When someone mentions either snow or ice in Asia, only two big winter festivals come to mind: Harbin and Sapporo. There is another one in China. There should be. Besides, Harbin is not their northernmost city. But when it comes to popularity and tourist attendance, no other festival can touch either of these two for the winter season. Which one you should visit is up to you. As for me, having visited both, I can say that I do have my biases. So perhaps a comparative look would benefit those planning to go soon?
First stop, let’s check the dates. Both festivals are held at the start of the new calendar year. Harbin’s Ice and Snow Festival usually begins in the first week of January. Japan’s Sapporo Snow Festival follows suit a month later, in the first week of February. You can actually visit the two festivals during the same winter, with side trips to different cities in between. In terms of accessibility, Sapporo has more connections to the outside world via international flights, while Harbin mostly requires a domestic transfer.
Coming from the Southeast, Air Asia X is the only low cost airline that can fly you to Hokkaido for cheap, if you book it way in advance. Even if you don’t, it will still come off as significantly cheaper than flying with a legacy airline, although I really don’t know any other airline in Southeast Asia that flies direct to Shin-Chitose. Another option is to fly with an LCC to either Osaka or Tokyo. From there, you can book a flight on Peach that will not cost an arm and a leg.
For Harbin, I went by train, but that was a multi-city itinerary exploring the Chinese northeast. I suppose domestic flights from Beijing are also easy to book. Make sure that your travel dates are correct if you are planning to see the ice and snow sculptures. The displays are not there all winter. You must understand that they have to pick the coldest time of the season to make sure that those sculptures won’t melt away, given how the setting is outdoors. This brings us to our next topic: the weather.
Of course, it’s cold! On the contrary, Sapporo is not as frigid as Harbin. I experienced -25C in Harbin, and it wasn’t fun. I had a cold by default, and the mucus would freeze even before it reached my nostrils. Hot chocolate was the comfort drink, except that it immediately became warm in a minute or two. Daytime in Sapporo is mainly single digit above zero. It dips to negative at night, but never reaches double digits. I was wearing eight layers when I was in Harbin. Here in Hokkaido, I’m already warm with four. All heat tech, though.
In terms of venue, Sapporo’s Odori Park plays host to its snow festival, while the ice sculptures can be found in a street at Susukino. Both venues are open to the public and very central, which can be a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because you don’t have to pay anything to enjoy those works of art. You can also easily reach them via public transportation. The bad thing is that being public and free, everyone’s there. There’s no sense of exclusivity to it, which can be an issue for some people.
Harbin’s Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival requires an admission ticket. I can’t speak for the snow sculptures because I only visited the colorful ice ones. The venue for that one was not that accessible. I remember riding a bus and having to walk a kilometer or so before reaching the complex. The layout resembled that of a theme park, which meant less cramped spaces because there were many distractions to choose from, as opposed to Odori which is basically just several blocks of parks open to the public.
As for architectural gems, Harbin is what you’d get if Russia and China had a lovechild. If you want to know what Russia feels like, Harbin can give you a clear idea based on the colonial buildings that have been preserved there. Sapporo does not really have anything aside from the former Hokkaido government office. Nicknamed the “Red Brick”, its construction in the late 1800’s was inspired by the prevalent architectural styles in the US during that time. And then there’s the TV tower and the clock tower nearby.
Many people have warned me about the shortage of accommodations in Sapporo this time of the year. This is mostly true for hotels and traditional lodgings, but I was able to get a relatively cheaper room on Airbnb a few weeks before I arrived. Explore your options a few weeks prior to your trip just to be sure. The airport is connected to the city center and the JR train station via bus. Sufficient air connections to Narita and Kansai are also available. Make sure you come prepared for the winter clime.
My Airbnb host highly recommends Otaru, which is around an hour away by JR train. I’ve seen some photos and they look stunning. Unfortunately, my schedule is rather jampacked, and I just came here for the snow and ice sculptures, to be honest. The Hokkaido region has a lot more to offer, so if you have time, do go around to make the most out of your trip. As for me, a few days of winter is enough. So far I can say that both Harbin and Sapporo are worth the cold torture. I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy it too.