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The first week in February brought our much anticipated trip to the Sapporo Snow Festival. Sapporo was the location of the 1972 Winter Olympics, the first winter Olympics to be held outside of North America and Europe. Sapporo is located on the island of Hokkaido, the northernmost of the main islands of Japan.

We arrived on Hokkaido at the Chitose airport at about 8:30 a.m. Stepping off the plane onto the jetway reminded me why the Winter Olympics had been held there…BRRRR! The day before, we were enjoying a balmy 68 degrees at home. We boarded a bus with snow falling and snow piled up about a foot high along the road (which at the time, I thought was impressive). Our first stop on our 3-day adventure was the Shiraoi Ainu Museum (Porotokotan) an outdoor museum depicting a village that stood on the shores of Lake Poroto. The Ainu people were hunter-gatherers and most of the Ainu people still live in the same region as their ancestors.

Hubby and I made our way gingerly through the snow-covered ice in the parking lot, across a small road to the village entrance. As we entered, we couldn’t help notice the beautiful setting. The mountains serving as a backdrop for the glistening ice-skater-laden lake and the thatched roof buildings. We were soon met with a huge statue, approximately 30 feet tall of what looked like a chief or leader of some sort, but this sign was in Japanese. We looked at the Ainu dogs (I think the breed is officially called Hokkaido) which are believed to be one of the oldest breeds in existence. And although they are characterized by their ability to withstand the cold, I wanted take them inside somewhere and find a warm fireplace for them to enjoy! Also on display were a few huge bears – brown? black? – not sure, because we were quickly alerted that there was a performance going on in the largest of the 5 thatched roof “homes” in the park. Taking small steps, leaning forward and “walking like a penguin” (which became our mantra for the entire trip) we slowly made our way to the correct building.

The performance was very interesting consisting of several separate presentations where the performers dressed in native costume of coat-like garments. The first performance was a male dancer where the “music” was provided by four women clapping and chanting in unison. Two female Ainu performed separately on two different stringed instruments, the tonkori (a 5 stringed instrument that resembles the neck part of a guitar) and the mukkuri which was really intriguing and seemed to be some kind of mouth harp which is played by a combination of mouth and sharp hand movements (any clarification of this would be greatly appreciated!). A lullaby was sung to a baby (doll) which was lying on a square platform suspended with rope by the four corners, which came together to form one rope hanging from one of the supporting structural beams. Men and women joined for a finale, performing a circular dance while chanting and clapping.
With the snow continuing to fall in big fluffy flakes, we walked around viewing the scenery and different structures, from “homes” to “resting places” to a small covered shed which displayed two large wooden hand-made canoes. Our time was all-too-soon gone and we were herded back on the tour bus to our next stop, the sea-side city of Otaru.