Skiing, snowboarding and speed skating will likely be the highlights in Sochi this month, but in Sobetso, Japan, a different sport is taking the spotlight.
Yukigassen, which literally means “snow battle”, elevates snowball fighting to a professional sport every February when more than 100 teams compete to become world champions of the Showa-Shinzan International Yukigassen. Described as a cross between capture the flag and dodgeball, Yukigassen pits two teams of seven players against each other on a snow-covered field, as players lob snowballs in hopes of hitting the opposition and tagging them out.
The snowballs are far from the hand-cupped backyard variety; in fact, a specialised snowball-making machine produces the ammunition at a standard size (6.5cm to 7cm in diameter). Each team receives 90 snowballs for the three-minute match, and win either by tagging the entire other team out, or by capturing the other team’s flag on the opposite site of the rectangular field. The team that wins two out of three matches advances in the tournament.
The location of the world championship is as interesting as the game itself. Located on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost major island, the field is built annually at the foot of Mt Shōwa-Shinzan, a 398m-tall volcanic dome that rose up out of the ground after a series of earthquakes in 1944. Today the peak still vents smoke, but it has not erupted since its initial formation.
The Yukigassen tournament was created in 1989 as a way to draw tourists to the region in the cooler months, and has been such a success that the sport has grown outside Japan, with countries such as Canada, Finland, Australia and the United States hosting their own competitions throughout their winters. Winners from other countries can earn themselves an automatic spot among the more than 100 teams expected to compete in this year's world championship, which will be held 22 and 23 February. Players in countries that do not currently have a competition can apply for a select few wild card slots.
Even visitors that do not make the cut can watch the snowballs being made in-between matches or enjoy the nearby snow park festival area, stocked with food and hot drinks to warm hands after any non-sanctioned snowball throws.