From towering Star Wars sculptures and a 100-meter-long snow slide to food and parties, the annual Sapporo Snow Festival has long been a major tourism magnet for Japan’s northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido.
But this year, even after the week-long festivities opened on January 31 amid fears over the coronavirus outbreak, the climate crisis threatened the future of a festival that attracts upwards of 2 million international visitors annually.
In 2019, Japan saw record low levels of snow, according to the country’s public broadcaster, with snowfall in Sapporo less than half the annual average. In December 2019, snowfall was the lowest along the Sea of Japan coast since the Meteorological Agency began keeping records in 1961.
This lack of snow, combined with unusually warm weather, threw some wrenches in the plan for the snow festival organizers. This year, they had to source and tow snow from other towns to create 200-plus signature snow sculptures.
The warm winter will also usher in an earlier start to the cherry blossom season, which normally begins in March or April. It is not unusual for sakura-loving travelers to book hotel rooms far in advance, despite not knowing for sure when the flowers will begin to bloom.
The show must go on
The blockbuster snow sculptures are different every year.
This year, among the sculptures on display in Sapporo are a giant Ramen Cup Noodles and a 15-meter-tall and 20-meter-wide replica of the palace at Lazienki Park in Warsaw.
The latter took the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) almost a month to make and created was in celebration of 100 years of diplomatic relations between Japan and Poland in 2019.
To make the sculptures, festival organizers use around 30,000 tons of snow from Sapporo. This year, they towed it in on trucks from dozens of places outside of Sapporo.
Some came from near Niseko, a town around 60 kilometers (37 miles) away that is popular among tourists and locals for its ski slopes.
Festival organizers went to these extraordinary lengths as they need pristine snow for their creations, according to Isshin Yamagami, a spokesperson from the Sapporo Snow Festival. “It can’t have any gravel or dirt,” he told CNN Travel.
But they still had to make some concessions this year. Among the casualties? The 100-meter-long snow slide was cut to 70 meters.
Last year, the festival welcomed 2.7 million international visitors. In 2020, attendees have dropped to 2.2 million amid fears over the coronavirus outbreak and a travel ban on Chinese tour groups.
But Yamagami believed the figures would bounce back in 2021 and said the festival had put information on its website on how visitors could take precautions in crowded spaces where infections easily spread.
“We advised visitors to wear masks and use hand sanitizers, and [we] kept sanitizers on site,” he added.
A legacy of sculptures and snowball fights
The Sapporo Snow Festival, or “Sapporo yuki matsuri” in Japanese, was founded in 1950 when six local high school students built six snow statues in Odori Park.
The organizers had low expectations for turnout. However, a heady mix of snowball fights, sculptures and a carnival atmosphere proved an instant hit. Up to 50,000 people came.
Five years later, the JSDF joined in the fun, building the first gigantic snow sculpture.
Interest grew even more after the festival was broadcast on TV in 1959. Visitors poured in from all over Japan to enjoy the sculptures, festivities and regional delicacies such as fresh seafood and hot sweet sake served on site.
The festival gained an international following after the Winter Olympics were held in Sapporo in 1972. More recently, Sapporo was one of the cities that played host to the Rugby World Cup.