New Year Feature (Part 2) – Okayama’s Black Beauty

Exhausted from our pre-dawn excursions, including a two-hour maroon at a train station, we decided to sleep in on New Year’s Day, and woke up for lunch. It had been an eventful New Year’s Eve for us, having started the day as early as 8 a.m. The original plan that day had been to visit Okayama Castle (岡山城), bright and early so we could avoid the crowds.dsc04775_blogStanding majestically over the Asahi River (旭川), Okayama Castle (like many castles in Japan) is a reconstruction, the original structure having been almost totally destroyed during the Second World War. Only the Tsukimi Yagura (月見櫓), which translates literally as the “moon viewing turret”, remains from the original 1620 construction. However, what separates Okayama Castle from the others is that it is one of only two jet-black castles ever constructed in Japan, the other being Matsumoto Castle in Nagano. Their black facades have earned them the moniker “Crow Castle”.dsc04781_blogAs luck would have it, Okayama Castle was closed on New Year’s Eve. We consoled ourselves that the inside of the castle probably looked more or less like the dozen or so other castles we have already visited before, and left after taking a few selfies with the castle as backdrop.

Crossing the ugly steel bridge which connects to the castle, we arrived at Korakuen (後楽園), ranked as one of the top three most beautiful landscape gardens in Japan (the other two being Kenrokuen (兼六園) in Kanazawa (金沢) and Kairakuen (偕楽園) in Mito City (水戸市), Ibaraki Prefecture. Korakuen (後楽園) was actually one of my bucket lists of places to check off for Japan.

Except, as I stood on top of a tiny knoll (with Okayama Castle behind me) surveying the monochromatic landscape before me, I couldn’t figure out how the gardens earned its three stars in the Michelin Green Guide. In fact, I felt as if I’ve just been transported back in time to a period when all photos carry a sepia tinge.dsc04817_blogdsc04797_blogI’ve definitely seen more beautiful gardens in Kyoto and Tokyo!

Granted, the expansive lawns, ponds, intimate walking paths make for a relaxing amble. But beauty is not a description that comes first to mind. I decided to blame it on the season. After all, it’s a frigid winter morning. I’m sure a visit during summer or autumn would have done the gardens more justice.

What I did enjoy though, was sitting at one of the wooden benches littered along the banks of the Asahi River and admiring the imposingly majestic black beauty, that is Okayama Castle.dsc04826_blogI’m sure if my fingers weren’t threatening to dislodge themselves or that my belly people weren’t threatening a revolt, I would have liked to linger around longer, possibly with a cuppa in one hand and a book in the other. Summer time, perhaps.

Just then, the heavens poured.

Fat drops of rainfall on a freezing winter’s day. You couldn’t have planned this day better (sarcasm fully intended).

We took refuge at the entrance of a public restroom, looking cold, sheepish and hungry.

Our not-so-happening happening New Year’s Eve had just begun.    LS

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In The Mood For Haiku

I hope you have enjoyed the trio of haiku (俳句) from my previous posts. It’s actually my maiden attempt at writing haiku . In fact, I’ve had to read up on the rules and conventions / stylistics of writing haiku before giving it a crack myself.

Native Japanese speakers or non-native speakers proficient in the Japanese language may even find the grammar or my choice of words used in the haiku somewhat strange, and I can only apologise for my own language shortcomings.

What I do try to convey through each of these haiku is a state of mind or an emotion that works symbiotically with an accompanying photograph to capture or express those thoughts / feelings / emotions at that point in time (i.e. when the picture was taken).

Instead of three parallel lines, I chose to present the haiku in a single line in the classic Japanese way, like the script on an omikuji (おみくじ) strip.

However, I have deliberately left out any explanation of the haiku in all my previous posts, so that you can draw your own meaning or interpretations.

I hope to come up with more of such posts in future, as and when inspiration strikes.

お願い致します。 LS

New Year Feature (Part 1) – Ringing in the New Year at Chayamachi Station

I promised to get out of Japan in my previous (and last post of the year) in 2018 but seems like there are still a few stories left in my shelf that I haven’t been able to pull out. In the words of the great Italian-American actor Al Pacino “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.”

And so I present to you this post, which was inspired by a fellow blogger’s comment (Do check out her travel exploits in Japan. Jennifer has probably covered more places in the Land of the Rising Sun than me, and her photos are so gorgeous your eyeballs will be glued to her blog).

But first things first…

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!!!

Here’s wishing all my readers a Prosperous Year of the Pig in 2019!!! (Excuse my Chinese-ness. Chinese people love prosperity above all things). *sings* Money, money, money… Must be funny… In the rich man’s world…

Of course, prosperity is not restricted to money and fortunes. So here’s wishing you prosperity in all areas of your life, be it health, family and career!!

I spent my New Year in 2018 at Chayamachi Station (茶屋町駅).

The reason?

My friend and I had intended to catch a train from Okayama Station (岡山駅) to visit the celebrated Kibitsu Shrine (吉備津神社) of Momotaro fame for hatsumode (初詣, a tradition observed by my Japanese on the first day of the new year to pray for safety, peace or well-being in the new year).

But… we ended up taking the wrong direction.

A quick check with the few commuters on board after our gut told us that something was not quite right about confirmed our initial suspicions.

We had taken the wrong train!!

Instead of taking the Momotaro Line (桃太郎線), we had hopped onto the Seto-Ohashi Line (瀬戸大橋線) bound for Shikoku (四国).

So we hastily got off at the next random station, and found ourselves at Chayamachi Station (茶屋町駅).

When the clock struck twelve, we could hear temple bells ringing from different directions (each temple bell is supposed to ring 108 times by the way, to symbolise the cleansing of the 108 worldly desires of the flesh according to Japanese Buddhism) at the station, creating a discordant symphony of sorts.

It was a surreal experience, given our original intention was to catch the ringing of the bells live at the temple itself.

Midnight at a deserted train station, just my friend and I. We didn’t kiss in the New Year, unfortunately.

When the return train to Okayama Station came, after having waited for almost 2 hours, we were so excited (and relieved) that we jumped for joy on the platform.

When we finally got off at our desired station, which shares the same name as our destination temple (吉備津駅), it was almost half past three in the morning.

However, to our pleasant surprise, we found ourselves in good company. No need for Google Maps as all we had to do was to join in the steady stream of Japanese making their way to the temple from the station.

There was still quite a queue up to the main hall of the temple but it could have been worse.

I offered to buy us some snacks (piping hot sweet potatoes) from one of the food stalls that have been doing brisk business next to the temple’s car park.

We soon found ourselves moving at a steady speed up the stone steps, and soon we were standing before the main altar.

We clapped twice, whispered our prayers, and bowed.

I prayed that I won’t take the wrong train again in 2018.     LS

P.S.: This post is dedicated to Alicia Loh, who counted down 2018 with me at Chayamachi Station, and also braved the freezing morning chill to queue for our first omikuji of the year.

Spiritual Sojourns (Part 3) – ‘Power’ Up in Ise

It’s impossible to talk about spiritual spots in Japan without including a discussion of Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮) or Ise Grand Shrine. After all, this shrine is widely acknowledged by many Japanese as one of the most scared Shinto shrines in Japan.

I have known about the shrine from Lonely Planet and various travel blogs on the Internet. I have also heard a fair share of stories from my friends in Japan. One recounted that her mother insisted they make a pilgrimage there when she was plagued by a series of nightmares. Another gushed about how she met her fiancé while on a solo trip to Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮). The shrine holds different meanings and experiences for different people I spoke to, it seems. But all agree that this shrine is one of the most powerful spiritual spots in Japan.

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Therefore, while planning my last hurrah of sightseeing around Japan (before moving back to Singapore for good), I deliberately reminded myself to pencil in a day trip to Mie Prefecture (三重県), even though the journey was an inconvenient four hours to and fro from downtown Kyoto, where I was based at that time.

A few months prior to the trip, however, I received a message on Facebook from a friend, who asked me where exactly this spiritual spot in Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮) is, and how to feel the energy. I was stumped by the question, because I haven’t been to the shrine up until then.

“What do you mean where is the spiritual spot? Isn’t it something you feel naturally while you’re there?” I asked her.

Well, apparently, no.

My friend felt nothing at all, and complained that the shrines were swarmed with people, and how it was almost impossible to take a clean shot of the shrines without having strangers ‘photo-bomb’ you left, right and centre.

She even said she was a little disappointed and felt ‘cheated’ because the shrines looked very simple and ‘nothing special’ in their design.

That’s really missing the whole point about Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮). Because, what distinguishes Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮) from all other Shinto shrines in Japan are the clean, down-to-earth lines, devoid of ornamental carvings or decorations. This minimalist design is the defining characteristic of Ise Jingu!dsc08149_blogDSC08120

A few facts first before we proceed, Ise Jingu actually comprises two shrines. There’s the Geku (外宮), or Outer Shrine and the Naiku (内宮), or Inner Shrine. “外” is the Japanese kanji for “outside” while “内” is the kanji for “inside”.

The former is about a 5-minutes’ walk south of the Ise-shi (伊勢市) train station while a bus from the stop opposite the Geku (外宮) takes you to the latter.

The Geku is dedicated to the goddess of food, clothing and housing, Toyouke (豊受大神), while the Naiku is dedicated to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu (天照大御神様), the most important god in Shinto.

That should give you a clue as to which of the two shrines is the more “powerful”, spiritually speaking.

Except that, it doesn’t.

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When I finally made my pilgrimage there, I recalled the question my friend had asked me about where exactly this famed spiritual spot in Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮) was. And I realised what she had meant by that question.Because both shrines are immensely popular with both Japanese and tourists, they are often swarmed with people. Now, whether you believe this or not is another matter, but I would like to propose an answer to my friend’s question. In crowded places teeming with people, you are highly unlikely to feel any spiritual energy.

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Does that make sense?Spiritual energy is diluted or negated by the presence of humans (who carry with them an energy called “yang” in traditional Chinese beliefs) while spiritual energy is “yin”. These two types of energy are antithetical to each other.

In addition, spiritual energy is not a hot spring. It’s not something that gushes out from a single point / location / source / cave / aperture, like in an onsen. So don’t go looking for these places when you are in Ise Jingu.

So, what about my personal experiences? Did I feel anything there?

The short answer is yes, but only in pockets.

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What does that mean? You must know that both shrines cover an extensive area, and there are several smaller shrines housed within each area. In other words, in those smaller shrines, where there are fewer tourists, you are more likely to feel this energy.dsc08174_blogdsc08269_blog

Perhaps, that’s why many tourists choose to visit the shrines near closing time, when the crowds throng the exits. The catch is that there are possibly hundreds of other Japanese who think the same way.My personal take when you visit Ise Jingu is not to go searching for this energy, but instead just do the normal “touristy” things – take pictures at the entrances (and try your hardest not to be “photo-bombed”), sit at one of the benches at the pavilion near the entrance of Geku (外宮) and gaze at the beautiful pond, or wander the busy shopping street just outside Naiku (内宮).And while ambling around the various shrines on the grounds, feel free to roam and explore the smaller paths when you spot one. Follow your gut, instincts, sixth sense (whatever you call it) and ‘dive’ right in. And there, you will definitely feel this energy you are looking for.

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One tip I will give you though, look for the miniature ‘shrines’ while you are there. I found myself inexplicably drawn to them when I was at either of these shrines.     LS

I’m in the midst of preparations for a major trip (about 3 months) to another part of the world in the coming year, and I’m so pumped up for this upcoming trip! Stay tuned for updates!!

P.S.: This post concludes the last of the series on Spiritual Sojourns for 2018, and while there are definitely hundreds (even thousands) of other spiritual spots that have not been featured but worth visiting in Japan, I’m going to take a short break and leave Japan for a while.

In the meantime, continue to travel and explore the world out there. Stay healthy and bubbly. Here’s wishing all you guys out there Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year in advance!!! 😁

Farewell Japan Summer Trip 2018 (Part 2) – The Last Samurai

DSC06416Himeji was an excellent way to kick-start my final sojourn around Japan before I bid farewell and head home. My next stop in Hyogo was Mount Shosha or Shoshazan (書写山). Interestingly, this mountain did not feature in Lonely Planet’s coverage of sights to see in Hyogo Prefecture.

The mountain is more prominently known as the site of the temple where a portion of the movie “The Last Samurai”, featuring Tom Cruise, was shot on location. Engyoji (円教寺) is a sprawling temple complex located on top of Mount Shosha (書写山), and supposedly dates back more than a thousand years.

DSC06412A hike up Mt. Shosha takes only about an hour. Alternatively, as with every temple, park or castle built on top of a hill or mountain, the Japanese have constructed a ropeway (or cable car) to make it easy on your legs, and even easier on their pockets.

The hike up wasn’t difficult, but in the sweltering Japanese summer heat (it was 35 degrees when I made my ascent), I was drenched in perspiration by the time I reached the 8th station.DSC06407So imagine my reaction when I was told at the shabbily built admission booth that I had to walk a further 20 minutes before I reached the main temple entrance, Nio-mon (仁王門).

Of course, you could opt for the easier option – pay another 500 yen (on top of your admission ticket) and have a mini-bus whisk you up to the foot of Maniden (摩尼殿). No pun intended!DSC06418Although Engyoji features about a dozen temples spread over the mountain top, the main ones to devote a little more time are Maniden (摩尼殿), Dai-ko-do (大講堂), Jiki-do (食堂), Kaizan-do (開山堂) and Goho-do (護法堂).

DSC06419Some of the smaller temples are built slightly off the well-trodden paths and require a foray into the woods to get there. One, in particular (Hakusan Gongen 白山権現), struck me as pretty creepy – even during the day.    LSDSC06432

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Golden Week 2018 Special Feature (Part 3) – If I Had 365 Days in Yeosu…

I would try to visit each of the 373 islands sprinkled around Yeosu (여수), Korea’s beautiful southern port city. Granted, most of these islands are uninhabited and some are just pieces of rock jutting out of the East China Sea, I may already have my work cut out. But if given the chance, I would really love to spend a year here, because Yeosu’s coastal scenery is breathtakingly gorgeous.

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Island hopping wasn’t really on my agenda on my recent visit because I only had three days there. It was also my first visit there. I had previously written about my love for Busan, but Yeosu (여수) stole my heart the first day I arrived. The entire city exudes such a relaxed vibe, so different from the crazy bustle of Seoul.

IMG_20180502_151001This vibe was perhaps best personified by the guesthouse owner, who made me feel so at home when I first checked in. I had just arrived from Suncheon (순천), wet and cold because it had been raining since morning.

With nowhere to go due to the inclement weather, I hung around the reception area, and quickly struck up a conversation with the staff (which comprises the owner and her lovely mum). She spoke little English, but with my patchy Korean, we managed to get by. One of her first questions to me was how long I intended to stay in Yeosu (여수), to which I replied “3 days”.

천천히 놀려 도돼요,” she said. (which means “You can take your time to enjoy Yeosu”).

Indeed, “천천히” (slowly) became a phrase I constantly reminded myself during my stay in Yeosu.

IMG_20180502_181656The rain eventually cleared up sometime during the evening, and I decided it’s time to explore the neighbourhood. My first stop was Yi Shun-shin Promenade, whose statue stood proudly over this coastal city. IMG_20180504_185556_1A much revered Korean admiral during the Joseon dynasty, Yi was most noted for his amazing naval tactics against the invading Japanese, in which his fleet of 13 “turtle-ships” repelled a 133-strong fleet of Japanese warships. There’s even a mock-up model of Yi’s turtle-ship,  that invites visitors to step in and experience (with life-size dioramas) how life on Yi’s ship might be like in those days as they set out to battle the Japanese.IMG_20180504_144940Yi Shun-shin Promenade was a place I would return to over the next two days, not because I had nowhere else to go but because it’s a fabulous place to wind down the day, and to truly appreciate the beauty of Yeosu. The sleepy promenade comes to life in the evening, when a long strip of red-and-white striped tents (Korea’s ubiquitous pojangmacha 포장마차) line the promenade.IMG_20180502_190604However, unlike the ones you would find in Seoul, those in Yeosu (여수) are bona fide “restaurants” in their own right, and serve mainly seafood hotplate. I joined the queue at Tent no.13, apparently a hit with the locals on Instagram. That night, despite strong gusts of wind that threatened to blow away the canvas roof at some point, I enjoyed a succulent meal, and even managed to exchange small talk with a group of locals seated at the next table.

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IMG_20180504_180729Just as prominent, the twin arched bridges that framed the promenade on either side, were places I would return over the next two days. Brilliantly lit at night, the twin arches almost formed a perfect mirror image. I probably crossed the twin bridges at least half a dozen times over the rest of my stay, examining the sights of Yeosu from different vantage points, from Dolsan Island (돌산도) to Odongdo (오동도).IMG_20180504_164309There’s also no shortage of cafes, where you could grab some excellent beans and kick back at the rooftop terrace. One of these cafes, I discovered, even doubles up as a steak restaurant. Hmmm….interesting fusion!! On my last day, after my descent from Dolsan Park (돌산공원), I just stopped by a convenience shop to grab a beer so that I could just sit outside and gaze at these beautiful bridges.

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The buses here still terrified me though, as they whizzed through heavy traffic with scant regard of road humps. For example, the bus that took me to Hyangiram Temple (향일암), a Buddhist hermitage located on the opposite end of Dolsan Island (돌산도), accomplished the journey in under 40 minutes, although according to Google, the journey would have taken 1 hour 37 minutes.IMG_20180504_103710I alighted from the bus a little shaken but I was immediately welcomed by a breath-taking view of the ocean. Perched atop a cliff, Hyangiram (향일암) is an oasis of calm. You would have to negotiate a relatively steep road, lined on both sides with restaurants and locals touting the city’s famous gat (or mustard leaf) kimchi 갓김치 before you even reach the entrance to the temple. They even offer to deliver the kimchi to your residence.

Before you begin your pilgrimage to the top, why not load up on some carbs with ganjang gejang (간장게장) – raw crabs marinated in soya sauce – a local specialty. Trust me, your bowl of rice will be gone in no time with these delicious crustaceans!!IMG_20180504_103835IMG_20180504_104015Another massive flight of stairs awaits you from the entrance to the top of the Hermitage. Fortunately, a trio of “See No Evil”, “Hear No Evil”, and “Speak No Evil” Buddha miniatures are strategically placed along the steps to offer you a brief respite, and excellent photo opportunities.IMG_20180504_105012The Hermitage is made up of a cluster of smaller temples, for which getting there is half the fun. For example, you have to pass through an extremely narrow (and dark) alley, created by nature’s forces, to get to one of the temples housing the Goddess of Mercy. Once there, you find yourself surrounded by a necklace of islands shimmering in the East China Sea.

Now if only there’s a café here as well…

천천히”      LS

IMG_20180504_114710Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊

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Spirited Away (Part 3)

DSC04240The sprawling grounds of Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera, coupled with its abundant spiritual energy, makes it a top draw among ‘power spot’ hunters. But what if you could visit a whole city and feel the same positive energy throughout the city?

Look no further than Nara (奈良), Japan’s ancient capital before Kyoto, and home to some of the oldest and most magnificent Buddhist temples in Japan. Less than an hour from either Kyoto or Osaka, Nara can easily be covered as a day trip or if you have some time to spare, spend a night or two in this peaceful spiritual enclave.

A Google search on “Attractions in Nara” will probably turn up more than a dozen results on Buddhist temples and “tourist brochure”-eating deers. In fact, so brazen are these deer that a recent article in the newspapers warned tourists against these deer and attempted to educate the same tourists how to use sign language to convince these roving (and hungry) stags that they have no more food in their hands. Remember, like us, a hungry deer can become an angry deer, no matter how cute they may be.

But we’re not here to talk about deer, are we?

Tōdai-ji, Nara

DSC04183Now, if time is of the essence, skip all other temples and head straight to Todaiji (東大寺), home to possibly the largest temple in Japan constructed entirely out of wood. It also houses a massive 15-metre tall Buddha (or the Daibutsu), the largest in Japan.

DSC04186The real ‘spiritual’ experience, however, is not only found at Todaiji (東大寺), but also in slowly exploring the vast temple grounds, which overlaps much of Nara Park (where the hungry deer freely roam). Take a leisurely stroll through the adjacent smaller temples like the Nigatsudo Hall, the Hokkedo Hall, the Kaidanin Temple, the beautiful foothills of Wakakusayama (which can be covered in a short hike). Feel your skin glow and spirits awakened in this oasis of zen.

DSC04222DSC04259On the way back to JR Nara Station, you will also pass Nara’s most celebrated Shinto shrine, the Kasuga Taisha (春日大社), with its enchanting stone lanterns. If you have a penchant for Japanese Buddhist art, pop by the Western-styled Nara National Museum. Finally, the two-hour circuit ends at Nara’s iconic symbol, the Kofukuji (興福寺), built in AD710 and its name literally translates as “the temple that generates blessings”. What a way to end off your spiritual sojourn!    LS

DSC04270Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊

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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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