It was a dark and stormy night

By Lawrence and Kathleen Charters
Kenko Shimbun, February 1984, pp. 6-7

Winter in Japan is a time for new experiences. Ever wonder how long it takes to thaw toothpaste in a microwave oven? Now you have the opportunity – and need – to find out. Inviting guests over for a party? Be sure and put the Coke in the refrigerator to keep it from freezing. And did you ever think you’d want a heavy-duty, industrial strength electric blanket?

What the well-dressed ICU nurse and tree wear to the Sapporo Snow Festival.
What the well-dressed ICU nurse and tree wear to the Sapporo Snow Festival (the ICU nurse is the one on the left.) (Image scanned from newspaper.)

After a time the pleasure of these simple concerns may fade, and you might wish to look for a new challenge: the Sapporo Snow Festival. Next year, after you’ve bored all your friends with horror tales of Survival Without Central Heating, be brave and go someplace home when you can pay for the privilege of freezing somewhere else?

This year’s Snow Festival, the 35th, was held February 1 through 5, and attracted nearly two million visitors from around the world . The festival dates back to 1950 when some Sapporo citizens got together to think of something to do during the long winter months. Microwave ovens hadn’t been invented yet, so you couldn’t sit back and watch your toothpaste defrost. Someone looked around and asked, “Why don’t we do something with all this snow?’ “Like what?” “I don’t know. Maybe we can build something?” And build they did.

As the official festival building material (the Navy might call it FBM), snow is used by over a hundred Japanese companies, government agencies, and private groups to build spectacular sculptures. Several international teams, including some from such unlikely spots as the Philippines and Hong Kong, used snow to construct works reflecting in some way the culture of the team’s native country. The American team, formed from a bunch of Yokota Air Force personnel (Air Force life is sooo demanding –) created an amazing sculpture, almost twice life-size, of a quarterback being sacked. The finished product probably weighed a couple tons, yet appeared suspended in air, with only the tackler’s right knee touching the ground.

Shuri Palace, Okinawa, recreated in snow.
A two-thirds scale version of Okinawa’s Shuri Palace was built entirely of snow by the Japan Ground Self Defense Force. (Image scanned from newspaper.)

These, obviously, are not ordinary snowmen, but pale in comparison with the Festival’s chief claim to fame: giant sculptures. The Japan Ground Self Defense Forces (JGSDF) created a huge, highly detailed replica of Buckingham Palace, complete with a 40 foot high copy of the Victoria Monument – all of snow. A stage in front of the palace, also made of snow, was used for taiko (drum) performances, fashion shows, and several musical variety TV programs. Another work, also by the JGSDF, was of the old courthouse in Sapporo’s sister city of Portland, Oregon. Fifty feet high and over a hundred wide, it required 6,400 metric tons of snow, and included a stage used by a 50 piece band.

Prince Izanagi at Sapporo Snow Festival.
Prince Izanagi, one of the gods who founded Japan according to folk legend. His club is as long as two buses. (Image scanned from newspaper.)

Since 1984 is the Year of the Rat, mice (particularly Mickey) were very popular, as were penguins, figures from Japanese myth and legend, and Japanese cartoon characters. Eagle Sam, the mascot for the forthcoming 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, was very popular, and one version, by the JGSDF, towered over 50 feet high , and featured two long ice slides for children and brave adults. Our favorite, though, was a two-thirds-size replica of Okinawa’s Shuri palace. The palace (destroyed in World War II) combined elements of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean architecture, and all these elements – including the intricate carvings above the palace entrance – were reproduced in beautiful white snow.

Ice carvings at Sapporo Snow Festival
A street lined with ice carvings at Sapporo Snow Festival. (Image scanned from newspaper.)

Over a hundred ice carvings were also displayed . Most featured mythical or literary themes, but there was also a delicate, fragile Golden Gate bridge scene, two huge monsters fighting over an icy Manhattan, and a massive replica of the Taj Mahal. The most interesting ice sculpture was a full size, functional Shinto shrine, visited daily by thousands of worshipers.

Taking pictures of ephemeral art isn’t easy. Snow sculptures are basically white on white, and a transparent ice carving isn’t a great subject, either. Festival building material was constantly falling (some might say it was a blizzard), and the extreme cold caused our camera’s shutter to freeze a couple times. We thought it might be nice to go out and see the sculptures in the evening (many are lighted) and discovered nighttime snow storms are much like the daytime versions – only colder.

We really didn’t mind the cold, though, since snow sculpture is a bit difficult when it’s warm. And after you’ve seen the sculptures, there is always the city of Sapporo, itself, to explore, with its modern buildings, wide streets, and outstanding subway. Also, in Hokkaido they do believe in central heating .

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