Warm Wine and Glow-Stick Colored Sleet:
The romance of Towada Lake's Valentine Snow Festival
Every day for the past month I'd noticed the tantalizing JR railway trip adverts pasted all over our local train station advertising Snow Festivals all over Japan. I saw the magnificent and monumental snow sculptures of Hokkaido, the fire heated pots of nabe (Japanese stew) surrounded by enticing grilled rice sticks (Tanpo), the famous naked green maidens of Towada lake surrounded by lanterns made of snow. Day after day I saw these images and found myself longing to see them in person. I brought up the idea to Justin, and he was receptive, but then we had to decide where and when we wanted to go. We browsed the racks of advertising brochures set up outside the train station tourist office late one night after work, and brought them to our local Chinese restaurant to read through them. Hokkaido was enticing, and would offer our first opportunity to get off the island, but soon I realized that the Sapporo snow festival was in the center of the city, surrounded by tall, cold office buildings and glass covered hotels. The enormous snow sculptures looked impressive but chilly. I imagined walking in the frigid night air, looking up at the giant eagles and anime characters, and wondered what we would do when we were done viewing them. Dart into a nearby warm Starbucks? It didn't seem like the fantastic natural snow getaway I'd envisioned.
I soon realized that many of the brochures were directed towards our beloved Tohoku area, and centered around Lake Towada and their famous statues surrounded by snow lanterns. There seemed to be large expanses of snow and frolicking children on toboggans, with the odd friendly snow sculpture thrown in. There were also promises of a warm wine bar in a snow hut- manned by a lovely, beaming Japanese woman holding out a steaming glass of wine. Here and there were hints of ponies, and a snow castle, musical performances, and a nightly fireworks display. That all sounded good to me! We were feeling a little pressed for money, because we'd just purchased tickets for a spring break trip to Hawaii. But, our time here in Japan was starting to tick-tock away like a giant countdown bomb, ready to go off and deposit us back on the banks of America.
The thought of lost opportunities haunted us… and later that week we found ourselves knocking at the door of a travel agent in Chiba City. We walked through the glass entrance, and went down the narrow steps to the basement for "inside country" travel. I took a number and we wandered towards a wall of brochures, only to find that our number was being called. We scurried over to the travel agent. She must have been dismayed to see an American couple deposited at her desk like two lost puppies, but she hid her feelings reasonably well, and waited for our question. "We'd like to go to a snow festival," we said, inelegantly. "I see," she said. "Sapporo?" she asked, expecting our interest to lie in the internationally popular festival in Hokkaido. "No, in Tohoku," we said. "Akita," Justin added helpfully. She hid her surprise, and after ascertaining our desired dates, began leafing through the large brochure binders that is the mainstay of the tourist industry in Japan. She showed us pack tour packages with a variety of hotel, meal, and transportation options. The prices caused us to blanch slightly and repeatedly ask, "anything cheaper? the most cheap option?" like dizzy parrots. She nodded sympathetically, and made noises about how our desired weekend was a terribly expensive time to travel. We nodded agreeably, but since we have to work during the week with the rest of Japan, there wasn't much to be done. We batted around potential itineraries like badminton birdies, playing with dates and times until I wasn't sure how much anything cost. We noticed something rather depressing around this time- the bus from the train station to our hotel only came once a day, and we would only have one brief evening at the snow festival, followed by an equally brief morning experience, before we'd have to go back to catch our train back to Tokyo. We thought about how much it would cost and just couldn't justify it. We exchanged glances.
"Well, is there anywhere else you would recommend? With snow, or without? Maybe with onsen?" we asked pathetically. Hmmm, said our travel agent, "With snow?" "Sure," we said. She showed us some options in other areas, but they were about the same price. "I think the snow festival would probably be more fun," she said gently, once we established the equivalent price. I morosely agreed. "Well, how about without snow?" we pried hopefully. "Mmmm, the plum trees are blooming in Izu…" said our travel agent. Justin and I looked at each other. Spring in Izu instead of snow in Akita? Well… We found out the prices of our spring events and just didn't know what to do. It wasn't cheaper, and somehow our heart just wasn't in it. 'Wait, I said, What if we rented a car in Tohoku?' "What, and drove?" Justin asked. "Yes, instead of waiting around for the bus," I cried hopefully. "Maybe," he said. We looked at the agent, who was watching us questioningly. "What if we rented a car?" we asked. "In Izu?" she asked, puzzled. "No, for the Snow Festival!" "Ahhhhhhhhh…" she said, and rustled through some papers. About half an hour later (and forty-five minutes past closing time) we had purchased a set of pack tour tickets. Our plan was to take the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Hachinohe (a city within driving distance of Towada), spend a night in an inexpensive business hotel, and then pick up a rental car the next morning. We'd drive to Towada and check into a hotel with lovely onsen(hot spring) pools, where we would be fed dinner and breakfast. We'd hang out at the snow festival all day and the next morning, and then drive back to Hachinohe. Our shinkansen would leave around 6pm on Sunday night, and we'd be in Tokyo again by 10. It was a plan! It was also about twice the amount of money we'd anticipated spending when we merrily left our house, but we had a glorious Valentine's Day plan! Japan in general seems to be about twice the price we would have expected in comparison to the American economic model- for everything from movies, to travel, to groceries. The idea seems to be, if it's worth doing, it will cost you an arm and a leg. Otherwise you can buy it at the 100 yen store.
I was beside myself with excitement. I saw the posters at the train station in a new light for the rest of the week. I pictured myself in the posters, accepting a warm glass of mulled wine, pulling up a simmering pot of nabe, throwing snowballs and snowshoeing in the hills. I came down with a cold, inconveniently, so I drank raspberry pouches of vitamin C "Emergen-c" until I was almost vomiting good health. I begged off of an English Teacher's evening enkai because I needed to rest up and get up my strength for the weekend, though I felt mildly guilty about it. After all, these social invitations don't come along very often and I had been specially invited. My disappointment faded quickly when that same day I was informed of a first year teacher's weekend getaway, and invited to that in March. I was given an An-ket-o (a questionnaire) about my traveling preferences- Izu? Chiba? A mountain onsen area?... I filled it out and gave it back to the party planner, feeling warmed by their invitation. Had I finally cracked the code and become a member of the group, albeit a somewhat weird and illiterate one?
Official web site for the Snow and Light Fantavista Festival