The annual festival is a celebration of all things snow and ice, with giant sculptures, intricate statues, snow slides and rafting rides all washed down with steaming hot bowls of ramen and more than a glass or two of sake.
While most of the festival site is distinctly Japanese, I’m drawn to one corner that has a strong international feel to it. The International Snow Sculpture Contest has brought together nine teams of three from around the world. Each team is given a 27-cubic-metre cube of snow and, using only the most basic hand tools, has four days to create a masterpiece.
I chat with one of the organisers, Asa Takehana. She tells me the contest always attracts a lot of interest from foreign visitors; she thinks it’s great that local people get to meet team members from across the globe. One such team is from Poland: three young ladies who were invited to compete by their town after winning several snow-sculpting contests in Poland. They are the sole European representatives and are surprised to hear me shouting up to them in their native tongue as they work on their sculpture. They tell me how hard they’ve had to work, especially on the first day, when brute force was needed to knock off large chunks of ice before working on the finer details on the final days. They tell me local ladies came to them with hot soup to warm them in the bitter cold and were shocked to see them working in T-shirts, such was the exertion involved in the work. “We would rather they’d brought us ice cream!” they tell me.
There is a strong camaraderie between the teams and while they work to a rigid schedule (9am to 9pm each day), the nine teams look forward to socialising in the bars of Sapporo when the work is done. I visit regularly, not least to meet and chat with the teams inside their warm hut, and by the end the sculptures are looking truly impressive. As the judges get to work marking the creations, none of us have any idea who’s likely to win.
In keeping with tradition for any contest with a judging panel, the winner is a complete surprise. Few people gave the Korean team and their simple globe design a hope against the mighty Thailand, Malaysia and Hong Kong teams. While these are hardly the most obvious candidates for supremacy in the world of snow sculpting, they had been hotly tipped to make up the top three with their elaborate artworks, with the Polish ladies considered commendable outsiders. But nobody appears to mind, with each team member I spoke to telling of their pride at having played their part in creating an international art gallery, and in the process making a new group of friends from around the world.
While the International Snow Sculpture Contest is only a small part of the overall event, it provides the only opportunity to see how these works of art are formed, as the others are completed before the visitors come to town. And with so many welcoming faces working on the sculptures, it also provides, as I discovered, a great opportunity to get involved in the spirit of the festival, which is reassuringly warm despite the bitter temperatures.