying for the scenery! So while the idea of spending a weekend here sounds incredibly enticing, the hotels really have to do a major makeover before they get my vote. For now, I’m content with just hopping from one onsen to another.  LS

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Have Beer, Will Travel

DSC08607One of the first things I penned down on my bucket list when doing my research on Sapporo was the Sapporo Beer Museum (札幌ビール博物館) and the Sapporo Factory (サッポロファクトリー). I’ve always enjoyed Japanese beer, and in particular, Sapporo (I prefer this over Asahi or Kirin). So how could I not make a pilgrimage to the Holy Grail when I am in Sapporo?

Let’s cut to the brew. To be honest, if time is of the essence for you in Sapporo, I suggest you can safely give both destinations a miss. I hear a gasp…

Yes I mean it! As much as I fancy a tipple from the sacred shrine, I would have to admit that besides the beer tasting (which you can actually experience without a tour of the museum), both destinations do not offer a truly interactive experience.DSC08610DSC08613 Take the Sapporo Factory for example. This former brewery is now a shopping centre, restaurant complex and tourist trinkets trap. The only reason I spent a good hour there – there’s a small tasting room at the corner of a miniscule “exhibition room” where you can taste 6 different kinds of Sapporo Beer for 250 yen each for half a pint.DSC08621DSC08605DSC08608Next, the Sapporo Beer Museum (札幌ビール博物館). It’s a shuttle bus ride from the Factory. The architecture is strangely European and the distinctive Sapporo red star that adorns every steeple and roof kind of reminds you of the former communist Soviet Union (or is it just me?)DSC08720Inside the Museum, there’s two floors of exhibits – both of which took me less than 5 minutes each. The exhibits cover the history of Sapporo Brewery and a special tribute to their bestselling Black Label. I would have preferred a more interactive experience, but sadly, the exhibits are mainly posters and Sapporo beer bottles from the different eras.DSC08647DSC08631Now if you have time, the beer tasting is the real deal. And the best part, you get to sample 3 half-pints of different Sapporo beers at a grand total of 500 yen. This almost makes the earlier price tag of 250 yen per half pint offered at the Factory seem exorbitant. In addition to the beer tasting, there’s an interesting souvenir shop where you can purchase beer flavoured chocolates, beer flavoured cookies, beer flavoured anything… Cheers to that!  LSDSC08724DSC08733DSC08621DSC08637DSC08640DSC08644DSC08602

In Search of A View

I present to you the night view of Sapporo 札幌 – I’m facing the same view as I write this at the cafe on the 38th level of the Sapporo JR Tower (札幌 JR タワー). With a cuppa, of course. I could vegetate here the whole night with this view before me.

Like any first-time visitors to a Japanese city, this is almost like an initiation ritual to the city – a money sucker definitely but it’s not like you do this everyday. Which reminds me, this must be my 5th tower-rite. Tokyo, Kyoto, Fukuoka…and now this! And if you count the views from the castles…well, who’s counting?

Oh by the way, did I mention this is the second ¥720 I spent in a single day. The first went to the Sapporo TV Tower. Hmm…consider the former ¥720 as a donation. Compared to the TV Tower, the vista (and ambience) here is so much better! And the kicker – you get to pee “over the city”!!

Sometimes I wonder if there’s more to the view that attracts people to part with their moolah. What do you think?  LS

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