SAPPORO (Japan) • Every year, tens of thousands of tourists flock to the snow festival in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo, attracted by some 200 large, intricate ice sculptures.
But this year, there is a problem: no snow.
With high temperatures that festivalgoers put down to climate change, organisers were forced to truck in powder from distant towns for their signature sculptures in an unheard-of ice crisis.
“This lack of snow is unprecedented,” said Mr Yumato Sato, an official in charge of organising the snow festival, which normally uses 30,000 tonnes of snow for sculptures ranging from anime characters to famous racehorses.
He said the festival “had to bring in snow from places we had never reached out to before”, such as Niseko, a town about 60km away from Sapporo, which is famous for its skiing.
Adding to the problem was the need for pristine snow for sculpting.
“The snow needs to be free of dirt, otherwise the sculptures can break up,” he said. “We barely managed to scrape together enough snow.”
Record low snowfall in Japan this year has forced ski resorts to shut their pistes. According to Weathernews, one quarter of the 400 resorts surveyed were unable to operate.
There has been a knock-on effect on one of the festival’s main attractions – a 100m-long, 10m-high slide – that had to be reduced in size.
IMPACT OF GLOBAL WARMING
Snowfall in Sapporo has been less than half the annual average, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency’s local observatory.
High temperatures melted the snow in mid-December and the mercury is expected to stay above average.
This posed a major challenge for the 125 local Self-Defence Forces troops who painstakingly construct sculptures each year that can be as high as 15m, according to commanding officer Colonel Minoru Suzuki.
“Due to record warm weather this year, we didn’t have much snow and the snow contained more water, which made the statues melt easily,” he said.
His troops spent about 100 days last year planning and building a 15m-tall, 20m-wide statue modelled on the palace at Lazienki Park in Warsaw to commemorate the 100th anniversary of JapanesePolish diplomatic relations.
Added Colonel Suzuki: “We had to keep repairing the statue, so we struggled. It was difficult to attach parts because it was so warm.”
The festival has been running for 70 years and is a tourist magnet, drawing 2.7 million visitors last year.
Mr Sunao Kinoshita, a 75-year-old who had travelled up from near Osaka for the event, said he “had to see it once before I die”.
“Northern Japanese cities have been hosting snow festivals every year,” he said, adding that “it would be a shame” if such events ended due to global warming.
A regular festivalgoer from the region also laid the blame on global warming. Ms Ayaka Muto, 31, said: “Usually we have more snow. I think it’s strange. I feel global warming is happening.”
The main theme of this year’s festival, which runs until today, is the ethnic Ainu minority in Hokkaido, where the first Ainu-themed national museum, nicknamed Upopoy or “singing together” in the Ainu language, will open in April.
Said Mr Sato: “We’ve never before had statues with such powerful Ainu characteristics.”
One statue featured a giant Blakiston’s fish owl spreading its wings, watching over sculptures of the museum and a ship. The owl is considered a god in Ainu culture.
Another statue was based on the Ainu myth of a thunder god and a forest princess.
Some have been turning to the nature gods of Japan’s native Shinto religion to pray for more snow.
In the middle of last month, a ski resort in western Hyogo prefecture invited a Shinto priest to hold a ceremony to ask the gods for snow, as did the organisers of the Yamagata snow festival in northern Japan.
Speaking to reporters last month, Hyogo governor Toshizo Ido said: “It’s not that we don’t have enough snow. We don’t have snow at all. It’s serious and it’s a disaster.”
The Sapporo festival organisers hope they can continue the famed event in the future despite the warming climate.
“This year marked the 71st event. It’s a festival that we want to carry on for future generations,” Mr Sato said. “(But) this is about weather so all we can do is pray.”