Travel: Hokkaido (Maruyama Zoo)

I’ve already written about The Snow Festival in Hokkaido, but while I was there I also did some non-snow related activities. I really wanted to go to the zoo while in Hokkaido because I figured they would have more animals used to colder climates than I tend to see elsewhere. The most famous zoo in Hokkaido, Asahiyama, is originally where I had intended to go but it is…really far out from Sapporo and I had not time to go there. However, much closer to where I was staying was Maruyama Zoo. Once me and my friend arrived it even felt like fate because during the Snow Festival, entrance to the zoo was free! The reason behind this became really obvious once we got inside; there were very few people at the zoo that day.

Probably a mistake on my part but the first section we went to was for the tropical animals and since it was so snowy at this time of year they were all kept inside and it smelt pretty bad too. To be honest it was all just very depressing to me and I got out of that section of the zoo as quickly as possible. I was really worried the whole zoo would have similar facilities but luckily as we walked through it seemed to get more updated as we went.

Two not so chipper hyenas

Hyenas in the first section I visited

Unsurprisingly some of the most active animals were the deer, wolves and bears. Me and my friend actually spent a lot of time in this section because the zoo keepers and volunteers were telling us all about the animals which was fascinating and the wolves especially were so playful it was just fun to watch them.

My phone photography leaves much to be desired but the wolves were quite majestic

My phone photography leaves much to be desired but the wolves were quite majestic

However, me and my friend both had other animals we also really wanted to see. She is obsessed with otters and I wanted to see the lesser pandas because the zoo had an updated section for them (and had pictures of them all over their promotional materials). The “wakuwaku Asia” section where both these animals can be found (along with monkeys and sun bears and more) was clearly the newest part of the zoo, along with the most popular. All the animals seemed really happy and there were lots of places to sit and watch the animals to frolic.

A lesser panda on the walkway over my head

A lesser panda on the walkway over my head

I could totally understand why the lesser pandas were pictured all over the zoo. Their section was so much fun, not just children but adults too. There were several different sections, indoor and outdoor, that were connected by an overhead walkway. I didn’t even notice the walkway until one of the pandas climbed up and began running up and down over our heads. After several failed attempts to take a selfie with him (lesser pandas don’t pose for photos go figure) I just made do with watching and taking any snaps I could. They even had a small climbing wall for children in the corridor alongside so they could be on eye level with the lesser pandas and a huge chalkboard to draw on too. The newer sections of the zoo seemed incredibly family friendly.

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On the other side of this window children could climb up to peek at the pandas

All in all, the trip to the zoo was a nice change of pace. Of course there were some snow related activities there too (like snowman building) but it was easy to focus on all the animals instead. I’ve always found zoos in Japan to have a much more reasonable entrance costs than in the UK and to be able to go to Maruyama zoo for free was great. At some point it would be nice to go to Asahiyama zoo too and see it’s famed ‘penguin walk’ but Maruyama was much more conveniently located for this trip.

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Travel: Hokkaido (Snow Festival)

One of the 4 biggest festivals in Japan is the Snow Festival held in Sapporo, Hokkaido. This year it was held from Feb 5-11 and I finally got to go. The festival celebrates winter and hosts some of the most amazing snow and ice sculptures, plus some wonderful activities for children and adults. There are three main locations:  Odori, Susukino and Tsudome with other areas around Sapporo also having their own events too, so pretty much anywhere you travel you can enjoy the snow and festival atmosphere! Be prepared to book well in advance because the festival is very popular so hotels and flights sell out quickly.

My favourite of the locally made sculptures. Of course I would love the Moomin one!

My favourite of the locally made sculptures. Of course I would love the Moomin one!

I arrived late on the 6th and there were huge tour groups arriving with each plane.  On the 7th, I went to look around with my friend which was probably one of the busiest days.  Early on in the day we went to the Tsudome area which hosted most of the locally made statues and also loads of fun activities for children. There were ice slide,zips wires, a snow maze. Serious fun for the little ones but some quite long queues too.

The huge Star Wars snow sculpture in Odori

The huge Star Wars snow sculpture in Odori

After that we took the shuttle bus to central Sapporo. Me and my friend got lunch quickly and then headed to what I consider the main part of the festival, the Odori area. There were 12 blocks just packed full of different snow related activities and displays that you could easily spend the whole day there.My favourite big snow sculpture was definitely the Star Wars one, made to advertise the new movie, which was just epid! This year especially a lot of the sculptures incorporated projection mapping so it was best to see these after dark and watch some already breathtaking sculptures turn into dynamic entertainment.  I really enjoyed the Candy Crush Soda section but I think it didn’t make much sense to people that hadn’t ever tried the game.

An ice sculpture in Odori

An ice sculpture in Odori

Before ending the very long day me and my friend took a detour through Susukino to look at the ice sculptures. This was pretty lucky because it started to rain not long after and most of them got ruined. The downside of perishable art work I guess. I honestly preferred the ice-sculptures in Odori but the ones in Susukino were still interesting and were good advertising for the local area.

A performance on the Ice stage in Odori

A performance on the Ice stage in Odori

If you ever get the chance I seriously recommend this festival. It’s not as cold as people will warn you and you can see some of the most breathtaking ice and snow art in the world.

Christmas in Kobe

At the moment I’m living in Kansai and I realised even though there are a million blog posts on the internet about events in Tokyo there are less for places outside of the Kanto area and even less for the smaller cities. Kobe is the prefectural capital of Japan’s largest prefecture, Hyogo. It’s nowhere near as big as Tokyo and has less going on than Osaka but is very interesting all the same.

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Obviously in mid-December Japan is all geared up for Christmas.  All over Japan you will be able to find illuminations (Christmas lights) and some of these displays are really beautiful, if a little crowded. I’ve always found it a little odd that Japan does so much in the lead up for Christmas when it’s not really celebrated as much more than a secondary Valentines Day but that doesn’t stop me enjoying all the pretty.

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Every year Kobe has illuminations at an event called Luminarie (ルミナリエ). It started in December 1995 to both commemorate those that lost their lives int he Great Hanshin Earthquake and also to help with the restoration of the city. It’s happened every year since then around mid-December too and is well worth a visit in my opinion. There are over 200,000 individually hand painted lights and they are lit with electricity generated from biomass energy. These illuminations have a lot more meaning to them than most displays and are environmentally friendly too!

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This years illuminations are from December 4th-15th so there isn’t much longer. It gets very busy but it’s really well organized so it doesn’t feel like you’re in a big crowd of people, but rather being led around so you have time to enjoy the whole thing and take decent photos.

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Hyogo tourism guide page (ENG)
Kobe Luminarie official webpage (JPN)

Of course there are loads of other cool illuminations to see if you are in Japan around winter time. If you are in Tokyo I recommend going to Ginza or Shinjuku after dark to see it lit up. This year, Tokyo Sky Tree has some really cool projection mapping for Christmas too so if you have a chance I recommend taking a look at that too.