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Saturday, Feb. 24, 2007

JAPAN LITE

Young ice crystals on their best behavior


What do you think Hokkaido people do in the wintertime for entertainment? Being such a cold place, you'd think they'd specialize in trips to Tahiti. But no, all over Hokkaido during the coldest months of the year they hold snow and ice festivals.

News photo
LAVA LAMP wannabes make an appearance at the Chitose-Shikotsu Ice Festival. AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

The most famous is the Sapporo Snow Festival with over 2 million visitors during the one week festival.

Ironically, Sapporo's population is only 1.7 million. I wonder if they just ask everyone to walk out their doors in order to make sure the festival is a success.

But there are plenty of other winter festivals in Japan, among them the Chitose-Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival, held on the banks of Lake Shikotsu outside of Sapporo.

The Sapporo festival is a yuki matsuri or snow festival whereas the Shikotsu festival is a hyoto matsuri or ice festival. Rather than cleanly chiseled out ice sculptures such as the ones you see in Sapporo, carved out by international snow sculpture teams, the ice festival featured semi-sculptured snow blobs and monoliths with colored lights behind them.

While this community of snow blobs was interesting, there was something unrefined, and unfinished about it. Something that made you think the architect might also be responsible for the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

But at the Chitose-Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival, the sculptures were not meant to be admired, judged and awarded prizes, which is a good thing since I have never heard of the Grand Snow Blob Prize. And imagine how awful you'd feel if your snow blob got a mere honorable mention. No, this ice festival is all about forming ice while it is still young, before it becomes something menacing such as black ice on the road, and taming it -- ice crystals on their best behavior. This is ice with a purpose.

How exactly do they tame the ice? They start designing the ice festival in November, when they build metal frames to make the structures such as the ice buildings. As soon as the temperature drops below freezing, a sprinkler system takes water from Lake Shikotsu and sprays it over the metal frames, creating layers and layers of new ice.

The result is shimmering ice structures that glow in the colored lights at night creating a fairy-tale atmosphere.

The purpose of this festival is to create a fantasy playground from ice. Many of the ice blobs were made with the intention to be climbed upon, slid down, or posed upon.

There were ice houses you could walk into, giant ice slides for children to zoom down on their bellies, and colored ice blobs to wander among that gave you the eerie feeling that, at any moment, they might come to life as lava lamps. This, I thought, is what Eskimo shop class must be all about.

Walking among the Rorschach of ice sculptures lining both sides of the walkway it was really, really cold, like walking inside a glass of whiskey and water. One woman thought it cold enough to wear a mink coat, but I thought that was fruitless -- she ought to be wearing a few Huskies.

For the last part of the evening, after the obligatory fireworks display over Lake Shikotsu, the ice festival offered something I had never seen or heard before -- an ice concert! Leave it to the Japanese to import musicians from Norway to play instruments made of ice. And if you've never heard ice make music, you really should try to get an earful sometime. It seems that ice and whales have a lot in common.



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