Ice castles and ale

Stephen Phelan braves the elements at Sapporo's Snow Festival before seeking shelter and a glass of beer.

Landing on Hokkaido in mid-winter is a highly provisional business. As our plane descends from blue to white above the coldest and emptiest of Japan's main islands, the pilot says he might yet have to divert as far south as Tokyo. When he somehow finds the runway at New Chitose Airport, it looks and feels like touching down inside a snow cloud.

The same whiteness fills the windows of the train into Sapporo, whose citizens appear to live underground in a complex of heated passageways, malls and subterranean transit systems.

At street level, the foothpaths and roads form a grid of ice embedded in a snowfield, which illustrates the way this city was made to order. Designated a new northern administrative outpost by the restored Meiji Empire in 1868, it had been a settlement of fewer than 10 people only a decade earlier. The city's population has grown to more than 1.9 million, with thousands of tourists blowing in for the annual Sapporo Snow Festival in February, making a virtue of the fact the city receives more snow than any other metropolis on Earth - more than six metres every year.

During the festival, the Susukino entertainment district becomes an outdoor gallery of ice sculptures. Popular cartoon characters, dinosaurs and mythological creatures line the main thoroughfares, teeth and claws sharpened to glistening points. Odori Park, meanwhile, becomes an avenue of vast architectural models - Korean temples, German cathedrals, detailed large-scale replicas of world-famous monuments - all shaped and carved from solid blocks of snow by soldiers of Japan's Self-Defence Forces, for whom this event has been a training exercise since the 1950s. Training for what, we wonder, as they touch up the corners with chainsaws, civil engineering in the next Ice Age?

It is easy, even pleasant, to stroll though all of this in blizzard conditions, stopping on one corner for hot cherry beer, the next for a bowl of Hokkaido miso noodles and again at the end of the park for a smoking Indian curry, served by two south Asian vendors. I ask them how they like this climate. ''Ummm,'' says one of them, politely. ''We are looking forward to summer.'' I find it difficult to believe that Sapporo even exists in July, as if the buildings themselves are made of snow. (Like most modern Japanese cities, Sapporo's buildings are largely built of ugly concrete.)

Inside one of these buildings, looking out from the windows of a top-floor bar called Electric Sheep, it's easy to imagine that the skyline is composed of compacted crystals, in the same way that glass is really melted sand. This thought is perhaps prompted by the work of Philip K. Dick, whose mind-bending fiction inspired the name of this place and its Blade Runner-style interior of retro-futuristic lights and colours.

Sipping cocktails from glasses that glow red, blue and green, we watch a fresh white-out move left to right across the cityscape, dimming the bright neon and gently erasing the view.

Japan, in general, does not have much of a pub culture but the hostile climate of Sapporo lends its drinking establishments a compensating warmth and cosiness, especially at Mugishutei, a wooden refuge in a basement just off the main drag of Susukino. Founded in the late 1970s by a heavily bearded American named Phred Kaufman, this has since become one of the best-stocked beer cellars on the planet, stacked to the rafters with vintage cans and serving a long list of rare and obscure international labels, all tasted and selected by Kaufman. He also imports his own brand of Ezo ales from the Rogue micro-brewery in Oregon - Ezo is the old native Ainu name for Hokkaido.

Over a pint of Imperial Chocolate Stout, Kaufman outlines his personal philosophy, a concoction of Vietnam-era hippy pacifism and modern anti-corporate disgust, which posits brewing as an allegorical struggle between the best and worst tendencies of humankind. To hear Kaufman tell it, almost all the best-known brand-name beers are bottled greed, mediocrity and evil.


He does not make an exception of the major Japanese labels but Sapporo is among the more tolerable of these. The beer takes its name from this city and opens a nearby beer museum to visitors for tours and tastings. If I hadn't tried Rogue's Hazelnut Brown Ale with Kaufman the night before, I would probably be more than satisfied with the three samples offered at the Sapporo museum. They don't taste evil to me, so much as clean and functional.

Sapporo's other popular industrial delicacy is the white biscuits manufactured at the Ishiya Chocolate Factory, which is also open to tourists. It's an odd compound of theme park, museum and working assembly line, walking visitors through a colonial history of cocoa and a gallery of antique chocolate spoons and cups, before depositing them outside in a wintry miniature village.

For such an artificial environment within a relatively new and synthetic city, this silly little place evokes a strange pathos, with its tiny streets and twinkling tree-lights and dinky European-style houses half-buried in the snow like false but persistent memories. (I'm thinking again of Philip K. Dick.) Watching Japanese children struggle in and out of the doorways, so heavily swaddled in weatherproof suits that they can't even toddle effectively, I begin to feel powerfully nostalgic, just as a snowball explodes on my nose.

Even at the moment of impact, I can tell this is the finest snowball that has ever struck me, the ideal sphere of powder and moisture, detonating in a stinging puff of frozen sparks and glitter.

Gathering its remains to return fire, I could almost cry for the way this pure fresh snow feels right in the glove and true as it leaves the hand, tracing a near-celestial arc to catch my friend, Daniel, beside his left eye and blind him momentarily with wonderful shrapnel. What grace. What form. What joy.

An Australian might search the world and wait a lifetime to find such perfect snow to throw but apparently it grows quite naturally on the streets of Sapporo.


Getting there

Korean Air has a fare to Sapporo for about $1180 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax. You fly non-stop to Seoul (10hr 35min from Sydney, 11hr 10min from Melbourne), then to Chitose airport in Sapporo (2hr 30min). A night is required in Seoul on the way there, which the airline pays for.

Touring there

This year's Sapporo Snow Festival is from February 7-13; see

The Electric Sheep bar, inspired by the retro-futuristic designs for Blade Runner and its source novel by Philip K. Dick, has affordable ''nomihodai'' deals - all you can eat and drink for two hours - for ¥2000 ($24). Open 6pm-6am. On the ninth floor of the Watanabe Building, Minami 4, Nishi 2 Chuo-ku.

Beer Inn Mugishutei, besides offering the largest selection of beers in the Orient, also serves the best burgers in Japan, according to owner Phred Kaufman. Few would care to doubt him and his bar is a beautiful haven from Sapporo's constant winter blizzards. Open 7pm-3am. Onda Building B1, South 9 West 5.

Ishiya Chocolate Factory is a strange tourist attraction but probably a must for fans of this confection, who can trace its history here through the years to the factory's own working assembly line. Admission costs ¥600 for adults, ¥200 for children. Open 9am-6pm. At 2-2-11-63 Miyanosawa, Nishi-ku. See

Sapporo Beer Museum is another good example of the Japanese knack for developing products to match and sometimes exceed European equivalents. The beers included in the ¥1000 tour and tasting package are as good as anything on draft in countries with a much longer brewing tradition and the tour itself is a fun and rewarding way to get out of the snow for a couple of hours. Open 9am-6pm, at 9-1-1 Kita 7-jo Higashi, Higashi-ku; see (Japanese only).